'Sweetness' excerpt does Payton an injustice
The excerpt was jarring, pointed and painful. And it came, of course, completely out of nowhere.
Jeff Pearlman had spent three years and interviewed nearly 700 people to write "Sweetness," a thorough, and we mean thorough, telling of the great Walter Payton's life.
And there on the cover and ensuing pages of Sports Illustrated was all the bad stuff, the worst of the worst. Depression. Philandering. Suicidal thoughts. The accidental shooting of an employee. Selfish behavior. Painkillers.
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The reaction was predictable. Fans wondered why they needed to know this. Some of Payton's friends and family bristled at the uncovering of dark secrets. Others were simply shocked that 12 years after his death, the beloved Payton, whose charitable works are unquestioned and his public image had remained pristine, was shorn clean for no apparent reason. Many felt for his dignified wife, Connie.
The excerpt got people talking and pushed "Sweetness" up the Amazon.com rankings in advance of Tuesday's release. I don't blame the publisher or the magazine; that's business.
It's turned out, however, to be a disservice to Payton. It wasn't much better for Pearlman, who's been called scum.
"It's been killing me," Pearlman said Monday. "Killing me. I'm not mad at SI. I can't be mad because I knew what the excerpt was going to be. You don't turn down the cover of SI.
"But I had an interview [Monday] where I was called Kitty Kelley [the famed unauthorized celebrity biographer]. Kitty Kelley? I'm trying to emulate David Maraniss ["When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi"].
"I'm not saying I'm David Maraniss, but that's the standard. It's been brutal. I worked so hard on this book and it's been dismissed without reading it. The reason a book is 430 pages is because life is a progression. You can't just look at one excerpt."
Over the weekend I read an advance copy of "Sweetness" and found it to be an incredible, thoughtful, deep and profound read. It's exceptional work.
Framed in its proper context – a painstaking 430 pages – the most tabloid of Walter Payton's troubles don't feel like a sucker punch to his memory. If anything, they are part of the honest and reasonable telling of a remarkable life that, for readers with a modicum of intelligence and perspective, should enhance the man rather than drag him down.
It's understandable for some of Payton's family and friends to react with anger. Their emotion is real and can't be criticized. I'm sure it's painful to see the life of someone you love laid bare like this. I think they should be most upset with the Walter confidants who told everything, but that's up to them.
For everyone else though, the book has so much to offer.
Yes, Chapter 24, "Depression" is fifteen tear-inducing pages long. Reading it is like watching a man drown. Yet that's the life of Walter Payton and, if you care to understand, that's the life of so many football stars who are built up as super humans only to struggle physically, financially and emotionally when the game ends.
Pretending there is a happily-ever-after isn't helping anyone.
Even in "Depression" though there are wonderful snippets of Walter Payton stepping through his struggles – teaching his then eighth-grade son Jarrett to not drink, giving Jarrett $300 after he beat up a boy who had just slapped a girl.
There was simply no way for Pearlman to write this book and ignore the bad marriage and the pain killers. Payton's dalliances with the ladies had, by that point, been thoroughly fleshed out. He wasn't much for monogamy at any point in his life; it essentially cost him a great girlfriend back at Jackson State. When it comes to self-medicating pain relief, what else could be expected from a guy who refused to run out of bounds? If anything, this should further shine the spotlight on the damage football can do.
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Pearlman's deft touch makes it all fit. The book is never "gotcha," it's never judgmental and there is almost always proper context involved.
How complete is Pearlman's reporting? Would you like to know what brand of beer Walter and a friend brought along the first night he ever kissed a white girl? Answer: Falstaff.
And, yes, kissing a white classmate was an actually noteworthy event for a high school senior in racially tense Columbia, Miss. It was part of telling a broader picture of the times and the quotes from his peers are profound.
Through hundreds of pages of saturation reporting, the reader is conditioned to expect everything. There really appears to be no subject that is taboo.
Maybe it doesn't work for every reader, but as the stories build and the fullness of the man comes into play (the vast majority of which is positive) his invariable missteps through life don't bring him down but, in a way, lift him higher.
It's worth noting my perspective on Walter Payton is different than most; the Sports Illustrated excerpt didn't surprise me.
In December of 1999, just weeks after Walter Payton died, I was hired to serve as a ghostwriter (actually more of a ghost reporter) for his autobiography, "Never Die Easy."
Payton had decided to pen an autobiography when he was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (liver disease), but his condition had deteriorated quickly. When he succumbed that November, little work had been done on the early part of his life. The book needed to be complete within a matter of weeks to assure publication before the next football season.
I was hired to go to Mississippi and interview as many people as possible: hometown folks, Columbia High and Jackson State teammates and coaches; just about anyone from his pre-NFL days. Within days of hitting the ground, it became obvious that there was far more to the man and his story than the legend allowed. Everything was complicated.
"Never Die Easy" was not the place to delve into any of that – this was Walter telling his own story, after all. And since he was dead, there was no way to get his perspective on what came up. The wounds were too fresh then anyway. So I spent a little more than a week interviewing people, did some research through old newspapers and turned over the transcripts. That was it.
In the ensuing years I don't believe I told anyone (and certainly never publicly) what I knew about Walter's private life. What I was told in confidence way back then, I kept it in confidence.
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Then Pearlman emailed me about a year ago, saying he was nearly done with a biography of Walter Payton. I didn't know Jeff personally but agreed to speak with him as he ran some fact-checking and memories by me. We talked for about an hour. It was clear he knew far more than I ever did.
What most interested me were the stories of Walter's childhood in the segregated Deep South, how his football talents played a part in the politics of integrating Columbia High School, the epic tales from Jackson State and the painful moments such as the controversial death of his father – he died in jail after police thought he was drunk but he was actually having an aneurism. (Walter's agent actually sat in on the autopsy.)
And that's before the gripping Chicago Bears career.
Well, it's all in "Sweetness." It's all as riveting as I suspected. If you're a fan of Walter, of the Bears, of the NFL, of the history of the 1960s and 70s, or of these one-in-a-million American lives then it's all there to read and absorb and enjoy and laugh and mourn and contemplate.
I wouldn't let an out-of-context excerpt and some enraged condemnations get in the way of a fascinating read about a fascinating man.
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