Shrapnel: In Defense of Sweetness

Back in 2004, when John Kerry was the Democratic nominee for president, many Americans were waiting for the outrage that never arrived. With each passing day, it seemed some Republican was accusing Kerry of being a phony war hero; of warping his own Vietnam history in the name of future political game. Meanwhile, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, the kings of conflict avoidance, strutted and talked as if they were Butch and Sundance.

It was a shameful turn of events, and all I—hell, we—wanted Kerry to do was hold a press conference, roll up his pant leg and say, “See this 15-inch scar? That’s where the friggin’ shrapnel penetrated my leg. End. Of. Story.”

Of course, this never happened. And John Kerry lost.

I have no shrapnel in my leg. I barely have splinters in my toes. What I do have, however, is misinformation. Mounds and mounds and mounds of misinformation. It’s all over Twitter; all over Chicago Bear fan boards; pasted throughout many of the vile e-mails I’ve received. I am, according to some, a money-hungry opportunist; a scumbag National Enquirer wanna-be; a hack looking to capitalize on the death of an icon.

Enough. I’ve stayed relatively quiet on the individual rips, and now I want to respond. On the one hand, I hate giving in to this; hate responding to the oft-anonymous trolls who hide behind screen names. On the other hand, shrapnel don’t lie …

Here we go …

• Myth One: My motivation was purely financial, and I’m a money-hungry sack of shit.

• Reality One: A sack of shit? Perhaps. Money hungry? Not even close. There seems to be this notion out there that authors make millions upon millions of dollars. This is, with rare exception, baloney. I’m not in the league of a Michael Lewis or Dan Brown. Books like Sweetness pay well—if they were completed in one year. Pretty well if they’re completed in two. Mediocre over three. That’s how long I worked on this—three years. Toward the end I stopped almost all of my freelance work and columns to focus solely on Payton. I made significantly more money during my days as a staffer at Sports Illustrated and Newsday. This was, first and foremost, about writing a great book. Believe what you want.

• Myth Two: What kind of soulless asswipe writes this stuff about a deceased person?

• Reality Two: Answer: The greatest biographers of our time. Ever read Leigh Montville on Ted Williams? Jane Leavy on Mickey Mantle? Richard Ben Cramer on Joe DiMaggio? How about Manning Marable on Malcolm X? Tom Riley on John Lennon? Biographies are history lessons; are life stories. They are not sanitized versions, written to save our precious ears from bad news. They are opportunities to learn about people; to understand who they truly were; what made them tick; how they thrived and struggled and battled and fought. If you’re uncomfortable with this idea—no sweat. Don’t read biographies or pay attention to history. But to suggest that it’s somehow evil to write the true story of a deceased person … well, it’s nonsense.

• Myth Three: You didn’t interview [FILL IN THE BLANK], so you have no right.

• Reality Three: I’ve been accused of not interviewing family members. I had lengthy interviews with Jarrett and Brittney, Walter’s two children with Connie, as well as multiple discussions with Eddie Payton, his brother. I visited with Walter’s mother, Alyne Payton, for about a half hour in an informal discussion in her front yard. I agreed to an interview with Connie, flew to Chicago, then was told her plans changed and she had to attend to family business. Hey, it happens.

I’ve also been accused, by Steve McMichael in the Tribune, of not interviewing Roland Harper or Matt Suhey, two of Walter’s closest football friends. Pure fiction: I sat down with Matt twice and spoke with him myriad times via phone; I had a lengthy interview with Roland via phone. The Tribune never called me to confirm.

• Myth Four: Connie never met Walter’s girlfriend, as was stated in Sweetness.

• Reality Four: I have no beef with Connie. None whatsoever. Walter was a tough man to be married to, and she held on. That said, when Connie told a Chicago TV station that she and the girlfriend never met, well, I was dumbfounded. Maybe Connie has suppressed the memory … maybe she’s protecting herself … maybe she’s fibbing. Whatever the case, she is—without doubt—incorrect. I interviewed multiple witnesses (people with no reason to lie; people who couldn’t have compared notes before speaking with me) who saw or were present when the two women came face to face. This is an undeniable fact.

