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.