JEFF PEARLMAN

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

Dicka

So Eddie Payton has a new book out, Walter & Me, that is (I’m pretty certain) intended to counter Sweetness.

Contrary (I’m guessing) to some beliefs, I’ve got zero beef with Eddie. In the course of researching Sweetness, he granted me two lengthy sit-down interviews, and guided me toward many of the key figures from Walter’s life, including Bud Holmes (his agent) and Bob Hill (his coach at Jackson State). Even though I don’t love some of the things Eddie wrote in Walter & Me, I understand a man defending and trying to define his late brother.

That being said …

The book’s introduction is written by Mike Ditka, a person I consider to be, unambiguously, stupid. I would call Ditka’s brain rock-like, only I feel it could be interpreted as an insult to some of the world’s fine rocks. Ditka is, in no particular order, a dolt, a bully, a thug, a moron, an ass and a fool. He also happens to be the man who coached the Bears to the Super Bowl XX title, which means he can do no wrong in his adopted hometown of Chicago.

I, however, don’t live in Chicago. Therefore, my reverence toward the man doesn’t exist.

Back when Sports Illustrated ran the Sweetness excerpt, Ditka told a television reporter that, were he to see me, he’d spit on me. Admittedly, Iron Mike had yet to read (or see) the book. But, hey, why should he? Tough is tough, strong is strong, right is right. Of course, a couple of days later, on Dan LeBatard’s radio show, Ditka admitted he probably jumped the gun, and should have given more thought to his words. “OK,” I thought. “Peace reigns.”

Today, however, I read Ditka’s introduction. Here is part of what he wrote …

“And when it comes to someone writing about my friend, I have to ask, how well did the writer really know him? Did he grow up with him? Was he on the field with him? Did he live with him? Was he a parent? Was he a coach? Was he a player? In the case of Jeff Pearlman, the answer to those questions is, “no.” Pearlman wrote a book about Walter, but it was written from a distance. It was all secondhand. He put together a few things he’d heard—some of them from people who have very little credibility—to paint a picture that just doesn’t look much like the Walter I knew …

“He’ll always hold a high place in my book, and you couldn’t pay me enough to ever crack open the cover of Pearlman’s book. I know he tried to say you can’t just look in the excerpts, but I saw all I needed to see in those excerpts. It’s pathetic to write something like that about an individual who isn’t here to defend himself. If the person has passed and can’t respond, then just let the speculation rest with him. Period.”

Where to begin? Hmm … how about here—what sort of fool rips a book he hasn’t read? This might be hard for Ditka to fathom, but most people tear apart a book … after completing it. This, of course, would require Ditka to read 480 pages, something I doubt he’s ever done. In fact, I’m willing to accept 100-to-one odds he never read Eddie’s book, which is about half the size of mine.

Second, I love how Mike Ditka has taken ownership of Walter Payton, and feels comfortable in discussing his legacy. If Ditka knew Walter so well, how was he thoroughly, 100-percent unaware of his late-life despondency and depression? If Ditka was so tight with his former halfback, why didn’t he help him out with the emotional problems that so plagued him? Where was Mike Ditka when Walter Payton needed him?

Furthermore, in all those years of slamming Walter Payton into defensive lines, did he ever think, “Hmm, perhaps I should give him a rest?” Did he ever think, “Maybe this pounding is too much?” It’s easy now, years later, for Ditka to talk about all the wounded warriors and how much help they need with the physical and mental beatings NFL life offered. But where was such judgement when he was coaching? Where was Mike Ditka then?

Lastly, I love “a few things he heard.” Love it. Sweetness took me 2 1/2 years. I interviewed almost 700 people—including Mike Ditka. And more than 100 NFL teammates. And dozens upon dozens upon dozens of classmates from high school and college. And on and on and on. Sweetness was my labor of love; something I put my heart into.

I could understand Mike Ditka disliking the book. I could understand Mike Ditka ripping it in an introduction that, we all know, he didn’t write and probably didn’t even review.

What I can’t understand is his pride in blind idiocy.

That’s just pathetic.