Jeff Pearlman’s Sweetness

Jeff Pearlman’s book Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton was released in October 2010 to a flurry of controversy. I appreciated that Pearlman and his publisher Gotham Books sent me a review copy. Due to a backlog of reading material, I didn’t get to starting it until December. It has taken me until now to not only find the time, but to do justice to the book with what I hope is a proper review.

Pearlman has written for Sports Illustrated and is an author of several sports best sellers, including stories on the 1986 New York Mets and the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990′s. (I just finished Boys Will Be Boys as well, and it was a riot.) In 1999 he was sent to interview Walter Payton, just after the Bears legend publicly revealed the illness that would take his life.

Before going any further, I should not only disclose, but proudly say, I am a Walter Payton fan. When I became a Bears fan in 1979, Payton was Chicago Bears football. He is all it was, as grammatically poor as that sounds. But it’s true. In 2002 I wrote the obligatory Payton story for my website, detailing all that those like me knew about him. We emulated him. We all wanted to follow in his footsteps as professional sports stars for our local professional team. He was an outstanding human being, a role model, someone everyone should strive to be like.

Certainly I couldn’t have been naive enough when I wrote that to think that any human being could be perfect. But looking back on the glowing article I wrote after reading Payton’s autobiography penned by Don Yaeger, it might seem that I did.

Pearlman details why he chose Walter Payton as the subject of his fifth book on his website. The back story makes a lot of sense to me. Just before the firestorm blew up when the book was released, Pearlman posted on this blog alluding to the fact that this book would be released shortly. And as he speaks to in the back story, I admit my first thought was “another Payton book…yawn.” The 1985 Bears in my opinion have been covered to death–I don’t know how many more of the same stories I can put myself through reading, so my initial stereotypical thoughts were unwarranted. I should have recalled that I had the same initial reaction to Steve Delsohn’s 2010 book Da Bears, that once again covered the 1985 world champs. I was pleasantly surprised by that book-enjoyed it-so perhaps I shouldn’t have judged the new Payton book so quickly.

That’s a great unintended segue. Speaking of quite literally judging a book by its cover-at the time of Sweetness’ release, the Chicago media quickly picked up on the “disturbing picture” painted of Payton in the book.

Payton’s former teammates, family members, regular Joes (and some of the loyal readers of my blog I might mention) quickly responded in horror. The general implication I took away from the firestorm was “how could this guy trash Payton’s public image in the pursuit of making money! How dare he! In order to make money, he revealed details on the life of one of Chicago’s most cherished public figures! Why couldn’t he just leave Payton’s family alone! All to make money!” (These are what I took to be others’ opinions, not mine).

I personally found one particular public comment to be most hilarious, and given that I don’t have much time at all to watch anything on television, it’s amazing I actually saw it. Lou Canellis is a journalist that has been covering Chicago sports for several decades and is currently a sports anchor for Fox-32 in Chicago. The day the revelations in Pearlman’s book broke, Canellis deviated from his role as an unbiased journalist to rip Pearlman from his anchor seat. I don’t remember his exact words, but his rant focused on the fact that the author tarnished Payton’s image in order to make money, and stated that if the book wasn’t about making money, why doesn’t Pearlman donate the proceeds to the Walter and Connie Payton foundation or something to that effect.

Doesn’t Canellis work for a living to make money? Don’t we all? Even Walter’s son Jarrett came to the defense of Pearlman after the uproar, acknowledging that we all have to make a living. I found it to be downright comical that Canellis, who is a journalist like Pearlman and should know what journalism is, would rip the author for doing a good job at the vocation he chose to pursue-being an investigative journalist.

In my undergraduate days at Illinois State, I briefly wrote for the school’s newspaper, the Daily Vidette. Ironically since I’ve been struggling with writing this review properly, I found what I think is the most fitting quote. Via a Facebook group for the paper’s alumni, I recently read an article by another Vidette alum. It happened to be the last article she wrote before she died from cancer. In this article she summed up nicely the role of a journalist-like it or not, agree with it or not:

“Journalists get to experience the wonder of life; we’re voyeurs of peoples’ lives. It is a sort of perverse peek into the wonder of the human experience. And a compulsive desire to know it all.”

Nicely said, Janeen. Here is a journalist that spent her career at smallish Central Illinois newspapers, and she “gets” it. Whether the general public likes it or not, journalists pursue this career as their passion because they enjoy getting to and sharing the facts. Why an anchor at a major Chicago television station makes statements that he doesn’t “get” this is beyond me.

Most of the friends, family, Payton colleagues and regular Joe’s that shared their reaction to the media coverage of Sweetness’ release stated that they will never read this book. Yet they’re rushing to this judgment based on a very small portion of what the book covers. Maybe if they actually read the book as I did, they would find that Pearlman did a great job of telling a fair and accurate story of Payton’s life from beginning to end. In my estimate, less than five percent of the book is made up of “stunning new revelations” about the life of the legend that we didn’t know. Regardless of how the media portrayed the book, the author does not baselessly rip Payton in an effort to destroy the subject’s public image. I am quite certain after reading it that for every person interviewed that said something derogatory about the running back, there is at least one quote from someone defending him and emphasizing the great things Payton did in his life. And despite the new revelations of marital strife, infidelity and questionable health choices, Pearlman does cover the many good things Payton did. I think this was totally lost in the initial coverage of the book, which is not fair.

But life isn’t fair. I think I’m a pretty open-minded guy. I honestly think that I respect everyone’s opinion even if I don’t agree with it. I know there are many, including some of my loyal readers, that feel it was wrong for Pearlman to publish heretofore unknown details about Payton’s private life. In my opinion, reality is that people that gain fortunes in the public view and are thus interesting subjects do have lives as open books to the general public. Like it or not, that is what it is. But again I do respect the opinions of those that that think it was off limits for the writer to report on what he learned from three years of interviewing hundreds of people that knew Payton. I respect the opinion of those that feel this way, but I don’t agree with that opinion.

Getting to the meat of the book finally, I thought it was riveting and I enjoyed reading it immensely. Since I have learned everything I can about Chicago Bears History over the years, I am amazed when a book comes out that presents new information. There is enough new Bears info in this book that it could stand on its own even without the Payton storyline. In the book the reader gets a real good picture of how dysfunctional the organization and teams were under Jack Pardee and Neill Armstrong. Hyperbolically speaking, I was so immersed in this section that I thought I could smell the smoke from one of the 100+ Kool cigarettes General Manager Jim Finks allegedly smoked per day.

There are too many stories within the book that I loved to name them all, but most notably, the prank that Payton and his agent Bud Holmes pulled with then-local Chicago reporter Brent Musburger on the air was priceless. I had never read about that before. I also remember some strange terms in Payton’s contracts, and that also is fully explained. Who remembers that in 1984, Payton signed a deal that paid him and his family an annuity of $240,000 for forty years to keep him from jumping to the USFL? Great info.

After having read Sweetness, I am still a huge fan of Walter Payton the Chicago Bear. And contrary to what many might think, I might even respect him more as a person, knowing that he was subject to the same human frailties that affect me. This is why I think many would be surprised at how much they would enjoy the book-if they would just read it.

Buy the book.

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