Bittersweet: The Life of Walter Payton

Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman
Gotham Books, 2011
ISBN-10: 159240653X

Jeff Pearlman has written a real biography of Walter Payton.  This is not some glam filled, highlight reel of the best of Walter Payton.  It’s a real biography that tells about the real bitter sweet life of Walter Payton.

Payton grew up poor in a racially segregated Colombia, Mississippi.  While Payton never experienced firsthand violence growing up, it was a segregated community with all the racial prejudice against blacks that implies.  African Americans were treated as inferior and lived in a specific section of town.  His father was a hard worker and decent man but an alcoholic who didn’t seem to have a great deal of influence in Payton’s life.  But his mother was a hard worker who was the family disciplinarian and real glue that held them together.  This segregated community and overt racism of his childhood is probably what gave Payton a chip on his shoulder for the rest of his life, out to prove that he was inferior to nobody.

As schools were integrated and Payton went on to play high school football, he of course became the darling of the town, as great athletes often are, and was one of the most sought after football prospects.  He ended up, through some shenanigans by the coach, heading to Jackson State in Mississippi near his hometown for his college football career.

There he had a career that landed him as the fourth overall pick in the 1975 National Football League draft by the Chicago Bears, where he had a Hall of Fame career, setting the then NFL record for rushing yards (16,726 yards).  He won a Super Bowl ring when the Chicago Bears won Super XX over the New England Patriots.

This isn’t a biography, however, only about Payton’s nearly unmatched professional football career.  It’s about the man who lived it.  And there we find the darker side of Walter Payton.

Walter lived a happy but sheltered childhood and his sheltered life at Jackson State probably did not prepare him to live in the real world, especially the one outside of football.  There he met his future wife Connie who eventually moved to Chicago with him.

What was Payton’s real personality like?  Fun loving; happy go lucky, and a prankster.  Kind hearted to strangers, children, and those who were in need.  He was quite a compassionate human being.  But he was also childish, jealous, petulant, and someone who always wanted to have things his way.

What do we find out about Walter Payton in this biography?

First, while he was great teammate and superb player he was also a bit petulant when things didn’t go his way.  He wanted the ball and to be the superstar, but also had a quiet way of going about it.  In one of the more telling moments, he hid in a broom closet after the Bears won Super Bowl XX because he didn’t score a touchdown.  What should have been one of the happiest moments in his life turned out to be one of the most bittersweet as he cried in anger and refused to come out to talk to the press after the Super Bowl win, without some cajoling.  Coach Mike Ditka says it is one of his biggest regrets that he didn’t make sure Walter got the ball for a score in the blowout win.

Second, during his playing career Payton abused the painkiller Darvon, often popping them like candy.  He continued to abuse painkillers after his playing career, possibly as self-medication for depression.  Darvon is very hard on the liver and while Pearlman does not draw a direct line to his drug abuse and the live disease that ultimately killed him, he certainly implies it.

Third, Walter Payton struggled badly with loneliness and being out of the spotlight once his playing days were over.  He reportedly contemplated suicide, maybe on more than one occasion, and suffered from depression.

Fourth, Payton was a philanderer and liked women.  He clearly had fell out of love with his wife Connie and didn’t really live with her for most of his post-football life.  In fact, he fathered a child with another woman and had another long-term relationship with a flight attendant.

This lead to another bittersweet moment in Walter Payton’s life.  Against his wishes his girlfriend showed up at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, unbeknownst to his estranged wife Connie.  In public, Payton, and probably more so Connie, put on the façade of the happy couple.  Payton was angry that his girlfriend showed up and she was literally just a few rows back from his wife and children during his induction speech.

So once again, what should have been one of the happiest moments in Walter Payton’s life instead turned into a nerve wracking, bittersweet experience.

A fifth aspect of Walter Payton that is apparent, even if Pearlman doesn’t say this directly, is he was probably a manic depressive.  If the behaviors exhibited in the biography are accurate, one moment he is manic and happy go lucky, being out public, and trying to make a living on his up and down again business interests.  And at other times he is darkly depressed, not wanting to be out in public, and even contemplating suicide.

