Sweetness by Jeff Pearlman

I’m a Chicago Bears fan.  Walter Payton was one of my role models as a child.  While I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the sports heroes of my youth get knocked from the pedestals they were placed upon, Walter Payton was the one man I still looked up to as an adult.  Not just for his accomplishments on the football field, but for the way he seemed to conduct himself off the field.  Payton came across as a humble man who did not turn away from being a role model.

Which is not to suggest I viewed Payton as a deity.  His autobiography “Never Die Easy” alludes to marital difficulties and battling depression, without getting into the ugly details.  Now we have a book that provides those details, and a whole lot more, in Jeff Pearlman’s “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.”

Pearlman’s book has created a firestorm, which he had to know was coming.  During interviews defending his book, he insists the excerpts from Sports Illustrated were just a small portion of his book, and do not tell the whole story.  Don’t judge a book by its cover (or its publicity).

Since I enjoyed his book “When The Bad Guys Won,” I bit the bullet and read “Sweetness.”

I’m glad I did.

“Never Die Easy” and the video “Pure Payton” really just touch upon Payton’s playing career. “Sweetness” gives an in-depth look at his days in Chicago: his struggles as a rookie (in which the Bears questioned Payton’s work ethic), his emergence as a superstar despite no offensive line, details of his record-setting performance against the Vikings, breaking Jim Brown’s rushing record, the 1985 Bears, and Payton’s last days as a player (with the Bears essentially pushing him out the door).

Lots of interesting details are revealed: Payton’s icy relationship with fellow Bears running back legend Gale Sayers, his thoughts on Jim Brown, and arguably the biggest professional disappointment of his career-Super Bowl XX.

While the NFL days are my favorite part, the book is more than just a look at Payton’s NFL career. You get an extensive look into Walter’s upbringing in post-Jim Crow but still segregated Mississippi, his college days at Jackson State, his mischievous side, his moodiness, and the highly-publicized shortcomings in his personal life.

My main concern was whether Pearlman would dedicate as much effort to Payton’s positive attributes as he did to Payton’s shortcomings. I believe he does. Payton’s role in his high school’s integration is pretty damn heroic. His compassion with children was genuine. In the end, Payton comes off as a flawed role model. Flawed, but still a role model.

Pearlman’s reporting in this book has come under fire, and not just because of the personal shortcomings he exposes. The Payton family sent out a press release stating some of the book’s details are “untrue.” Connie Payton, Walter’s widow, disputes one of the book’s juicier revelations.

The one aspect of the book I question deals with religion. One of Payton’s closest confidants is quoted as saying Walter was “not religious.” Pearlman writes that Payton would have “cringed” with the overt religiosity expressed at his funeral. Is it that Payton would have cringed, or is it that Pearlman cringed, as the author has made his antagonism towards fundamental Christianity abundantly clear on his personal blog. At Payton’s funeral, Walter’s son Jarrett spoke that Walter taught him we are all “children of God.” Kimm Tucker, the director of Payton’s charitable foundation, wrote in “Never Die Easy” that she and Walter talked about “how magnificent spending eternity with Jesus would be.”

Which side is correct? Ultimately that is something the reader needs to decide on their own.

Even with these questions, there is no disputing that Pearlman did thorough research. Whether the details exposed in this book are appropriate is something, again, people will need to decide on their own. If reading about Payton’s personal tribulations won’t bother you, then you’ll love this book. If you think it should be off-limits, then avoid the book and purchase a highlight DVD instead, and remember Payton as the greatest player in NFL history.

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