I was just as infuriated as any other Walter Payton fan when it was announced that a book was coming out depicting the legendary Bears running back as a drug abuser and womanizer. But after finding that one of the author’s main sources was none other than Payton’s longtime agent and friend, I quickly changed my perspective.
Why the initial reaction? Because here we are in an age of sleazy, second-hand reporting that feeds off rumor and innuendo for nothing but fame and the almighty dollar. But this is a real biography about an outstanding football player and a complex man.
Walter Payton was a hero on the football field, that’s what we all witnessed. It’s a fact. Off the field he was someone most of us never really knew. His family and his friends knew the real man. The Paytons, including his wife, Connie, issued a statement deriding Jeff Pearlman’s book Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, but also acknowledging that Walter “was not perfect.”
I will eventually read the book, and whether or not I find the more scandalous revelations to be truthful, it won’t change my opinion of the football player.
Payton died in 1999 at the age of 45. The video of him and his son, Jarrett, weeping during the press conference when Walter announced to the public he had cancer was heartbreaking. It was a moment that really wasn’t supposed to be shared with the public. But it was real. It was personal. It was something the public usually doesn’t see or is often shielded from. Payton was dying. He knew it. His son knew it. And, right then, everyone else did too.
It made you realize that Walter Payton, the Teflon tailback who shredded defenses for the Bears for so many seasons — and was nice enough to indulge a goofy-looking 9-year-old kid who seems distracted (while his mother is enraptured) for a photo at training camp — was, after all, human.