Walter Payton book paints disturbing picture of Bears legend
BY DAVE NEWBART & MARK POTASH Staff Reporters September 28, 2011 10:40AM
Walter Payton during the Bears' 1985-86 championship season. | John H. White~Sun-Times
Updated: May 9, 2012 9:51AM
He popped painkillers like candy and covered his body with a topical gel used on horses when he played professional football. When Walter Payton retired, he took even more painkillers.
He kept a mistress for years and had other extramarital affairs, even while he publicly maintained he was happily married to his longtime wife, Connie.
At his Hall of Fame induction — which should have been a highlight in his life — his wife sat in the front row. And his flight attendant girlfriend sat in the second. His longtime assistant was in charge of keeping them apart. Payton was miserable.
And in retirement, he constantly told friends he wanted to kill himself, at one point even holding a gun while telling his agent of his dark plans.
So claims a new biography of the Chicago Bears’ legend, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,which is scheduled to be released next week .
The book paints a startling picture of the career and post-retirement days of the NFL’s one-time leading rusher and one of the game’s all-time greats.
But best-selling author Jeff Pearlman also lays out a far more complicated portrait of a man who many in Chicago still idolize 12 years after his death from a rare liver disease — a portrait that is at times poignant and heart-wrenching and at other times unflattering and salacious.
“He was addicted to laughter,” Kimm Tucker, former executive director of Payton’s foundation, says of her boss in the book. Payton would often insist on first playing catch with kids who asked him for autographs and then offer them words of inspiration.
But after retiring in 1987, the book recounts how depression set in. He was often bored because he had several assistants to handle his legal, financial and personal affairs. He tried race-car driving but was nearly killed. He tried repeatedly to become an owner of an NFL team — but failed.
“His football career done, his auto racing days over after a near-fatal crash and his dream of owning an NFL franchise having fallen through, Payton often found himself suffocated by darkness,” says the book, excerpts of which were first posted on Sports Illustrated’s website Wednesday. “Oh, he wouldn’t let on as such. He laughed and told jokes and pinched rear ends and tried his best to come across as the life of the party. Inside, however, happiness eluded Payton in the same manner he had once eluded opposing linebackers.”
In a statement issued Wednesday and signed by “Connie Payton and family,” Walter Payton’s relatives said the book included fact and fiction.
“Walter, like all of us, wasn’t perfect,” the statement reads. “The challenges he faced were well known to those of us who loved and lived with him. He was a great father to Jarrett and Brittney and held a special place in the football world and the Chicago community. Recent disclosures — some true, some untrue — do not change this. I’m saddened that anyone would attempt to profit from these stories, many told by people with little credibility.”
The Chicago Bears also issued a statement that did not directly address some of the accusations in the book, but said, “When we take the field each Sunday, we represent the great players like Walter who helped build the rich tradition of our organization. Nothing will change our feelings for a man we have the deepest respect for and miss having around Halas Hall to this day.”
Many former teammates Wednesday declined to comment on the book.
Pearlman, a former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, said in an interview posted on SI.com that he knew little about Payton when he began writing the book. He defended including some of the ugly details of Payton’s life, which he dug up after interviewing 678 people over 21/2 years.
“There’s something important about learning that even the greatest among us have their burdens. Whether you’re a Hall of Fame running back or a guy moving cement, we all have issues. No one lives up to the pedestal. . . . The goal is to find out who he was and how he lived. I’m very defensive about that. You want to write an honest and accurate biography.”
Pearlman wrote that Payton’s drug use could be traced in part to the punishment Payton took on the field. He started using painkillers — “pills and liquids, usually supplied by the Bears,” Pearlman writes.
“I’d see him walk out of the locker room with jars of painkillers, and he’d eat them like they were a snack,” Payton’s longtime agent, Bud Holmes, says in the book. He “also lathered his body with dimethyl sulfoxide, a topical analgesic commonly used to treat horses,” Pearlman writes.
Payton kept tanks of nitrous oxide — laughing gas — in an RV he took to training camp, which he shared with other players, the book says.
“The goofy laughter could be heard throughout the training facility,” the book says.
After his playing days, Payton continued to use nitrous as well as a combination of Tylenol and Vicodin. His drug use got so bad, Pearlman writes, he once went to several dentists complaining of tooth pain, enabling him to get multiple prescriptions for morphine. A pharmacist tipped police but he got off with a warning, the book says.
Despite the many tales of Payton’s rigorous fitness regime during his playing career — including running up and down a steep hill repeatedly — the biography says that changed once he retired, and he started drinking beer and eating tons of junk food.
An executive from Wendy’s even gave Payton a card granting a free lifetime supply of hamburgers at the fast food chain — freebies he routinely collected, Pearlman writes. Payton dumped 10 sugar packs into each cup of coffee and enjoyed pork rinds with hot sauce.
