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