• Myth Five: Walter never relied on pain killers.

• Reality Five: Again, Connie was recently asked in a Chicago TV interview about this subject, and she replied by saying she never saw Walter take anything. Which may well be true—but Connie and Walter did not live together for the last decade of his life. Literally, they did not reside in the same house, and this was the time when he was struggling with medication. So, knowing this, why would a TV reporter even ask Connie about this? Baffling to me. Just baffling.

• Myth Six: Bud Holmes, Walter’s longtime agent, never said Payton was a drug addict.

• Reality Six: This is the strangest one to me, because nowhere in the book does Holmes accuse Payton of being addicted. What he does say in the book—and what he’s never denied—is that Walter used a lot of pain killers. Which, as Bud told me (and which is also in the book) was hardly unusual for NFL players during the 1970s and 80s. The initial Bud-denies-the-book rumor came from a TMZ report that was, put simply, a fabrication by a website itching for buzz. I called Bud after it ran, and he just wanted to make clear that he never referred to Payton as an addict. As I told him, “Nowhere in the book do you call him one.” And it’s true—he doesn’t. On a side note, I just love the guy. Love him.

• Myth Seven: You picked the SI excerpt because you knew it’d sell books.

• Reality Seven: I had no say in the excerpt. I saw it, knew it was coming, but was—rightly—never asked to select. Were it up to me, I would have gone with the Super Bowl XX chapter. But it wasn’t up to me. Such is life.

That said, I’m not mad or angry or upset. SI put the book on the cover, and ran an excerpt from a fascinating portion of a mysterious life. I understand.

• Myth Eight: You relied on sources with axes to grind.

• Reality Eight: I actually get this one. At some point, it seems, everyone had some sort of falling out with Payton or—after he passed—the Payton family. Bud Holmes, the agent, was on spotty terms with Walter, who blamed him for a premature (in his eyes) NFL retirement. Ginny Quirk, his assistant for 15 years, isn’t beloved by the Payton estate. Linda Conley, Walter’s close friend and former associate, no longer speaks with Connie. Eddie Payton, Walter’s brother, is mistrusted by Walter’s nuclear family. The thing is, these people—all these people—had extremely close relations with Walter at various points in his life. To not speak with them would be akin to not asking Brian Cashman about Joe Torre, merely because they split at the end of the Yankee years. You check what people say, then check it again. And, if possible, again. But just because two people had a split doesn’t mean the ex- can’t serve as a source. Were that the case, why does everyone still seek out Connie? Answer: Because, for a long spell, she was close to him.

OK, I’m exhausted. Feel free to toss more at me, and I’ll happily answer. Also, remember: For all the early complaints from former Bears, nobody said the infotmation was untrue. Same goes for the family—the official statement said that there’s correct and incorrect information in the book—but never was the incorrect pointed out.

27 thoughts on “Shrapnel: In Defense of Sweetness”

  1. On pages 7 and 110 of your book, you claim Walter was born in 1953 but this is not attributed in the book endnotes. Have you seen a birth certificate confirming this? Did it come up in one of your interviews? I don’t understand why you insist this is true but do not attribute this to a source.

    Thank you…

    1. Neil, it was an oversight … sort of. The original information was given to me by people who knew Walter v-e-r-y well (a family member and an associate). They were 100 percent reliable, and it’s not as if the info is scandalous. The info is also available via Mississippi’s Dept of Records, though more difficult to get. The other (fourth) place it was confirmed was the Mayo Clinic records, which actually had Walter listed at his correct age.

      1. Thanks for your response, Jeff.

        As I stand at Costco and read more of the book, will it become obvious to me that the unattributed text in the Preface about _Payton_ containing fallacies and that _Never Die Easy_ is 40% fiction is accurate? Again, it’s troubling to me that those accusations are not cited.