Pearlman also points out all of Walter Payton’s good traits.  Even though he trusted very few people, he cared about people and went out of his way to make people around him feel good and he was very charitable to those in need.  He was also a great teammate who led by example on the field and was real locker room leader, even when the Bears had dreadfully inadequate talent around him.  The persona that surrounded Payton as a caring, hardworking, class act was a real part of Walter Payton too.

Jeff Pearlman has been unfairly castigated by many of Walter Payton friends, family, and fans for this biography because he dares tell the real story of Walter Payton.  Mike Ditka said he wanted to spit on him and has no respect for him.  Others claim the biography is not truthful and essentially fiction.  And Connie Payton and his children also claim the biography is mostly untrue.

I think the veracity of this book is hard to question for one very simple reason.  Nearly all of Pearlman’s sources are identified by name.  Only two sources are not – his longtime girlfriend who showed up at his Hall of Fame induction and the woman with whom he has a child (which he never acknowledged).  Otherwise, former agents, players, long-time personal assistant, family members, coaches, and other acquaintances who Pearlman interviewed are all there, speaking through the author.  I have yet to see any of these people come out and refute what they said to Pearlman.  I know that the truth might be painful for many, but Pearlman has done a service to the memory of Walter Payton.

Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton

Prime Crime: Deion Sanders Does Not Belong in the Hall of Fame

When the Hall of Fame finalists were announced recently it struck me that Marshall Faulk and Deion Sanders were the two headliners of the announcement.  There was no mention of Curtis Martin in the headlines, the great running back for the New England Patriots and New York Jets, who should be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

Then I pondered, does Deion Sanders really belong in the Hall of Fame?  My answer is no.

Yes, I know that Deion is on the all time greats lists and will no doubt be a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee.  That doesn’t mean he actually deserves all these accolades.  Sanders is known as much for his oversized ego and big mouth as he is for his play on the field.  Curtis Martin, on the other hand, is a quiet, unassuming player whose greatness spoke for itself on the field.

And no doubt Deion Sanders is one of the best “cover corners” in the league history.  Usually I do not use that term derisively but in this case I am.  Sanders rarely saw a tackle he cared to make.  Now he is not like Asante Samuel who I have seen actually run away from running backs breaking down the field.  Sanders, at least, put on a good act. 

Deion Sanders was a one dimensional cornerback who was terrible at run support (and was not nearly as great in covering receivers as people seem to think he is).  I think in all the years I have watched Sanders play, he made one decent tackle, and that was against a player about his own size. 

Deion Sanders was nowhere near as great, as true lockdown corners would also come up and make big hits or tackles on running plays.  Rod Woodson and Champ Bailey are as good, if not better than, Deion Sanders at covering receivers.  Yet, they will also come up and lay the wood on running backs to support their teammates on defense.  Even a small cornerback like Darrell Green was an outstanding tackler and came up to make big plays on running backs much larger than he was. 

A few others I will name that are in the Hall of Fame and in the same caliber as Woodson and Bailey include Michael Haynes (New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders), Ronnie Lott (San Francisco 49ers) and Ken Houston (Houston Oilers and Washington Redskins).  I would include Mel Blount of the Pittsburgh Steelers but he was more of an intimidator in the true bump and run coverages before the rule changes in 1978.  And these are just the players I actually saw play.

Deion Sanders doesn’t come close to being as great as these cornerbacks. His name should not even be mentioned in the same breath.

Yes, I know he was one of the most instinctual punt returners of all time, but he didn’t do that consistently enough for me to say he should be in the Hall of Fame.

And when does get inducted, which unfortunately is a foregone conclusion, they should immediately make him a B grade inductee so as not to tarnish the names of those who truly belong.

A Look Back at How Vince Lombardi Launched a Dynasty

That Great First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set it on the Path to Glory by John Eisenberg
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009
ISBN 13: 978-0-618-90499-0

Much as been written about Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers dynasty of the 1960’s, but John Eisenberg’s book is the first to provide details about Vince Lombardi’s first season with the Green Bay Packers.

When Lombardi took over as head coach Green Bay was a losing team with a culture of losing, and even quitting, in games.  He was starting at ground zero with a group of players who were used to and even accepted losing.  Once a team establishes a culture of losing it is extremely difficult to break it out of that cycle.  Losing becomes a habit and it becomes acceptable.

