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Books | Sports

November 1, 2011

A Bittersweet Walter Payton Biography

Author Jeff Pearlman set out to tell the true story of the Bear known as Sweetness. Some Chicago writers didn't want to hear it.

Justin Adler

Today's prototypical athletic phenom is covered by recruiting websites well before he's old enough for his learner's permit. By the time he's been featured in Sports Illustrated, he's already received his 500th text from a D-I coach. Then if/when he makes it, his entire life is uncovered by the media, with any remaining morsel of information self-published via his Twitter, Facebook, and blog. The same goes for professional athletes who reigned pre-blogosphere, as today's sports media plays catch-up and quickly squeezes from their lives any revealing details by their fifth biography and 11,568th interview.

Jeff Pearlman
"I realized he's not exactly the guy who's been portrayed. That doesn't mean he's any worse than the guy who's been portrayed. He was just different."

Jeff Pearlman

All of which makes NFL legend Walter Payton's hidden past an especially rare find and a captivating subject for Jeff Pearlman's fifth book, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton. How could the actual age of the Super Bowl champion who broke Jim Brown's record for all-time rushing yards have been a mystery? How could the man who became the namesake for the NFL's humanitarian award, and who once was crowned Chicago's Father of the Year, have conceived an illegitimate son whom he never saw despite living within 30 minutes of him his entire life?
Contrary to the belief of some Chicago writers, Pearlman says he didn't set out to destroy Payton's legacy, but rather to offer a complete, definitive biography on the unparalleled NFL icon, whom Pearlman felt never was appropriately covered by the media. In the following interview, edited for clarity, Pearlman tells Gelf about his exhaustive research, what he would ask Walter today, and whether he lives in fear of Hurricane Ditka.
Gelf Magazine: What was your a-ha moment when you realized Walter Payton was not the guy everyone made him out to be?
Jeff Pearlman: I was interviewing his agent, who in passing alluded to his illegitimate child, and that stood out, but there were a lot of moments like that. People always assumed I knew more than I did when they were talking to me. Someone else once said, "So you know about Walter's girlfriend?" And I just played along. Then somebody mentioned that Walter wasn't really 45 when he died, he was actually 46—and I thought that's really interesting and really different because most people of his level have these things known about them. In his College Football Hall of Fame induction, Walter talked about coming in fourth in the Heisman voting in 1975 and he actually came in 14th.
There were tons of little things that didn't really add up and that nobody had really known before. In his family's book about him, and in his own autobiography, he talks about being recruited by the University of Kansas, and almost going to Kansas, so I called up the Kansas coach and learned they never recruited him, as he was actually recruited by Kansas State. I started putting them together and realized he's not exactly the guy who's been portrayed. That doesn't mean he's any worse than the guy who's been portrayed. He was just different—there was a hidden enigma to him that had never really been discussed.

Gelf Magazine: You've previously written about stars who are currently alive. How much different was it to cover someone who is no longer with us?
Jeff Pearlman: From a strictly literary standpoint, there are positives and negatives. The positives are that the person is not going to hush his friends and contacts and instruct them to not talk to me. Additionally I had a definitive ending to the book, while with Clemens and Bonds, there was a nebulous ending because of their ongoing careers, trials, and steroid scandals.
As a human being, you'd much rather the person be alive. I really do wish Walter was alive. There were a lot of points in the book where I would just become really sad about a guy who died 12 years ago.
It hurts that this person is not here to talk and tell his story and guide you though it. I learned to love Walter working on this book, to really love who he was. After learning so many of his attributes, I learned to empathize with him, even with moments that weren't so great. I came to admire him and really wish he were alive just to see how he'd respond to certain things. Would he be tweeting? Would he be on Facebook? Would he be a commentator? Would he try to be an NFL owner again? Just wishing he had those opportunities, it's very haunting. You're constantly thinking, What if Walter Payton were alive? How much better would his kids' lives be? Would he have made an effort with his out-of-wedlock son? What would have happened with his relationship with Connie?
Gelf Magazine: On top of the million questions you found yourself asking, how would you have led your interview with Walter if he were alive today?
Jeff Pearlman: I'm always fascinated by lives of athletes post-career, especially for a guy who was that iconic. How did he deal with his depression at the time? What didn't he know then, that he might know now? Are there better ways for athletes to cope at the end of their careers? Is there advice he would give guys now?
Gelf Magazine: All of your books show a tremendous amount of research, but how has that process changed since your first book, The Bad Guys Won!?
Jeff Pearlman: It's totally different. I look back at the Mets book and I think about what could've been and how much better I could've written it. For the ‘86 Mets book, I did not interview any writers or media people who covered the team, not one. It was a terrible, terrible mistake, as these were the guys who had the access, who had the off-the-record conversations. On top of that, if I wrote that book now I would've interviewed Mookie Wilson's college-baseball coach and gone back to his hometown and dug and dug into each person's life. I dug into the team, and the year 1986, but I did not do nearly enough background. The more background, the richer the book is. I feel like with Sweetness, I put everything together.
Gelf Magazine: How else did you prepare for the book?
Jeff Pearlman: In a lot of ways I was unprepared for this book, for the intensity and depth of it. This book just consumed me. When someone is deceased, it takes you on in a totally different way. You always want do the story right, but when they're gone it's like 8,000 times more important. You want to tell an accurate, detailed, layered, textured, honest story. It's a whole different kind of pressure. You want this book to be the Walter Payton book, in the same way David Maraniss's Lombardi book is the definitive Lombardi book, or Jonathan Eig's is the Lou Gehrig book, I wanted my book to be on that level.
Gelf Magazine: You interviewed nearly 700 sources. Whom were you unable to track down?
Jeff Pearlman: Connie, Walter's wife, had agreed to an interview and we set up a date and time. I flew out to Chicago, and they told me she could not meet. That was extremely frustrating. I'm not mad at her, it was just frustrating. I also did not get to talk to Walter's sister Pam, who barely appears in the book. She's really a mysterious figure in his life. And unfortunately she never returned any of my calls.
Gelf Magazine: How close were you with Don Yaeger, the co-author of Walter's latest auto-biography Never Die Easy? And do you know his thoughts on your book?
Jeff Pearlman: We used to work together at Sports Illustrated, but I maybe only met him once or twice. When I first started working on this book, I read Never Die Easy, and I called Don and interviewed him once for the book.
The truth of the matter is—and this is not Don's fault at all—I started my book relying on Never Die Easy and I ended the project almost discarding Never Die Easy, because it is a very, very, particular view point of Walter that a lot of people disputed. I don't think Don deserves any flak for that. He was put in a very tough situation as he started working on the book with Walter and was forced to finish it after Walter's demise. I have no idea if Don has read my book or not.

