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Bears legend Payton ‘a puzzle with pieces missing’ as illustrated in Pearlman biography

Of course, Jeff Pearlman wanted the excerpt to run in Sports Illustrated. What better billboard for his Walter Payton biography? But selling your work to a magazine comes with trade-offs. The magazine’s editors choose what they print. Mostly, they stick to the author’s words, but not always. In the line editing they may lose a nuance, may drop a word that changes the tone. In small ways to them, in big ways to the writer, the magazine presents a book that is not quite the writer’s book. Too often, the editors seem to say, “Who needs context?  We need the scandal, the sordid, the soul-sucking sensation.”

Make no mistake, it’s all in “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” The difference is, Pearlman’s reporting prepares the reader for it. In recreating Payton’s world – from the segregation of 1960s Mississippi to 1980s National Football League celebrity – Pearlman makes the long, sad denouement of the star’s life seem inevitable.

Before the book went on sale, SI‘s excerpt became a news story. The news was Pearlman had trashed the hero. Michael Wilbon, a veteran columnist and television commentator, was among the riled-up Chicagoans. “The point isn’t to question Pearlman’s accuracy,” he wrote, “but to question his purpose in writing the book. What’s the literary mission here?”

The mission was to tell a man’s life story. If Pearlman’s 180,000 words went too far or not far enough, each reader has to decide. In such cases, I always fall back on the advice of the late, great San Diego columnist Jack Murphy. “We should write,” he said, “with the restraint born of good taste.” To my taste, Pearlman’s book was out of balance: too much travail, not enough triumph. But Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports wrote that he “found it to be an incredible, thoughtful, deep and profound read.” ESPN.com’s Jeff MacGregor wrote that Payton “was great not because he was more than human or less than human, but because he was fully human. Beset by the same fears and weaknesses and appetites that overtake us all, he was able to outrun himself to create beauty and meaning.”

My pal John Schulian, once a Chicago columnist, was asked by Bronx Banter‘s Alex Belth if Payton’s troubles surprised him. “I was sorry to read about what had become of Payton’s life,” Schulian said, “but not necessarily surprised.” After all, every athlete dies twice, first as a player. “And when the athlete is a star of Payton’s magnitude, the withdrawal can be crippling. . . . Just think of the emptiness in Payton’s life – the cheating, the painkillers, the mountains of junk food, the inability to latch onto something that would give him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. And this was a hero whose name will always be revered in Chicago. But fame couldn’t save him any more than the doctors who treated his cancer could. That should tell people how much fame is worth, but they’ll forget as soon as the next hero comes along.”

For all of Pearlman’s reporting, I wanted more. If ever a story called for close examination of the physical costs of football, Payton’s did. A teammate, Dave Duerson, killed himself with a gunshot to the chest rather than to the head – so his brain might be studied for the damage it suffered in his decade as an NFL player. Here was Payton, whose toughness was legendary – a toughness symbolized by his choice to run into defenders rather than minimize contact by running out of bounds. For 13 seasons, almost four times the average NFL running back’s career span, Payton sought out collisions. Yet, if Pearlman’s book even mentions Duerson, I missed the reference. It certainly never asked, “How did thousands of blows to the head affect Payton’s behavior?”

I was around Payton only once.

It was an icicle of a day, January in Chicago.

It was the last game of his career. After all the other Bears had gone to the locker room, he sat alone on the team’s bench in Soldier Field. From somewhere came a woman’s shout, “Chicago loves you, Walter!” An old man called out, “One more year, Walter. You can still do it.” As Payton rose to leave, tens of thousands of fans chanted, “Walter . . . Walter.” He never looked up until he entered a dark tunnel. Then he blinked against tears.

I followed him to his cubicle in the locker room.

He stayed in his uniform. He wore his helmet. He let his head fall back against a wall, and a player said, “You OK?”

Payton’s eyes were closed. His voice was tiny. “I’m just taking my time taking it off. This is the last time I take it off.”

An old Chicago newspaperman, Bill Gleason, sat by him. Of two dozen reporters  there, none spoke. Then Payton said to Gleason, “You going to miss me?”

“Absolutely,” Gleason said, and then asked, “You going to miss this?” He meant the locker room.

“No, not too bad,” Payton said.

“What I’m going to remember,” Gleason said, “is how much fun you were.”

Payton said, “That’s the main reason I was playing, to have fun.”

I wrote most of those words that day. But I didn’t use another piece of the day’s locker room dialogue. A photographer called out, “Hey, Walter . . .” Payton said in a whisper meant to be heard,  “Thirteen damn years, and I’m still Walter, not Mr. Payton.”

How odd, I thought. Odd, that on a day when he seemed universally loved, Payton would allow himself a moment of bitterness. I had no idea what it meant except that it meant more than I, a stranger to Payton’s manner, could explain on deadline. Now, almost 24 years later, I understand that moment – because now I have read Pearlman’s book.

It shows Payton not so much as an enigma as a puzzle with pieces missing. He had talent that he raised to its highest levels. He earned fame and wealth. Yet there was in him an emptiness that nothing could fill. The more he accomplished, the greater his need for affirmation; the more he was loved, the greater his need for love. He knew glory. He never knew contentment.

That day in the Bears’ locker room, Payton slowly put his gear into a bag. He pulled on jeans and clicked shut the clasp of a diamond-studded watch. He touched his neck with a spray of perfume. Then he sprayed a few puffs of the stuff onto the sportswriters, the perfume locked in combat with smoke rising from Bill Gleason’s cigar. Twelve years later, at age 46, Walter Payton was dead.

Dave Kindred’s latest book, “Morning Miracle,” is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached by email at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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