But it was not acceptable to Vince Lombardi.  After taking over the head coaching duties prior to the 1959 season Lombardi wondered what he had gotten into after watching game film of this woeful team.

Through punishing practices and motivational tactics more akin to an Army drill sergeant than a professional football coach, Lombardi made it clear to his players that losing was not acceptable and he was gong to work them out of it, literally.  His practices were brutal affairs and his drive for perfection a tangible force.

While that first season ended with a mediocre 7-5 record, Lombardi accomplished one amazing feat.  The Green Bay Packers were no longer losers and quitters.  Instead Lombardi established the mental and physical groundwork for the dynasty yet to come.

The most amazing thing about Lombardi’s feat is he turned the team around with essentially the same players who were so woeful before.  Normally a team breaking out of losing streak essentially has to clean house and build from scratch.  Not Lombardi.  He worked, cajoled, intimidated, and rebuilt this team from the inside out turning a can’t do mentality into a can do winning one.  And that is why Lombardi is praised as possibly being one of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport.

Lombardi also made some key decisions that propelled the team forward.  He finally settled on future Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr as his starter for the future.  He created an offensive attack that utilized the unique talents of Paul Hornung instead of trying to turn him into a power running back, letting Jim Taylor handle those duties.  And he helped players like offensive linemen Jerry Kramer, Forrest Gregg, and Fuzzy Thurston advance from good to great.  And by practicing the bread and butter plays, especially the sweep, until it was second nature, he made the game more simple for his offensive players, and difficult to stop for opponents.

This is a well written book where you get the inside story of that first year from many of the players of that era, like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and Jerry Kramer.  Fans of professional football should enjoy this look back at how Vince Lombardi launched a dynasty.


That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory

Review Of All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe

5156ge54fal__ss500_All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe by Bill Crawford

Review by C. Douglas Baker

All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe is an interesting biography of the greatest athlete of the 20th Century, albeit with some flaws. Thorpe, a Sac and Fox Indian, grew up on a reservation with a tough father and mother.

He was placed in a number of boarding schools and kept running away, but did finally wind up in his early teens at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The boarding school, dedicated to the education and acculturation of Indian youth into white society, is where Thorpe came under the tutelage of Glen Scobey “Pop” Warner, who helped coach and guide him in track and football.

Thorpe’s biggest claim to fame was the infamous gold medals he won in the pentathlon and decathlon of the 1912 Olympics, thereafter being proclaimed the greatest athlete in the world. He was also a football star for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, helping the team beat such notable gridiron institutions as Harvard, Penn, and Army.

While at Carlisle, Jim Thorpe played “summer baseball” being paid to play on semi-professional baseball teams in North Carolina. Thorpe had a limited source of income from his holdings in Oklahoma so made a little spending money playing baseball in the summer. This was a very common practice for college athletes at the time.

Given the choice of making money doing hard labor on a farm or playing ball, it wasn’t a tough choice. Unfortunately, this created a huge scandal because of the odious Olympic definition of “amateur athlete” and Thorpe was stripped of his medals after being sold out (according to Crawford) by Pop Warner and James Sullivan, the head of the Amateur Athletic Union that controlled the Olympics in America. These medals were later reinstated long after Thorpe’s death.

In addition to being a biography of Thorpe and telling us a bit about his early life and his athletic career at Carlisle, the book has a theme, the exploitation of amateur athletes, like Thorpe.

Amateur athletics bring in large amounts of money for coaches, schools, and hangers on, money that is made on the athletic prowess of these “amateur athletes.” Meanwhile the athletes themselves get nothing (or maybe a little under the table) and in fact their lives are carefully controlled by those profiting from their efforts.

The last chapter is an indictment, somewhat, of the Olympics and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the exploitation of college and amateur athletes.

Overall this is a fine book providing a clear picture of Jim Thorpe, Pop Warner, and the real situation around Thorpe being unfairly stripped of his Olympic medals. The primary flaw of the book is it covers very little of Thorpe’s professional athletic career in football and baseball, which was disappointing. It is also a bit stilted in writing style. These are minor flaws as the entire work is definitely worth reading.

 

All American: The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe