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Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Beyond the headlines

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

Payton
Jeff Pearlman said he loved Walter Payton more after writing his book. Readers may agree.
CHICAGO -- Don't say you won't read it. That's all I ask.

Declaring a personal boycott on a book you haven't read is dangerous territory in a country where SAT reading scores have dropped to record lows and journalism is under attack.

I don't want get up on a bully pulpit here, but if you're a Bears fan who caught a whiff of controversy in the Sports Illustrated excerpt of "Sweetness, The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton" and declared, "I will not read this book!" please reconsider.

If you're a Bears fan you'd be missing out by not reading Jeff Pearlman's exhaustive take on the Bears' Hall of Famer.

And you would definitely be missing out if you're a diehard Walter Payton fan who would like nothing more than to put Pearlman in the Octagon with Mongo and the Danimal.

Because what you're missing out on is a revealing look into the life of Chicago's sporting saint.

If you do read it, you have to be able to accept a harsh reality: Walter Payton wasn't perfect, but he was a fantastic football player who came to symbolize a franchise and a city. I feel the same about the book. It's not perfect, but it represents Payton and the rare life of the American legend.

Pearlman, who has evolved into a prolific biographer, documents the life of Payton in minutiae-laden totality. The result isn't always pretty for Payton, and definitely not for his family, but the end result is a must-have book for any Chicago diehard.

I guarantee that even after the infidelities and insecurities have been broached -- almost ad nauseam, I must admit -- you'll still be tearing up at the end when Payton gets sick and passes away from cancer.

And you will have new respect for the legendary running back who came from segregated Louisiana and conquered modern Chicago.

After ripping through the book -- I wanted to read it before I wrote about it -- I can say the disgust laid at Pearlman's name by Mike Ditka and others was mostly for naught. As Pearlman tried to explain in radio interviews and in print, this is a definitive work of scholarship into the life of a man who came to define the Chicago Bears, and that means there is bad to go with the good.

But this isn't a book intended to bring down Payton. In fact, it adds to his legend. There is no shame in showing the chinks in Payton's armor, and while those passages can certainly be ugly, they provide a valuable counterweight to the love shown to the often disarming Payton.

Walter Payton SI Cover
An upcoming book on Walter Payton paints a picture of a troubled star.

Through hard work, Pearlman makes a legend seem relatable to the millions of fans who never got to know him. He takes pains to tell stories of great kindness and plumb the depths of a man who lived a complex, public life.

It's a big book, 435 pages to the end of the acknowledgements, but it's a quick read, with prose that gallops like Payton in the open field. I bought it on a Tuesday morning (no freebies here) and finished it Wednesday evening.

I don't know Pearlman, but as a collector and lover of sports books, I feel an obligation to defend his work.

Aside from the tawdry affairs and the sad news of an illegitimate child (the bad stuff isn't concentrated like it was in the excerpt), you will learn new things about Payton. Like how he got the "Sweetness" nickname, how he missed his first press conference in Chicago, how he interacted with his teammates, and his humbling, all-too-human reaction to winning the Super Bowl. Fans of a certain age will reminisce over his many triumphs. Pearlman seems to recount a half-dozen Payton runs that are the best of all time. His interviews produce a voluminous library of Payton's athletic feats as well.

But to get to those bits, you've got to read the book.

The initial reaction to the more scandalous revelations in the book in the city was a bit over the top. The very idea of journalism, telling the truth, was on trial.

One of the strangest questions I heard, and I heard it several times by actual journalists, was: "Why write this now?" I was flabbergasted.

When he was just 26, Pearlman interviewed Payton for Sports Illustrated when he announced his illness, wrote the book because he's an author who writes sports books. A publishing company paid him for his labor, which took several years. A magazine published an excerpt it thought was original and likely to boost sales. This isn't rocket science.

The reaction is reminiscent, I assume, of the outrage when Jim Bouton published "Ball Four," which dared to unravel the mystique of Mickey Mantle and others, and it's probably the most similar to the reaction when Chicago journalist Sam Smith pulled back the curtain on Michael Jordan and the Bulls in "The Jordan Rules." No one wants their heroes unmasked, I suppose.

But what the response to the book really tells us is that Payton's legacy is bulletproof. Nearly 12 years after his death, Payton's affair with Chicago sports fans is ongoing, and they feel protective of him and it. I like that, actually.

Michael Jordan has a steakhouse and a statue and all those banners, but Payton has the city's heart. And the fans just simply couldn't take an outsider (and a writer no less) chiseling at Payton's legacy.

The baby boomers among us who have found the sad truths of adulthood in the decades since his Bears debut still want something pure from their past to hang onto. We know too much about everyone now, some wondered, so why not show some restraint?

To that I say, it's a tough world, even for Walter Payton.

I think, and some would disagree, revealing the bad about Payton reminded people of the good. While Payton's teammates on the 1985 Bears have mostly aged gracefully as ubiquitous personalities in the city -- being an '85 Bear is a like having a fat pension -- Payton is looked at as a saint.

And while that's wonderful to be so well-regarded, that kind of adulation strips away his humanity.

If you're under 35, you barely remember him as a football player at all. You just know the name. That's why, Ditka opines in the book, you still see hundreds of Payton jerseys at every game.

But beyond the conversation of why this book was written, and perhaps necessary, there is an actual book, and it's a success.

Pearlman is a best-selling author and he has the leeway to really dig in. This book took several years, and nearly 700 interviews, and the research shows. Like a lot of biographies, it gets ponderous at times, and surely there are things that could've been omitted, but it's an important piece of journalism. I am not from Chicago and I learned a great deal about Payton.

Reading about segregation in the South is a valuable reminder of the changes that have taken place in the last 40 years. Payton's football success in high school didn't really cause the end of separate schools in his town, but it certainly helped.

For Bears fans, it's not as comforting to remember how history repeats itself for this organization. The book goes over the pains it took for the Bears to become competitive during the bulk of Payton's career, as he plays with bad quarterbacks, bad offensive linemen, bad receivers and bad offensive coordinators before the organization shapes up.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Pearlman paints Payton as a complete, enigmatic character, a living, breathing icon. He doesn't cast harsh judgment on Payton's problems -- though his wife, Connie, who didn't participate in the book, doesn't come off well. I fully understand if his family doesn't want to read it.

But if you're accepting of a legend's failures, a total picture of Payton comes to light, thanks to the memories of teammates and close advisors and Pearlman's ability to weave them into a strong narrative.

Pearlman has stated that he loves Payton more than ever after writing this book. I have a feeling you will too.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.