The challenge of any documentary of a legend is to find a new angle to view the legend from. With Walter Payton, that's not an easy task. The Hall of Famer has been written about, documented and covered to the nth degree, particularly in my hometown of Chicago.
As a Payton fan since birth, I've eaten up every bit of that documentation. His "SportsCentury" by ESPN has save-until-I-delete status on my DVR, and I plan to borrow and read a copy of "Sweetness" by Jeff Pearlman. It's tough to impress me with another look at No. 34. But the NFL Network's "Sweetness: A Football Life" succeeded.
The documentary's overarching theme was Payton's lasting effect on the game. It established it early by using video of Payton running his famous hill, and appearances from Ray Lewis, LaDainian Tomlinson and Ryan Williams. Each player said they modeled their work ethic after Payton. LT showed the hill he built in his backyard in San Diego so that he could be like Payton, but really, LT? That was a molehill next to Payton's mountain.
The documentary also gives a softly honest look at Payton's personal life. In the wake of adultery allegations made in Pearlman's book, the revelation that Payton's marriage to Connie wasn't picture perfect isn't new. What is new is that Connie talks about the whispers she heard about her husband while still discussing how she loved him.
"A Football Life" also sheds new light on Payton's early career in Chicago. When looking at his career as a whole, it can be easy to forget how bad Chicago was when Payton was first drafted, or that he ran for zero yards in his first game. There is also plenty of time spent on Payton's friendship with fullback Matt Suhey, including the fact that Payton once used this famous picture as a Christmas card.
The people who knew Payton best, including his family, Suhey and Mike Ditka, are talked to, as well as the people who covered him. Don Yaeger and Pearlman, both Payton biographers, are given important roles throughout. The one inclusion I don't get is Ashton Kutcher. He is billed as a Payton fan since birth, but his Hollywood shtick makes him a bit over the top. I'm not comfortable having the man behind "Punk'd" represent me and other Bears fans.
It does drag at times. The segment on Payton not scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl was overwrought. After making the point that Payton was upset about not scoring in the Bears 46-10 rout, Payton's role of drawing defenders, and the fact that he did have five opportunities inside the 10-yard line are discussed. But then it goes on and on and on and on about how mad he was, and it just seems unnecessary.
Though I've watched Payton's "SportsCentury" dozens of times, it's hard to compare the two hour-long specials on Payton. "SportsCentury" aired less than two years after Payton's death, and starts with his memorial service at Soldier Field. It talked about the wisecracking and hard-running Payton. While "A Football Life" includes that, it gives a more expansive view on the man and his lasting impact on the game.
Both views are important in gaining an understanding Sweetness, and "A Football Life" will now sit alongside it on the digital shelf of my DVR.