JEFF PEARLMAN

Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

The Truth

So yesterday was, ahem, weird. Lots of positivity. Lots of anger and hostility and threats. I woke up knowing an excerpt of my Walter Payton biography would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated; knowing it would be a day unlike most others.

I wrapped up my day by attending synagogue for the opening night of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.

A weird day.

I’m not sure if people—the angry people—understand or care to understand. Two and a half years ago, when I embarked on this project, Chicagoans were—across the board—elated. “Walter Payton! What a great subject for a biography! Awesome!” And they were right. Walter Payton is a great subject for a biography. He’s an icon. He’s beloved. He’s misunderstood. He’s mysterious. Truthfully, I’ve never come across a better subject. Ever. But here’s the thing—”definitive” biography means definitive. To try and tackle a man’s life—his entire life—is daunting. Of course, you write about the touchdowns and the bootlegs; about 275 yards (with a screaming-high fever) and Super Bowl XX and Jim McMahon and Willie Gault. But, and this is the rough part, you are not a public relations executive. You are a journalist, trying to paint the full picture. The FULL picture. You have to, in the name of honesty; in the name of authenticity. Otherwise, why have biographies at all? Why look back at the lives of JFK and Ronald Reagan and MLK and Malcolm X and Jim Morrison and Marilyn Monroe and on and on and on? What’s to learn … to understand … to appreciate if all we do is turn the deceased into unflawed icons?

What’s the point of history, if history can only be approved talking points?

Early on in this project, I learned that, on the biggest day of a football player’s career (his induction into the Hall of Fame), Walter Payton had his wife in row one and his girlfriend in row two. He was nervous … beyond nervous. Freaking out. Scared. Apprehensive. Here he was, about to be enshrined, and all he was consumed by angst.

You are writing a definitive biography of Walter Payton. Do you ignore such a moment.

Later on in this project, I learned of Walter Payton’s severe depression; of his repeated threats of suicide. Like many retired football players, he was lost and hurt and aimless; the game had used him up, and no longer had much use for him.

You are writing a definitive biography of Walter Payton. Do you ignore this, too?

The question I ask is: When is it OK to write about a late person’s shortcomings? When is it OK to look back at his life and analyze the highs and lows; ups and downs? Ever? Never? Maybe—as many detractors clearly feel—we’re better off floating on a cloud of ignorance. Maybe the Never Die Easy depiction of Walter Payton’s life—terrific family man, happy go lucky, not especially deep—is the way to go. Is it real? From a certain perspective, sure. But perhaps that’s all sports fans want; to believe their heroes are only heroes, and nothing else matters.

I don’t agree.

But I understand.

PS: This will come off as a money play, so let me put that to rest: Go to the library. Skim at the book shop. Borrow from a friend. I don’t care how you read Sweetness, but if you’re someone screaming and yelling, “How dare you! How dare you!” I encourage you to take in 460 pages, not seven. Go through the Columbia, Mississippi years; the Jackson State years; the down days in Chicago, when the Bears were a joke and Walter Payton was the only beacon of hope. If, after you’ve done that, you still think the book was a hit job, call me.

We’ll do lunch.