The revelation struck the city of Chicago like an unexpected winter blizzard. To understand, you must first realize that while Chicago sports fans are divided in their love for the White Sox and Cubs, they are united behind the Chicago Bears. Fans of “Da Bears,” as chronicled on “Saturday Night Live,” are passionate in their love of the team. That passion is equaled by the love of Walter Payton, the greatest running back in the history of the NFL. “Sweetness,” as he was nicknamed in college, was revered in Chicago; his untimely death in 1999 at age 45 resulted in a near-state funeral at Soldier’s Field. Three-hundred-pound teammates shed tears, and an entire city mourned.
"SWEETNESS captures Payton’s life in both its greatness and its flaws, and should be read by all sports fans."
Last month, when excerpts of SWEETNESS: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, by Jeff Pearlman, appeared in Sports Illustrated, Bears fans were apoplectic. The passages highlighted in the magazine focused on Payton’s use of drugs and his philandering. Chicago fans and some sportswriters angrily responded on sports talk radio, blasting Pearlman, the magazine and the book. With that background, I opened the pages of SWEETNESS with some trepidation. Having completed it, my advice to Bears fans is simple and direct: Read this outstanding biography without hesitation or delay. You will not be sorry.
A standout biography is far more than a story of one person. Pearlman captures more than the life and accomplishments of one man --- he places that man in an era and reflects on the impact and interaction of the man and history. Payton, a child of the South, grew up in the tumultuous era of civil rights and integration. In his senior year, his high school was integrated and racial tensions divided the football team. Although he was an outstanding prospect, Payton’s path to major colleges was blocked by an unwritten racial quota. Instead he attended Jackson State College, a traditional “black university.” After an outstanding college career, the Chicago Bears made him the fourth overall selection in the 1975 draft. Payton was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
Pearlman chronicles a football career in vivid fashion. Payton excelled in college and ultimately with the Bears, under the guidance of coaches who were as driven as he was. Bob Hill at Jackson State and Mike Ditka of the Bears were taskmasters whose methods bordered on mental and physical abuse. They were as driven by the will to succeed as Payton, whose performance reflected their zeal.
Reading Pearlman’s account of Payton’s career, Bears fans will rejoice in recalling the great and not-so-great games of the 1970s and ’80s, culminating in the 1986 Super Bowl victory. Yet even that 46-10 Bears win over the New England Patriots, still the most one-sided Super Bowl game in history, represents the riddle that was Walter Payton. This championship should have been the pinnacle of his career. Instead, he ended the game in tears because he had not been given the opportunity to score a touchdown. Afterwards, his agent and friend, Bud Holmes, was forced to cajole him to appear before the media.
Pearlman makes clear that for all of his greatness, Payton was insecure and easily suffered slights when he thought that his football greatness was not adequately recognized. Throughout his career, he felt that he was not appreciated by the Bears or their fans. He embarked on a multi-year media effort to make himself the man that NFL fans loved. In this he was successful. But underneath that shining image was a tarnished man who had flaws and faults just as anyone.
In a way, it is ironic that so much attention is paid to perhaps two-dozen pages of a 430-page biography. Yes, Payton used drugs and committed adultery. And he was not the perfect father and husband the media portrayed. But in that regard, he was no different from most professional athletes and indeed no different from most people. SWEETNESS captures Payton’s life in both its greatness and its flaws, and should be read by all sports fans.