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Jeff Pearlman Comes Home to Discusses His Book and the Life of Walter Payton

The Tragic Life and Death of Walter Payton

Photo by Joseph Novak  

Author Jeff Pearlman recently came back to his hometown of Mahopac, New York to discuss his most recent book Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton. At the Mahopac Library, before an audience of about 30, Mr. Pearlman delved into the complex life this American sports giant. Of course, the multiple layers of Payton's life had Pearlman detailing the controversy he endured in light of an account that had much of the sports world aligned in outrage by the book's insights.

"Google my name and Douche Bag," he said. "It's unbelievable, and it hurt deeply because I developed such a love for Walter Payton in doing this book."

The brunt of the controversy ensued out of the obligatory Sports Illustrated excerpt that ran prior to publication. Set around Payton's induction into the Hall of Fame, the scene with his wife in the front row and his long time mistress in the second, encapsulated the running back's struggles with infidelity, depression and painkillers. "He was a great iconic football player. People loved him, and no one had a bad word to say about him. The problem is if you're going to write a biography,  I believe you can't really appreciate their greatness if you don't understand where they came from, and the struggles they went through," the author asserted.

Columbia, Mississippi Begins the Story

That said, the New Rochelle, New York author loves the opportunity to get into the psyche of his subjects. In this case, the journey in pursuit of Walter Payton's ghost took him to Columbia, Mississippi, where the NFL's second all-time leading rusher grew up. "The Supreme Court instituted the desegregation of schools in 1954," he said, "but Columbia simply ignored the law until 1970."

The stereotype of a small southern town steeped in racism was so pronounced that integration literally shook people in their seats. "White parents refused to allow their children into the black high school until all the toilet seat covers were replaced," Pearlman said.

Walter Payton's senior year coincided with the upheaval, and his influence had a marked effect on bringing the community together. But progress had a lot more to do with success on the field and all the defenders left in the dust. "He was such a great kid and did more than any single one person to bring change to Columbia," said Pearlman, who also wrote The Bad Guys Won,” on the ’86 Mets and an expose on Barry Bonds called, Love Me, Hate Me.

Sociological study aside, Payton's athleticism set him apart from all college contemporaries. Pearlman recalled Steve Bartkowski’s introduction and an entrance that had everyone on the balls of their feet—save the standout from Jackson State. “Walter Payton walked in on his hands and didn’t come down until he covered the field three times,” Pearlman relayed Bartkowski’s account.

A Sensitive and Funny Soul

His sense of humor also went the distance and could put friends and teammates at a playful loss. With the high pitched voice, the running back would call the wives of teammates and claim to be a girlfriend on the side. “This is Ginger, and our baby really needs shoes,” was a Thanksgiving Day message Payton once left.

Only after a good deal of begging—among a front lawn full of belongings— did Payton let the wife in on the joke. But playing for the horrendous Bear teams of the 70’s, a sense of humor provided the only cover for the workhorse back. “I’m a brother so you don’t see my black and blues,” Pearlman said he once told a reporter.

Sadly, his nickname implied a sensitivity that also had a downside and came at the moment of his greatest success. As the mighty Bear defense eyed a shutout in the 1985 Superbowl, Payton fumbled on the opening play. Leading to the Patriots only points, said Pearlman, “He was devastated.”

The ultimate indignity came later when William “The Refrigerator” Perry barreled his caricature into the endzone instead of the Bear’s all-time great. “He just about donated a kidney to the organization,” said Pearlman, and as the team went onto to celebrate victory, he added, Payton disappeared into a broom closet to cry.

Payton’s agent eventually coaxed him out into the celebration. But if the pinnacle of his career amounted to such an emotional low point, retirement would have to be typical of what most athletes go through. “When professional athletes retire, it’s a nightmare. You basically go from being a fixture to becoming a storyteller of past glories,” Pearlman revealed.

Future Goes up in Smoke

And as a sportswriter, who first gained national attention from the SI story on John Rocker, Pearlman knows nothing angers an ex-athlete more than retelling old stories. Still, Payton positioned himself at the end of his career to become the first NFL player to partially own a franchise. The Cardinals having vacated St Louis, he spent all his time there for about two years. Unfortunately, the NFL would expand to Jacksonville and Charlotte—thus killing his dream and future. “His life fell off a cliff,” Perlman said.

Payton went on instead to take up race car driving and was almost killed before quickly giving up on the dangerous outlet. Payton then succumbed to a wave of suicide notes and phone messages in which he would tell friends they would never see him again.

But it was the contraction of a rare liver disease that eventually undid him, and the ending revealed the chaos in which his personal life descended. Never officially ending his marriage, among a string of affairs, he moved back home to an obviously awkward situation with his wife.

Payton Leaves a Mess Behind

Complicating matters was that he was never a very good father, according to the author, so nobody really cared about him or helped him through his last days. His actual death was the culmination and embodiment of the decline that began when his ownership dreams fell through.

There was no one to even call the funeral home or decide what clothes to put him in, and the family disputed whether to honor his wish to be cremated. Out of those circumstances, the funeral service was a farce. A slick haired televangelist-type preacher stated, “He was elected into the Hall of Fame, and now he’s elected into the Hall of Faith.”

“It was the worst funeral I’ve ever seen,” said Pearlman.

In turn, the dynamic among the mourners would become a preview of what the author would later find himself embroiled in. “A wife who was “full of it,” a “crazy” brother, an assortment of girlfriends and a collection of children born in and out of wedlock created a room full of factions.

All knowing full well I was writing the book, he remembered, “It was really complicated.” Pearlman could also feel the ire as he circulated among the groups.

On the other hand, Pearlman believes Walter Payton's true shinning moment came in the midst of all the life ending turmoil. In his dire state, there was no real possibility for a liver transplant or even the chance to survive if one was available. Nonetheless, the Chicago hero allowed momentum to build on his behalf for a liver, and he began making public service messages on organ transplants. "Organ donors skyrocketed in Illinois," Pearlman said.

Detractors Come Around

Regardless, Pearlman, delivering both sides of the Walter Payton story gave rise to the vitriolic backlash. His justification is simple. “That’s the process of understanding history,” he said.

But the effect on him was not something that was easy to endure. “It was like getting stabbed in the heart,” Pearlman said—especially given the effort and love put into it.

Of course, the twitter driven anger, which he says has drastically changed our discourse, would eventually subside. Former players and fans had time to read the book and come around. Mike Ditka who initially told a reporter he wanted to spit on Pearlman, has since apologized.

All told, Mr. Pearlman doesn’t elevate his difficulties to a level anywhere near that of Walter Payton. Despite the god-like place Payton occupied in Chicago and the respect and friendships accumulated as a player, the title tragically provides the epilogue. “Nobody knew really him and nobody had a full grasp of his life,” Pearlman concluded.

Rich Monetti can be reached at [email protected]

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