Walter Payton in 1999
Updated: October 2, 2013 6:36AM
Long before I started viewing the NFL with distaste, and later scorn, for its dismissiveness of head trauma, I was a Chicago Bears fan.
A child of the 1980s who sang the “Super Bowl Shuffle” with classmates in bitter cold at the bus stop, I was riveted by the characters of the Super Bowl team: Mike Singletary was the religious guy, Gary Fencik the brainiac from Yale, Willie Gault the Olympian and Jim McMahon, well, he was outrageous.
But Walter Payton was my favorite. He was the halfback who worked so hard for every smattering of a yard that he often dragged along defenders for an embarrassingly bumpy ride.
Payton’s offseason workouts, the drills up and down a hill in the northwest suburbs, became the stuff of legend. It seemed every kid wanted to be like Walter Payton. Even the girls.
As a cross-country runner, I set out with a teammate to find a hill to strengthen our legs like Walter Payton did. We found one in Arlington Heights and ran up and down until our legs quivered. Looking back, it wasn’t much of a hill but a short slope to a retention pond.
All of us who felt a connection to Payton were affected when bile-duct cancer took his life in 1999. He was 45.
That he left us too soon and suffered from a cruel illness may explain why so many reacted viscerally when the book “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton” by Jeff Pearlman was published in 2011.
Some members of the Chicago news media, along with Super Bowl champion coach Mike Ditka, verbally trashed the book without reading it. A New York Times best-seller, the book has been largely shunned in the Chicago market, according to Pearlman. That’s a shame because it is without a doubt worth reading.
The book takes you back to Payton’s childhood in rural Mississippi where the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional was ignored for years.
Payton’s hometown of Columbia desegregated during his high school years and he cut through the dangerous tension of unfounded fears with charm, an enthusiastic disposition, intelligence and unmatched athletic ability.
He won over everyone.
“Somehow he didn’t see race,” Pearlman said by phone. “People came to love him, people who were against desegregation. He was celebrated. This was a different kind of guy.”
Payton also had a mischievous side and pulled pranks on teammates, most notably as an NFL player. This is a side of Payton that some considered colorful and funny. The book tells you that many insiders found it disdainful.
This is where things can get dicey for fans who want to see a hero without flaws. Payton had a generous spirit as well as profound insecurities. Both sides are dissected in the book.
He abused pain-killers. He cheated on his wife, Connie, and worried that divorcing her would stain his image.
He struggled with depression and was lost as he sought a career after football. He was human.
Sports isn’t a toy department. It’s filled with complex people who have emotional and physical pain and sometimes fragile minds, though their marketers try to tell us otherwise.
“Sports is history,” Pearlman said.
At times it’s beautiful; other times ugly. All of our lives are like that.
Payton’s imperfections will never diminish his accomplishments in my mind.
They don’t make him less of a champion in my heart.