His marriage became “a union solely in name,” the book says. Kimm Tucker said she didn’t realize Walter and Connie were still married until a year after she started working for him in 1987. The book says Payton planned to divorce Connie after their kids finished high school so as not to pull them through “the rigors of a celebrity divorce,” Tucker said in the book.
Longtime friend Ron Atlas told Pearlman that Payton feared if “he left Connie, all the work he’d done to his image would go by the wayside.”
The dual life came to a head in the days before Payton was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993 because his longtime mistress had insisted on attending the ceremony, and was staying at the same hotel as his wife and kids, Pearlman writes. Payton put his executive assistant, Ginny Quirk, in charge of keeping Connie and his girlfriend — identified only by an alias, Lita — apart.
“Four full days, and Lita and Connie were like two ships passing in the night,” Quirk said in the book. “If Connie was scheduled to come late, I’d make sure Lita was there early. If Connie was coming early, Lita would be there late. I can’t describe the horror of that trip.”
According to the book, Payton stayed in his hotel room with Lita and missed most of the Hall of Fame functions — including one “that left a Hall official fuming and earned the scorn of Bears legend Gale Sayers, who blasted his attitude. Ray Nitschke, the great Packers linebacker, issued an impassioned plea to Payton to make himself more available. It didn’t work.”
But the book says the two women ended up talking after the ceremony, and Connie allegedly told her, “You can have him. He doesn’t want me or the children.”
Despite his affairs, Payton was lonely, and would call his assistants at all hours to talk or confide, Pearlman writes. His behavior became erratic and he often suffered from mood swings. He’s described in the book as being “giddy one second, despondent the next.”
On multiple occasions, Payton threatened suicide. The threats came, according to the book, after fights with Connie or Lita or when he worried about finances, Pearlman writes.
His agent recalls a time when Payton, with a gun drawn, called him from his South Barrington home. “Walter would call me at the time saying he was about to kill himself,” Holmes is quoted as saying. “He was tired. He was angry. Nobody loved him. He wanted to be dead.”
The books says Holmes rushed to Payton’s side after that threat — but Payton had already pulled out of the funk. Holmes didn’t take his threats seriously again. Payton, meanwhile, refused to see a therapist.
Pearlman writes of Payton penning a letter to an unnamed friend, saying he needed to get his life in order. In the letter, Payton writes he’s afraid of doing something he’d regret — and admitted regularly thinking of suicide. Thinking about “the people I put into this f----- up situation, maybe it would be better if I just disappear,” Payton wrote, according to the book.
Payton said he imagined picking up his gun, murdering those around him, then turning the weapon on himself. “Every day something like this comes into my head,” he wrote. He was distraught over these persistent thoughts about wanting to “hurt so many others” and not thinking “it is wrong.” Payton ended the letter by admitting that he needed help but that he had nowhere to turn.
The excerpts released Wednesday do not indicate whether doctors believe Payton suffered brain damage while playing, something that could have affected his mental state.
The book describes Payton’s further downward spiral when his health failed him and how he dealt with breaking the news to his family, friends and fans.
Quirk tells Pearlman that, after he appeared thin and gaunt at a 1999 news conference announcing his son’s decision to attend Miami University, many people asked her if he was dying of AIDS.
It was really a rare disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis, which blocked the ducts carrying bile from his liver. It had been diagnosed at the Mayo Clinic in December 1998.
The book describes how Payton told his family after the diagnosis, gathering them in the basement of their South Barrington home. Payton was positive, telling them how a liver transplant would solve the problem, according to the book.
He told his fans about his diagnosis three days after his son’s press conference. The news conference, in which Payton broke down and told people “Hell yeah, I’m scared” — had behind the scenes drama, too.
According to the book, Payton was furious that Connie was there, screaming at his aides and demanding to know “which one of you did this?”
The book also details Payton’s final days — and how his former backfield mate, Matt Suhey, stepped up big time even though they had not been extremely close in the preceding years. Suhey stopped by Payton’s house on most days, and blocked for him once again when Payton needed privacy. Teammate Mike Singletary also became a regular visitor, even though the two had been distant since 1985 when Singletary, a religious man, first confronted Payton about his infidelity. Payton also brought other old teammates to his home, essentially to say goodbye.
“I was there with about 30 other guys,” offensive tackle Jimbo Covert is quoted as saying. “Walter took time to go around to everybody personally and grab him and say, ‘What are you doing?’ . . . Can you imagine how strong a person he had to have been to do that? He knew he was going to die.”
The book also tells how Payton reached out to his children as he was dying. Payton, who also kept a home in West Dundee, had moved back into the South Barrington home in July 1999 and took turns staying in Jarrett’s and Brittney’s rooms.
“At the time I didn’t get it,” Jarrett says in the book, “but now I think it’s so cool he wanted to share himself with us.”
That November, on the day Payton died, Brittney remembers rushing home after being called out of school.
“Do you want to see dad one last time?” her mother asked, the book says. Brittney said she hugged her father and “told him I loved him. I was sad, but a part of me was relieved. . . . Now, he was at peace.”