Gelf Magazine: Just reading your book can be extremely intense. How did you decompress while you were writing it?
Jeff Pearlman: It was very hard and it's really hard to get geared up for the next project. Usually I'm immediately ready for the next project, but I'm still in a bit of a coma from this book. This book meant so much to me and I put so much into it. I don't think I'll ever find a person to write about as fascinating, conflicted, exciting, unique, deep, etc., as Walter Payton. A lot of biographies come out on famous people. It's rare that you write about someone at this level, like a Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams or Walter Payton, and you find out this much new about them. He's the rare iconic figure who's just been waiting there to be written about.
Gelf Magazine:How do you think Walter's agent Bud Holmes would hold up in 2011?
Jeff Pearlman: I think he'd be amazing. If my son were a pro athlete I'd tell him to be represented by Bud Holmes. He negotiated the best contract I've ever heard of, an annuity, which still pays the Payton family $240,000 every year. He was a wicked negotiator. He did Walter Payton very well. He has a real Southern charm, but he's very peculiar though. He drops the n-word like nobody's business, but blacks and whites both swear by him. He just uses it as a word like he uses the word "soda" or "phone." He's so authentic and charming. People in the north hear his accent and assume he's a dummy and he'd use that against you. For any era he's a great agent.
Gelf Magazine: You said in one of your Sweet Spot promo videos that you'd be writing this book for 14 hours straight and start asking your dog to review your work. Where else did this book take you?
Jeff Pearlman: I like to run at 11 or 12 at night and often times while I'd be running, I'd picture Walter alongside me, wearing his Kangaroos headband and Kangaroos jumpsuit. I also felt a lot like this cartoon my friend drew for me, of Walter just always over my shoulder.
Gelf Magazine: How do you think Walter would feel about the book?
Jeff Pearlman: If I'm being honest, he was so guarded and private, he probably would not be happy. But then a friend of mine told me that Walter might feel a sense of relief from this book, because he had to live up to this image and he was so haunted by the image of Sweetness. The truth of the matter is, he was just a screwed up as the rest of us—he has his high days and low days. Then again, that's probably not true, but it made me feel good for five minutes.
Gelf Magazine: Have you spoken with Mike Ditka since he dismissed your book?
Jeff Pearlman: A few days after that article came out, I was on Dan Le Batard's show and he asked me about it. Then he had Ditka on two days later and he played my comments and Ditka was contrite and very apologetic. I was annoyed by what Ditka said, but I understand he's loyal to his player, his team, and he did not read the excerpt.
Gelf Magazine: So you don't live your life in fear that Ditka will find you and spit on you?
Jeff Pearlman: No, I have no beef with Ditka at all. He's a Chicago icon.
Related in Gelf

Pearlman has spoken to Gelf four times before: about his books on Barry Bonds, the Dallas 1990s dynasty, and Roger Clemens; and with his responses to our Quickish-style questionnaire.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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