      2. Neil, I’m sorry, but I can’t agree. But I will respond_and appreciate the tone of your question. It’s fair.

        • The 40%—myriad Payton associates (people who genuinely knew him well) mocked Never Die Easy as a work of fiction. And, having researched his life, they’re correct. This isn’t the fault of Don Yaeger, who was merely conveying Walter’s words. But the book is filled with, simply, erroneous, misleading (and nonexistent) material, from the details of Columbia’s desegregation to the intricacies of his time at Jackson State to the nature of his relationship with his wife to his final days. Its biggest flaw is what’s not there—namely, the truth about his life; what he really went through. If one reads Never Die Easy, he walks away thinking Walter Payton lived a life immune to struggle and challenge. Again, this is not a slam at Don—a ghostwriter can only write what the subject (and his estate) desires. But it’s a severely flawed, one-sided look at a life.

        I don’t think I can write an answer that’ll fully satisfy you here, but I will ask if you question the claims made in Never Die Easy, too?

      3. I frequent the Costco in Oak Brook, IL for a $1.62 gourmet lunch of hot dog and Diet Coke. Sometime I splurge and get pizza.

  2. 2 replies! Where are all the outraged Chicagoans? Has reason finally met up with what you actually wrote? I finished your book earlier this week and found it very entertaining. I was more of a baseball fan during Walter’s playing days but I certainly could admire his skill and obvious determination. His foibles are human and not entirely unexpected considering what his life was like and the physical and psychological stresses he endured. You can’t condone them, but geeze…who among us is perfect? He wasn’t my idol, I didn’t have his poster up on my wall. He was just a great football player and my opinion of him really hasn’t changed, actually maybe has been elevated.

    1. Ha. I just remember being so angry as he was being ripped. I wanted him to scream, “Wanna see my fucking scar!?!?!” Doesn’t mean he would have been a good or bad prez … just saying.

  3. When the publicity around this book first started, a friend of mine said he wasn’t going to read the book because he wants to admire or recall his childhood sports idols “uncomplicatedly.” Do you think much of the controversy has stemmed from the fact that Chicago fans’ love of Walter Payton has suddenly become complicated? Why do you think fans are so unwilling to reconcile the greatness they see on the field and the factual flaws off it?

  4. You write that this wasn’t about the money.
    If that’s the case then please share with your fans and critics:
    • Amount paid to write book
    • Amount you will make in royalties

    1. Tom, with all due respect, I don’t feel comfortable (or that it’s necessary) to share my personal financial information. (“Wasn’t about the money” doesn’t mean I didn’t get paid. Obviously, my job is writing books. It’s how I feed my family. I doubt anyone takes exception to that.) What it means is that this was written out of passion; out of love; out of curiosity. I quit jobs at Sports Illustrated and Newsday to write books. Not because they make me rich (I was MUCH better compensated in those positions), but because it’s a genuine love of mine. It brings me tremendous joy—both because I love biography, and I love being able to be home for my kids. So “wasn’t about the money” does not mean I don’t get paid. Obviously, I do. “Wasn’t about the money” means I do this, first and foremost, for other reasons.

      As for royalties, odds are strong I’ll make zero. (I’d be happy to explain how this works, if you’re unfamiliar. Lemme know)

  5. Jeff, after such a detailed investigation of Walter’s troubling life, coupled with the recent suicide of Dave Duerson, why did you not touch on the fact that Walter’s demons might have AT LEAST PARTIALLY stemmed from his 15 year NFL playing career?

    WP is known to this day as one of the toughest RBs to ever play in the NFL. Surely the beatings he received and gave took a toll on his body; the troubles he encountered later in his life eerily echoed those of his former teammate Duerson.

    That’s what hits home with Walter’s fan base. You painted a disturbing picture of a troubled ex-pro football star but neglected to provide any such insight into how or where these problems originated.

    So, yes, your facts are accurate; your journalism integrity is maintained; however, you only wrote half a story about a man beloved in many different circles.

    You said you wrote this book in the last 3 years, which coincides with the NFL’s recent focus on long-term player safety and hits to the head. The fact that you couldn’t or didn’t make a conncection to Walter’s erratic behavior and potential mental health issues from playing football is a farse.

    1. JaShaa—I appreciate the question, and will respond in full. For informational sake, I was wondering if you have yet read the book? Lemme know, and I’ll respond in full. Thanks.

