I bought this book after the author, Jeff Pearlman, got a chance to push it on ChicagoSide. His plea to rethink the negativity and vitriol spewed out by John Kass and Mike Ditka inspired me to give it a whirl. I’m damn glad I did, for multiple reasons.
First of all, this is Bear history, which Walter Payton is a huge part of. He’s the greatest Bear ever, I don’t think there’s much debate on that. It took me a while to embrace Bear fandom here in Chicago, but Payton was one of the big reasons I did. Now I’m a Bears junkie and this book has only augmented both my love for the franchise and my respect for Payton.
Also, this has been a great introduction to Jeff Pearlman for me. He’s an accomplished, prolific, working sportswriter and he just brings it every damn day of the year; no pretense, no breaks, every damn day. Check out his blog, follow him on Twitter, read his books. You’ll gain insight. You’ll become a more informed sports fan. Heck, you may learn a little bit about life if you pay attention. I trust the guy.
Let’s talk Sweetness.
Payton was born in 1954 in Columbia, Mississippi, but the book starts well before that with the back story on his parents. To say that this book paints a vivid, comprehensive picture of all aspects of Payton’s life is an understatement. Pearlman interviewed 678 people for this book and I think he got the whole story.
Pearlman notes that Payton’s birth coincided with (it occurred exactly 69 days after) Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka Kansas. Pearlman spent much of his early career in the south so he was able to beautifully frame the role Payton played in combining the mix of football, race, and education in Payton’s hometown of Jackson, MS.
Think about this, it wasn’t until 1970 that the school system in Columbia actually did integrate. 1970! Here’s Pearlman describing Payton’s role in truly integrating things.
So what inspired students of both races to let their guards down? The clichéd answer has long been “sports”—the ability of blacks and whites to come together on a field of play. Yet the simplicity of that reply demeans what actually occurred. From the depths of a student body uncomfortable with itself, a small handful of leaders emerged. Johnson and Barber, the class presidents, were two. But the most important—the most influential—was Walter Payton. (Kindle loc. 757)
Pearlman digs deep in Payton’s hometown. It’s great stuff and my favorite part of the book. Payton’s tolerance and leadership during his high school days are reason number one to respect him. Reason number two is because of his fitness. Reason number three, among others, will become evident at then end of this write-up.
You’ve heard about the work ethic, the running of the hills in Arlington Heights, staying late after practice, etc… His work ethic was unmatched, but he was also a fitness innovator. The man was years ahead of his time. Listen to this quote Pearlman dug up from the summer of Payton’s sophomore year at Jackson State:
… He [Payton] spent much of the summer in Jackson on the banks of the Pearl River, running through its quicksand-like terrain and envisioning glorious Saturday afternoons inside Memorial Stadium. “If you have to come under control to make a cut, the pursuit will catch you,” Payton once said of running along the river. “In the sand, you have to move one leg before the other is planted. It makes all your muscles work. Sometimes when I’m done even my neck will be aching.” (Kindle loc. 1590)
There you have it. It took another 30 years for the fitness industry to adopt this idea of a full body workout on an unstable surface. I’m not sure who deserves credit for inspiring the stability ball craze we have today, besides my brother, but Payton should certainly get some attribution.
Here’s more, during the NFL years:
… While he was hardly one to give a rousing pep talk, his dedication spoke volumes. Payton was usally the first on the field for practice and the last to leave the facility come day’s end. He finished off every run with a forty-yard sprint, and could often be found in a dark corner, completing hundreds of push-ups and sit-ups.
Whereas others walked through the locker room in either sneakers or sandals, Payton wore shoes without heels or insoles. At practice. At home. On a trip to the movies. Driving his van. “He thought it built up leg strength,” said Plank. … (Kindle loc. 3706)
The dude was way, way ahead of his time. What do you get when you combine a legendary work ethic with an innovative mind? Oh, just the greatest running back in the history of the NFL.
