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NFL exposés: Walter Payton, Peter Gent

The movie of "North Dallas Forty," starring Nick Nolte and Mac Davis, also de-mythologized the NFL Paramount Pictures

There is a convulsive outbreak of weepy hysteria among football fanatics this week -- and I don't just mean Jets fans. So a fast couple of words on greatness and weakness and pain, on sweetness and light, on telling the truth and saying goodbye, on art and love and the making of both, on institutional amnesia and weapons-grade nostalgia.

As the Buddha -- who must have spent some time on an NFL medical staff -- once said, "Life is suffering."

Start here. Peter Gent died Friday. He was 69 years old. Five decades ago, he played some football for the Dallas Cowboys. Much more importantly, he spun those seasons into a novel, "North Dallas Forty." First published in 1973, it's the story of how professional football makes you rich and famous and ruins your life.

It was a mordant black comedy at a time when mordant black comedy could actually sell sports books, and when a kind of coruscating and deeply adult honesty was briefly in vogue. Like Dan Jenkins' 1972 novel "Semi-Tough," it presented drugs and sex and racism and moral absurdity and every variation of ethical and practical corruption as being foundational to the game of football. These books were very much in the mode of other books in that long gone, bad haircut, counterculture time.

Dave Meggyesy's 1970 nonfiction breakthrough "Out of Their League" arrived on shelves the same year as Jim Bouton's landmark "Ball Four." By not "godding up the ballplayers," both pulled back the curtain on the big American sports circus and its squalid cast of clowns and villains and junkies. Both detailed its square john hypocrisies. Both revealed that the needle was taken occupationally as well as recreationally, and that women were what you had back at the team hotel before the invention of PlayStation. Both were roundly shouted down at length by the establishment.

And all those just mentioned have long since become classics.

Which seems odd to say in these not-very-bright and buttoned-down times. In fact, a great deal of what would now be called anti-establishment work was being done back then in the mainstream. It alarmed the critics and sold like mad. This was contemporaneous to all that attempted truth-telling and anti-institutional journalism coming out of Vietnam, too. Much of which was being done by the previous occupant of this chair at ESPN, the late David Halberstam.

Mr. Halberstam would have been the first to insist that we not confuse fiction with nonfiction, and that we not mistake biography -- the telling of a life -- for hagiography -- the burnishing of a legend. Which was football's big trouble last week, it turns out, as lots of folks who should know better took exception to a new biography of Walter Payton.

Without commenting on the book itself, I will insist that Walter 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.

In that way, he was an artist. And he joins thousands more artists who precede him and follow him and are the sum not only of their gifts, but of their neuroses and night terrors and addictions.

His flaws should make him more dear to us rather than less so. More inspiring. More heroic. Look what he was able to do. To be that fast and strong and focused while carrying the weight of all those secret burdens? Isn't that the lesson? Isn't that what we should teach?

We should all be smarter about this stuff by now, shouldn't we? About the realities and costs of sports? About the true price of things? About what it means to be human? Instead, over the years, we recede even more deeply into our fantasies, burrow further into our ignorance. We infantilize ourselves. It's crazy.

You'll hear people say that professional football is a different game now. It is not. It is the same game it's always been. As many zeroes as have been added to the bottom line, as much corporate spectacle as has been grafted onto it by advertisers and broadcasters, as many new safety measures as the league imposes on itself and its officials and its players, the fundamental nature of professional football remains unchanged. As remorseless as natural selection, it is a brutal contest of muscle and will and adaptation.

It still makes men rich and famous and it still ruins them. To pretend otherwise is dishonest. To pretend otherwise blunts the edge of reality, makes everything safe and two-dimensional, makes every one of us flat and harmless, lets every one of us off too easy and condemns every one of us forever to the pages of a children's book.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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