    2. Without answering FOR Jeff, I can only tell you that I’m reading and felt the same way you did in regards to his style of play. That it even invokes in us this reaction speaks to the increase in awareness of these issues and to the very likelihood that the style of play may have contributed to troubles later in life.

      But Jeff is very careful to not explicitly state as such, and I applaud him for it. Payton being dead for over a dozen years makes it impossible to diagnose post-mortem. It would have been irresponsible for him to make that connection or even pursue it, because the best he would be able to get was loose speculation by a handful of specialists.

      The real hard evidence is coming from what we learn now based on those players, both active and former, that are still alive. They will give us an opportunity to look back and re-examine certain players, their lives, their health, and their mental/emotional issues and say “it’s likely that.” But we can’t turn back the clock and prove conclusively that it was, even if we are able to look back and say “if we only knew then what we know now.”

    3. Joe:

      A few things:

      A. You purchased a book, read it—then returned it to the bookstore? Really? Not saying this because I’m the writer, but, well, I didn’t know people do that.
      B. You’re telling me you didn’t find his rise fascinating? Columbia? Jackson? Being recruited? Crying when he came to the Bears? The death of his father? You’re REALLY telling me this didn’t interest you? Really?
      C. As for your criticism–with all respect (I mean that), I think your point is inane. Bottom line: I’m supposed to make a connection between Walter’s erratic behavior/potential mental health issues based on … what? Please tell me. What evidence—AT ALL—is there that the two were connected? AT. ALL. Answer: None. People can certainly speculate, 12 years later, but there’s ZERO evidence. Zero. His brain was never studied. His body was cremated. There is JUST AS MUCH reason to think his behavior was related to the pain killers or simple depression. But what you’re saying, Joe, is that my research is a farce because I didn’t speculate; because I didn’t take a theory and state it as fact. Silly.

      My favorite part of your post is this: “The fact that you couldn’t or didn’t make a connection …” In other words: The fact that I’m not a doctor with access to the cranial biopsy that was never performed …”

      Journalists don’t speculate. They report.

      Walter Payton died in 1999. He was cremated, which means there were no studies on his brain, and no studies that can ever be done on his brain. Right now, if we distance ourselves from the frenzy, two players—Andre Waters and Dave Duerson—have had their craniums studied, post-death, to determine that the physicality of football impacted their depressions.

  6. Interesting that you open your defense with John Kerry – who was accused by many veterans of embellishing his Vietnam War service. Yet it appears that most of the criticisms of your book, from friends and family members, is that you didn’t embellish Payton’s career – or at least take out the parts that made him look bad.

  7. My favorite part of this whole thing is that the Tribune never called to check and see if they were interviewed. Just another reason people have lost faith in papers. How easy is it to check facts? Is that to much to ask? When did they become FOX News?

  8. Michael David Smith

    Jeff, I’ve admired you for years and you’re one of the people who made me want to get into sports writing myself.

    My question is how have your attitudes toward journalism and the media changed, now that you’ve been the subject of so much media coverage?

    For instance, a previous commenter mentioned having less faith in newspapers in part because the Tribune accused you of not interviewing people close to Payton, without bothering to interview you to find out if that’s the case. Have you started to re-think your own attitudes and assumptions about the media now that you’ve been on the other side of it? Do you think that will change the way you practice journalism yourself going forward?

    1. Great question. Being 100% honest, I’ve lost a lot of respect for the Chicago media. With the exception of some absolute greats (Rick Telander at the top of the list), they seem to be a homerish group of folk who have decided, collectively, to thrash the book (pre-release; prior to reading it), then ignore it.

  9. Jeff,

    Thanks for your effort. I am a lifelong Chicago Bears fan (in some of my earliest photos as a toddler I am wearing a Payton jersey :)), but I can appreciate an honest approach to documenting Payton’s life and his struggles. I just listened to your interview from Oct. 27 on Bears Claws Radio and appreciated your candor.

    Unfortunately, we live in a culture that adores its idols and can’t handle the fact of their humanity. I say that it only helps us to learn more from their lives. Thanks again.

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