He's still Sweetness

A new book goes to great lengths to essentially tell us that Walter Payton was flawed. Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Let me start by saying that Walter Payton was my last childhood athletic hero. There had been Ditka and Butkus and Sayers before him, when I was a little-bitty kid, but I was 16 when Payton was a rookie. The Bears had been, well, dreck pretty much since I was 4 and there were no illusions of serious contention during his first few years either. But his prolific performances, particularly in his breakout 1977 season, let us stop grieving the early departure of Sayers and undoubtedly lifted the city's collective spirit. So I'm not about to pretend that I'm objective or neutral about Payton.

But as someone who grew up to become a sportswriter and understand the job requires a critical and unvarnished look at the men who are almost always somebody's heroes, I'm trying to understand the exact purpose of writing a book, 12 years after Payton's depressing death at 45, that goes to agonizing lengths to tell us essentially that Payton was flawed.

I'm not suggesting I don't believe Jeff Pearlman's reporting for "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton;" Pearlman's a pro with two best-sellers to his credit. And he had on-the-record conversations with longtime Payton representative Bud Holmes and former personal assistant Ginny Quirk. The point isn't to question Pearlman's accuracy, but to question his purpose in writing the book. What's the literary mission here?

From what we've seen of the excerpts in Sports Illustrated, Payton's big sins seem to be he allegedly took a lot of painkillers, and he cheated on his wife. The easy rationale is that the NFL's primary citizenship award is named after Payton and you could spend years trying to hammer the NFL as being hypocritical, not that Payton ever asked for the award to be named for him. But what so much reporting, even detailed and accurate reporting, fails miserably at these days is providing context.

One of the reasons Payton is in the discussion for greatest player in NFL history is his durability. If you had told me at 27 years old, by which time I had started covering pro football for The Washington Post and had come to know Payton, that my one-time hero was self-medicating, perhaps illegally, with painkillers, my reaction would probably have been, "Yeah, I can see that."

Payton missed one game in 13 years, in a career that was celebrated because he essentially never ran out of bounds and believed his longevity was due to dishing out punishment as much as taking it. Either way, Payton had to be in a ton of pain for a great many years. One of the things we've come to know, as research tells us more about head injuries football players suffer, is that injuries were often kept from the players themselves and their ways of simply getting through the day and managing the pain was kept from pretty much all of us.

If Pearlman, when we have more than excerpts, deals with Payton's use of painkillers in the greater context of pro football in the 1970s and 1980s, then perhaps I'll drop the objection. Surely he won't suggest that Tylenol and Vicodin, nitrous oxide and Ritalin, which he says were Payton's favorites, weren't even eyebrow-raising for that period of time.

It wasn't rare, wasn't uncommon, might have even been pretty standard. Regrettable? Sure. But at that time and in the culture Payton operated in, it damn sure wasn't scandalous. I know too many players older than Payton and too many of his peers that confided over the years I covered the NFL that they had to take something for the pain, even as they looked away from the eyes of their wives, who had to help them out of bed every Monday and Tuesday at least.

As for cheating on his wife, Connie, who Pearlman himself indicates knew of the infidelities, how relevant is it (once again) that a famous athlete slept around? Isn't this a little like "Dog Bites Man?" My friend Jason Whitlock, as the Tiger Woods sex scandal began to build, wrote rather hilariously, "I don't care about any recreational sex that doesn't involve me."

I'm tired of journalists, under cover of painting a complete portrait, deciding the world is a better place for knowing whom public figures are sleeping with. This isn't news, it's pandering, especially when the man in question has been dead for 12 years and can't defend himself (something I thought Payton paid Bud Holmes all those years to do).

Payton wasn't an elected official obliged to share with us every predilection. He carried a football, and better than just about anybody else in football history by the way. He ran with a style that suggested artist as much as running back. He was perhaps the best blocker ever among running backs, the best pass catcher among running backs back when he played and Marshall Faulk hadn't yet been invented.

If he wasn't the runner Jim Brown was, Payton was likely a more complete player, and I don't ever recall him bringing embarrassment to the Bears or to the city of Chicago or being a civic nuisance. So to balance the books and prove years later than he wasn't perfect I now need to know whom he was sharing his bed with?

The Tiger Woods "He's-making-a-ton-of-money-off-his-image" justification isn't even in play here because Payton made next-to-nothing off his image. He didn't have any national endorsement deals that amounted to anything. Payton spent half his time, if you ask the beat writers in Chicago who covered him, hiding from the press. He didn't defraud anybody or present himself as a paragon of virtue.

You can't even accurately accuse him of misleading the children who idolized him. I know. I was one of them. The fact that he had his mistress and his wife at his Hall of Fame induction in 1993 is titillating, but it sure as hell doesn't change the way I feel about the way he ran the sweep behind Revie Sorey and Noah Jackson, or stiff-armed linebackers 30 pounds heavier or took the Vikings for a then-record 275 yards.

What I am interested in, and I don't know yet to what degree Pearlman pursues this issue, is whether Payton's talk of suicide suggests he had suffered the kind of head injuries that might have left him with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which we knew virtually nothing about when Payton died, yet now know affected potentially a great many players during Payton's playing days (1975-87), including perhaps his teammate Dave Duerson who took his own life months ago.

Was Payton in constant pain when he talked of suicide? Was he already suffering from the early stages of bile duct cancer and the liver disease primary sclerosing cholangitis, which killed him? Or are we to think these were just the rantings of an out-of-control prima donna? If there's true cultural value to be derived from looking back at Payton's life without glorifying him, which surely isn't necessary either, it probably lies in what playing every single game save one over 13 seasons at running back might have done not just to a player we look at (maybe mistakenly) as indestructible but to an entire generation of players.

Otherwise, it comes to me as no shock that Payton was no angel, that he was imperfect and at times behaved in churlish ways, just like our fathers and uncles and brothers and coaches. But is that the bar we're setting now, that anything short of exemplary at some point should bring shame? I'm wondering how many of our heroes, anybody's heroes, can live up to that.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.