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Why shouldn’t we open the book on Walter Payton’s life?

3. Walter Paytonce cost Bears victory by staying IN BOUNDS — 16-13 loss Cardinals 1977. He almost repeated gaffe finale

3. Walter Payton once cost the Bears a victory by staying IN BOUNDS — a 16-13 loss to the Cardinals in 1977. He almost repeated the gaffe in the finale against the Giants, but was saved by Bob Thomas' field goal that put the Bears in the playoffs.

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Updated: November 15, 2011 12:26PM

Walter Payton is a beloved figure in this city. If you didn’t know that before, you know it now from the bitter and angry response to a new biography that delves into a complicated, sometimes troubled life.

What people admired about the Bears’ Hall of Fame running back, first and foremost, was his ability as a football player. Everything else they felt about him flowed from that, the way it always does when the public gets its heartstrings around an athlete.

His graciousness, his impish personality, his smile — all of it made him even more worthy of our admiration. And he seemed to be indestructible. The stories of his feats of strength, despite his not being a weight-room junkie, are legendary.

When he died in 1999 of bile duct cancer at 45, there was an outpouring of grief. Lots of people had invested lots of emotion in a good man who was a great running back, maybe the greatest.

And now Jeff Pearlman’s book, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, reveals a different person than the one Chicago thought it knew. And lots of people are upset.

Why so many Bears fans believe Payton’s life should go unexamined is beyond me.

Criticism is unfounded

One of the complaints we’ve heard about Pearlman’s book is that Payton isn’t alive to defend himself, thus making the work unfair, if not sleazy. If you go by that way of thinking, no books should be written about John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Napoleon and any other deceased public figure.

And if you follow this to its logical conclusion, studying history should be abolished because the people involved aren’t around anymore.

Why is it wrong to bring Payton’s problems with depression into the light? Because it somehow demeans a wonderful man or because depression doesn’t fit our memory of Payton as the fun-loving prankster? I suspect the latter.

The insult isn’t to the flesh-and-blood man who was Walter Payton but to the image we’ve built of him. And it wasn’t just ours. The NFL Man of the Year Award is named for Payton. It’s in existence because he did so many great things off the field. This book doesn’t change those great things.

Payton was a human being, and now we know he had a human being’s complexity. According to an excerpt from Pearlman’s book, Payton popped painkillers during and after his career, threatened suicide often, had a mistress and fathered a child out of wedlock.

The loudest complaint, and the weakest one, is that Pearlman wrote the book to make money. If he spent two years working on the project and interviewed 678 people, as he said he did, I would hope he wasn’t doing it for free. People write books to get paid. There is nothing immoral about that.

One of the more disturbing conversations coming out of the debate is that Payton’s erratic behavior might have been caused by head trauma, brought on by collision after collision on the football field. How many times did we glorify Payton for punishing tacklers as much as they punished him?

There’s no way to know whether he had brain damage, but for the sake of discussion, let’s say he did. Let’s say he joins the growing list of football players whose behavior was affected by all the hits they took during their careers. If head injuries are going to be brought up to explain every former player’s tragic post-football life, shouldn’t we be talking about whether this sport should be played at all? Or at least whether, as some have suggested, the sport should be played without helmets? That way, the thinking goes, players would have to learn to tackle without leading with their heads.

NFL players are gladiators

Ah, but that doesn’t fit our image of the NFL player as armored warrior, does it? We care a lot less about the safety of these people than we do about our image of them as somehow better than us, as superhuman.

You say all you care about is how players perform on the field, not how suicidal they are away from it? How convenient for you.

If we’re going to compare Payton and other football players to Roman gladiators, know that the gladiators were basically human sacrifices. It’s not an exaggeration to say that by focusing only on what happens on the football field and looking away from everything else, we treat athletes like chattel.

Walter Payton was a real person, with great joys and painful challenges — just like a lot of people. To think he wasn’t like others is naïve. To think the big life he led wasn’t going to be scrutinized is even more naïve.

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