OPENING HIT: I didn’t know Walter Payton well but I knew him. I apparently didn’t know him well enough. Based on a new book about Payton’s life, few did.
A new biography, The Hero No One Knew, suggests Payton was not the simplistic goody-goody the media often portrayed him to be. He had extra marital affairs, took drugs to dull the pain of a long and brutal NFL career, and contemplated suicide. In other words, Payton was a human being with flaws, not perfect piece of clay built by Michelangelo.
Now, unlike a lot of the immature critics who are wrongly attacking the author, Jeff Pearlman, I’ve read the book. It’s a well reported, factually strong, highly interesting read about one of the most famous figures in NFL history. Full disclosure: I’m a friend of Jeff’s. But I’d say this regardless.
Some of the reaction has been predictable. Mike Ditka, a hothead and occasional buffoon, said he’d spit on Pearlman if he saw him. Nice, Iron Mike. Way to add to the discussion. Besides, it was, after all, Ditka who handed Payton one of Payton’s greatest humiliations when he refused to let Payton score in the Super Bowl XX blowout of New England instead allowing Refrigerator Perry to make a mockery of things. See, when Ditka had his chance to honor Payton, he behaved petulantly, now, years later, he’s got Payton’s back.
The problem here isn’t Pearlman. The problem is twofold: you and me. Longtime NFL writers like me did a disservice to readers by portraying Payton as an infallible human being when no such thing exists. We didn’t provide a three-dimensional portrait. Pearlman does and he does so not in a tabloid manner – again, read the book – but in a professional, almost elegant way.
You, the reader, are also the issue. You demand that athletes be real, that they step from behind their publicists and carefully crafted images, but when many of them (not all) refuse, you don’t care. You still blindly follow. Some of you are hypocrites.
I want to know what athletes are really like because I like information and what I chose to do with that information is up to me. I now understand what Payton was really like and it doesn’t alter my opinion of him one bit. I still think he was an elite runner. I still think he was an overall good person. I still like him.
Pearlman tells us about all of the outstanding things Payton did as a football player and man but he also shows us the warts. Not only is there nothing wrong with that I’d say it’s necessary.
Let’s be grownups about this and not shrink this discussion into the simplistic nonsense we see all across our culture today. Payton was a highly nuanced man, it turns out, and thus this book is a highly nuanced look at him.
Spit on Pearlman? We should be patting him on the back.