Sports Illustrated's new book on Walter Payton reveals that the NFL Hall of Famer had many affairs and lived on heavy painkillers throughout his playing days.
Updated: September 30, 2011 5:31PM
I have had a chance to process the “published” excerpts from Jeff Pearlman’s book, “Sweetness,” the Johnny-come-lately book written about Walter Payton. Unfortunately, none of it feels good, most feels empty and meaningless as well as “opportunistic.” Perhaps passing judgement before I read the entire book, which I will not, is not the framework with which to remember a man whom I had the good fortune of working very closely with for 16 years as an executive in the Bears organization. I was a friend, who idolized and admired him dearly. These are not the memories I have or ever will of “Sweetness.” None of the good Walter stood for, the goodwill he provided and the impact, small or large, he had on people including me is what these excerpts portray. This is regrettable and unfortunate.
“Through nearly 700 interviews (678, to be exact), the goal was never to demonize an icon (whose poster once hung on my bedroom wall, and who I still greatly admire), but to understand him,” writes Pearlman, in a further self-serving post-excerpt article he wrote.
CAPITAL B, CAPITAL S. BS.
No matter how the author spins his reasons for writing the book, the only thing my gut tells me is this was a self-serving, profit-mongering effort to sensationalize meaningless details of a complex person who shared many alleged traits of a number of enigmatic superstar athletes, actors, artists, entertainers, political figures and heroes of our time. Pearlman’s yearn to understand Payton has value to him and him only in how book sales convert to his bank account. If even some of the alleged complexities were true, is it anyone’s business? Does anyone really care? Is the pain of what his writing might be doing to Walter’s family, kids, friends, admirers, coaches, teammates, colleagues and fans 12 years after his passing worth that much of Pearlman’s personal pursuit for the almighty dollar at the expense of the aforementioned’s feelings and emotions? Were any of the allegations criminal in nature?
There is only one certain mindset that grasps this kind of thinking and profiteering. A mindset where the author would write about a subject who unfortunately is in an indefensible position. “What’s the point,” exclaimed Payton’s former coach, Mike Ditka. “Twelve years after the man has passed? This is a gutless individual,” Ditka concluded on his radio show.
I can’t identify with this thinking, yet alone the writing about a man who mostly affected people positively and not in the vain portrayed in these excerpts, which have managed to garner national headlines. Just what the “Pearl Man” ordered.
Walter was a hero in my book and for many he touched throughout his Hall of Fame career and life. Stomping on his grave with dirt quoted from subject matters and principals who are more flawed than he and I combined, will never mean spit to me nor those who followed him, befriended him, wrote about him, interviewed him, languished with him, applauded him and looked up to him. And, it won’t mean spit to his siblings and family. So far, Pearlman has accomplished what he set out to and that is to have the alleged dirt he uncovered be sensationalized to create headlines, turn heads and generate water cooler and Internet discussion with a singular focus and mindset of selling books for personal profit, while launching the book during the football season. There is no other reason this book was written and released 12 years after the man suffered an unjust ending to a tough life, made complex, perhaps in part, by his own personal demons and self destruction. Yes, Walter was iconic; he was moody; he was dynamic; he was a people magnet; he was complex; and he was at times aloof, not only on the field but off. But, that’s what made him such great copy/ That’s what made him so interesting and revered.
Those of us who were with him when he broke Jim Brown’s rushing record, when he spoke to President Ronald Reagan afterward and told the Commander in Chief to “say hello to Nancy,” when he failed to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl and was more upset at his own performance and fumble on his first carry against New England then he really was at not scoring, when he sat on the bench following the playoff loss to Washington—his last game in 1987, we remember and knew a different Walter Payton.
We lived with and experienced his emotions, his handshake, his ass-pinch, his firecrackers, his heart, his soul, his aches, his pains, his wins and his losses, his fast cars and his long football tosses. You can’t re-write the story of Walter Payton now as his is one that has been written and etched in the minds of all who watched him, worked with him, played with him, coached him and enjoyed his presence every day he graced this earth. Walter wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t a criminal. And, most importantly, he brought joy to people’s lives who had the opportunity to see him for who he was, which is a lot more than most can say.
He and his family don’t deserve the attention this book has gained so far, and the sooner it is viewed in this way, its shelf-life will be shorter and it will be put in the rearview mirror where it belongs. What kind of a person would throw dirt on another using sources who had personal agendas, write about his life story from a distance with the singular objective of generating national headlines, self-glory and profit?
In the end, the book likely reveals more about the author than the subject matter with which he chose to write about. That story has a sad ending.
Ken Valdiserri worked with the Chicago Bears for 16 years. As public relations director, he spent a lot of time around Walter Payton.