Fact: Payton was a hero on the football field

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By Brad Spencer

Sports Editor

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.

Email: bspencer@oakpark.com Twitter: OakParkSports

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Q from Oak Park  

Posted: October 6th, 2011 12:04 AM

Regardless if you buy the book or not, his personal life should not take away the fact of his talents at football. As for his son, Jarrett, he is a wonderful person to talk with, his sister Brittney Payton, is just as nice, and Mrs. Payton, she is a wonderful person. Don't make to much out of a book that is suppose to sell on the private life of someone. Enjoy the times you knew of what was shown you of Walter Payton.

Dan from River Forest  

Posted: October 4th, 2011 4:58 PM

I continue to be amazed at the vitriol that's be hurled at the author of this book (albeit not much here). Athletes are just people -- flawed like the rest of us and there is no good reason to hide that from the world. They chose to make their living as a public figure and there is just no right to hide the full person. Interestingly everybody seems focused on just 30 pages from a 490 page book which generally paints a favorable picture of a complex human being.


Posted: October 3rd, 2011 10:47 PM

Brad, you Mom looks a bit like Susan Saraendon.


Posted: October 3rd, 2011 10:33 PM

When I was a kid no one ever wanted to be some lousy player from Cincinatti. We all wanted to be #34. He was a hero. A football hero. Tell-all or biography call it what you will, it is distasteful to try to capitalize off of another man's life by selling the seedy stuff rather than the good. The title alone should tell you what Pearlman is about.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: October 3rd, 2011 10:16 AM

David - I agree. Tell-all books can have historical and even educational value, but you won't sell many without writing one without mentioning the celebrity, star, or heroes name in it.

Jerry Hudson from Phoenix  

Posted: October 3rd, 2011 12:09 AM

I hate to break it to you Brad, but you're STILL goofy looking. But I digress. Walter Payton was among a tiny handful of athletes who define their profession. Run, pass, catch and block. Oh, lordy could he block. And he'd turn upfield at the end of a run to deliver a blow. One NFL defensive back once said he was preparing to play Walter by tackling trees in his back yard. If he had some personal flaws, it seems to me he paid for them with an especially cruel and painful death.

Brad Spencer, sports editor Wednesday Journal  

Posted: October 2nd, 2011 8:55 PM

I'm baffled that you guys have spent your time over-thinking a word in the headline of a blog entry. But by all means, please continue to do so. The more views, the better ...


Posted: October 2nd, 2011 5:41 PM

So by anyone's definition, are the men and women in Iraq fighting for American Freedom?

JGeil from Oak Park  

Posted: October 2nd, 2011 5:07 PM

David, I agree with you entirely. And I don't think it was a digression. Just a ranging discussion. I'd say it's okay to have varying points within a conversation and we've all made our opinions and point of view known. I don't think I missed "the point" of Brad's article, as he suggested. I just disagreed with certain aspects of it. Especially the part where his opinion is labeled as fact.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 2nd, 2011 3:14 PM

Though I strongly disagree that words can mean whatever we want and that an athlete is comparable to a soldier "fighting for freedom," I am responsible for this digression, and so will offer an attempt to bring it back to my actual point, which was that a tell-all book, even if the topic is someone so sacred as an American athlete, may actually enhance our appreciation of that person by rounding out his or her personality...and showing that he or she is human, faults and all.

JGeil from Oak Park  

Posted: October 2nd, 2011 11:15 AM

Those obsessed with sports figures often overstate things. "This is a huge game" or "A must win". They tend to define things like, "The greatest play" or "The greatest game". Or, "He's heroic!" It's fun to engross in something like athletics. I'm sort of amused by the status fans give to athletes though. They become saints, or god-like figures, often in the minds of men much older than the boys they are so enthralled by. They even wear replicas of their jerseys, and defend them to no end. Funny.

Brad Spencer, sports editor Wednesday Journal  

Posted: October 2nd, 2011 10:36 AM

You're missing the point trying to define a word or measure its value. Payton was heroic on the football field, just as the single mom trying to raise 4 kids is and the American soldier fighting for freedom is. It's simply a word to be used how anyone feels fit to use it. To argue its meaning in this context misses the point of the blog entirely.

john murtagh from oak park  

Posted: October 1st, 2011 11:39 PM

I liked the days when private weaknesses were unknown or overlooked. Being a hero was based on a public talent not what the person did off the field. It was not just players foibles that were overlooked. Presidents, General, Actors, and even church leaders were allowed privacy. We enjoyed our heroes without guilt or feeling duped. Payton was a hero because he was a outstanding athlete and a friendly, caring man. To me, he is still a hero. We need to lighten up on people's private lives.

JGeil from Oak Park  

Posted: October 1st, 2011 11:01 PM

David, you're right, but just for the sake of being American, and human, let's preserve the word hero for those who do actual, heroic things. Lest we cheapen its meaning. And for people we look up to, well, we can admire in no shortage of other ways.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 1st, 2011 10:20 PM

The word "hero" has multiple meanings, and JGeil I tend to go with your definition/interpretation. But there's another sense of the word that means more like "someone we look up to," and I think for some Payton is that.

JGeil from Oak Park  

Posted: October 1st, 2011 10:07 PM

Unless Walter Payton saved a life by playing football, he ain't no hero. On or off the field. Kind of sad when we toss that word around like we do these days. If you're looking for actual heroes, maybe take a break from obsessing over morally corrupt athletes and visit a website commemorating this nation's Congressional Medal of Honor award winners: http://www.cmohs.org/ Real life heroes. Walter Payton was a football player. A great athlete. But a hero? Not even close. That's a fact.

David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 1st, 2011 9:30 AM

I'm no sports fan, so I have no allegiance to any sports "hero" (a term I have a little trouble applying to an entertainer), but if this book is an accurate depiction of the real man, isn't that a good thing? I'm not saying it IS an accurate depiction, I'm just considering the possibility. Payton seemed like a very nice person, but if he had other sides, as many of us do, doesn't that make him more intriguing?


Posted: September 30th, 2011 4:24 PM


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