Tuesday, October 23, 2012

BC2012: Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman

When Sweetness came out about a year ago, Chicago Bears fans and former Bears players attacked it. Everybody loved Payton, and when people heard about the less-than-hagiographic revelations in this book, they categorically denied that any of it could be true.

But no man is perfect, and although Payton was one of the greatest football players of all time as well as one of the kindest -- the author acknowledges that he could have written 700 pages just about Payton's generous encounters with fans -- he had the flaws of any human. He wasn't the great husband or father his myth implied*, and he was prone to mood swings, becoming suicidally depressed at times after his retirement. He also popped painkillers like candy, which should come as no surprise to anyone who witnessed the abuse his body took for 13 years in the NFL.

Sweetness, however, is not "about" any of those things; it is about Walter Payton's life from his youth in segregated Mississippi to his premature death from liver cancer. Pearlman never intended to tear Payton down, but rather attempted to discover exactly who he was. I believe he succeeded at that, and I see no reason to take the Walter Payton poster down from my office wall.** As Pearlman affirmed in the Acknowledgments (not that the reader should have had any doubt), "...I love him. I love what he overcame, I love what he accomplished, I love what he symbolized, and I love the nooks and crannies and complexities."

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, as should anyone willing to accept that Payton was an imperfect human being. My problem now is what to do with two other Payton books I haven't read yet since Pearlman points out their flaws in the Prologue. Payton by his wife and children has a number of inaccuracies, though to be honest I bought it more for the DVD of Payton in action than anything else. Payton's second memoir, Never Die Easy, is up to 40% fiction according to his closest friends. Knowing that, is it still worth reading? I'm afraid that if I read those other books my mind might overwrite what I learned from Sweetness. So to anyone reading this review who hasn't seen the other books, just stick with this one. It's the most thorough biography of Payton, and probably the most accurate as well.

* He and wife Connie lived apart for many years and he bedded a lot of women. One of them had a child in 1985 that he refused to meet though he did provide for him. Regardless (because he kept it secret), he was named Chicago's Father of the Year by the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative in 1986. In the 1990s he had a long-term girlfriend. And after he retired from football, he took on other activities in lieu of spending more time with his kids.

** Ironically, that poster from my grandparents' basement hangs where I once had a poster of Lance Armstrong. As I mentioned yesterday, although I had admired Armstrong for his achievements (despite nagging suspicions which recent revelations seem to confirm), I never really liked him. He always seemed like kind of a jerk. Anyway, after reading Sweetness, I still find Walter admirable and likable in spite of his flaws.

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