He entered the NFL in 1975. Here’s how Pearlman describes the state of the Bear franchise at this point:
And then, without much warning, the Chicago Bears collapsed. From 1964 through 1974, the franchise posted two winning records and zero play-off appearances. Their roster, once packed with standouts, was now a crypt for has-beens and busts. “A lot of progressive owners came along and passed Halas by,” said David Israel, a Tribune columnist. “They operated in modern ways, and the Bears refused to change.” … (Kindle loc. 2698)
And change they did. At this point, I also started to adjust how I felt about Payton. Payton didn’t change. He was still the hard working, fun loving, intelligent guy I came to love, but it feels like he needed to change with the times and gain some maturity, which really never came.
You know about his NFL career, the records, the Super Bowl win, the Super Bowl slight, the Hall of Fame, etc… He did it all. He also sulked a lot, cheated on his wife many times over, and was mostly absent from the home. After the Super Bowl this is how Pearlman described Payton’s feelings.
He was livid at Ditka for ignoring him and livid at Perry and McMahon for hogging the spotlight and livid at himself for fumbling. The highest point of his career? Ha. It felt like 1975 all over again. (Kindle loc. 5825)
In other words, he was a human being. I’m not making excuses, but he was “officially diagnosed” (Kindle loc. 4185) late in life with ADHD. And think about this:
Through ten seasons, Payton had endured an ungodly number of hits. As contemporaries like Earl Campbell, Wilbert Montgomery, and Billy Sims began to slow down (or collapse completely), Payton somehow sucked up the pain and kept churning out yardage. (Kindle loc. 5240)
He just may not have ever been able to mature like a normal human being.
However, not once during this reading did I feel anger towards Payton and I never lost respect for him. Is he a hero? No. But I’m confounded about why people like Ditka wanted to spit on Pearlman after hearing what was in this book. And here is an interview with Eddie Payton from Chicago Tonight. He appears to have his own agenda.
Like I said, I trust Pearlman. I’m going with his version of the story. Here’s Pearlman on Chicago Tonight. It’s evident that Pearlman is attached to this book.
Perhaps the most memorable part of this book for me was the story of Payton working off a stack of parking tickets in 1992 via community service as an assistant basketball coach for Bill Wandro at Hoffman Estates High School.
… Two weeks later, after undergoing a background check, Payton was introduced to Wandro’s dumbfounded players as the newest volunteer assistant. Was this merely the case of a celebrity putting in his time? Hardly. “He came to every practice six days a week, two hours per day, plus every game,” Wandro said. “He also coached the junior varsity team. He was a great coach—he really related with the kids. He was genuine with them.” (Kindle loc. 6967)
Inside Hoffman Estates gymnasium, Payton seemed to take pride in not behaving as a typical superstar athlete. When someone tossed a towel on the floor, he picked it up. When the janitors showed up to start sweeping, he grabbed a broom. (Kindle loc. 6984)
It seems like Payton had some sort of split personality. How could he be so selfless in this case yet so selfish in other situations? I lived in Chicago then but don’t remember this at all. It seems like it should be made into an ESPN 30 for 30 or something.
Payton died of primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC).
… A rare (three of one hundred thousand people are affected) and mysterious disease, PSC scars the bile ducts, which carry bile from the liver to the small intestine to help digest food. When the ducts get blocked, bile backs up and migrates elsewhere. The body’s immune system then mistakenly attacks its own tissues. (Kindle loc. 7322)
So that ends the story. I loved it. Part of the reason this was so great is that Pearlman also loved the subject matter. Here’s what he says in the Afterword:
… Through all his highs and all his lows, Walter Payton continued to possess a rare sense of humanity. Having now covered sports for sixteen years, I’ve seen an endless stream of athletes treate their fans as eczema-like irritations. They walk through the world as if encased in a Plexiglass bubble, immune to the fact that a minute’s worth of attention will often never be forgotten.
Until the day he died, Payton refused to lose sight of this.
Had I so desired, I could have written a seven-hundred-page book consisting solely of You’re-not-gonna-believe-this stories of Payton’s goodness. (Kindle loc. 7840)
Had Pearlman decided to do that, we wouldn’t know Sweetness like we do today, and nobody would have published the book. If you’re a Bears fan and a Chicagoan, you should read this book.