The love he received from fans was wonderful and great, but it wasn't real. The diehard Bears loyalist wearing the No. 34 jersey knew Walter Payton as a halfback, but he didn't know Walter Payton. Everything was surface and superficial. What would they think, Walter wondered, if they saw him away from the field, cheating incessantly and failing as a businessman?
When I was a kid, one of my favorite games I played with my brothers was called Walter Payton. My two big brothers would get on their knees in the front of the couch, guarding it like an end zone. Football in hand, my job was to jump, run, or somehow get past them to get onto the couch.
The game simulated one of Walter Payton's trademark moves: jumping over a line of defenders into the end zone.
Walter was such a hero of mine as a kid that when I was 14 I named my new cat-- a female cat-- Walter. Walter was a very sweet kitty, but I never called her by her namesake's nickname: Sweetness.
As a child, Walter wasn't a real person to me. He was a hero. Someone I looked up to merely by his virtue of being able to run a football really, really well.
So reading his latest biography, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman has been a real eye opener.
Or maybe it's just a lesson in growing up. A lesson that the black and white world of childhood becomes a lot more complicated when you see it with adult eyes.
Walter Payton was a great athlete, and meant a great deal to a lot of people. But he was still a human being, with human frailties and shortcomings.
And sometimes, he was just an asshole.
If I had to describe his life in one word, it would be tragic. Like so many great artists, his personal existence was often a tortured one. Two of his greatest moments, the day he won the Super Bowl and the day he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, were miserable experiences because of his own demons.
The day he won the Superbowl, I remember the indignation I felt on his behalf. Although the amazing '85 Bears scored 46 points in that game, Walter never scored a touchdown. Instead, late in the game they gave the ball to William "The Refrigerator" Perry to score. Perry was a rookie and a novelty. Payton was the long-suffering veteran and backbone of the team. When they brought Perry in on that goal-line play, I yelled at my TV: YOU BETTER GIVE THAT BALL TO WALTER. HE DESERVES A TOUCHDOWN! Instead, the Fridge got the touchdown. I was furious.
Afterward, the coach (Mike Ditka) and quarterback (Jim McMahon) both agreed that they dropped the ball on that one. They didn't realize Walter hadn't scored yet, but as a 15-year-old watching at home, I did. And I was incredulous.
I was a child. Walter was an adult, part of a team, a veteran and a leader. Yes, he got shafted, but it's still the pinnacle of any professional football player's career to be part of a winning Super Bowl team. After Walter's disappointing personal performance in the game, he shut himself in a broom closet and cried.
Question: Walter, you just won the Super Bowl! Where are you gonna go?
Answer: To the broom closet to mope.
Answer: To the broom closet to mope.
This is one of hundreds of examples of Walter acting petty and immature. He liked to play stupid and annoying pranks, like pulling down guys' pants, flicking their ears (?), or calling a teammate's house and in a female voice telling the guy's wife "she" was pregnant with her husband's child. Classy. He cheated on his wife with his mistress. He cheated on his mistress with several other women. He fathered an illegitimate child and then would have nothing to do with it (although he did support the mother financially.) He accidentally shot a manager at the restaurant he owned. He would drive his sports cars 120 mph in 30 mph zones.
He appeared to suffer from bipolar disorder and ADHD. After he retired he would call his personal assistant, a young lady named Ginny, 30-50 times a day, at any time day or night. He lost oodles and oodles of money on failed business ventures. He threatened to kill himself dozens of times.
Despite all that, people close to him were very loyal. He touched many lives in personal ways. As his assistant said, "People loved Walter. People were drawn to him." For every story of him acting immature or irresponsibly, there is a story of him giving his time or attention or encouragement to someone who really needed it. They talk about how he was always laughing. Even though he was the superstar of the team, he went out of his way to make the newcomers feel welcome. He visited sick children. He set up foundations and charities. When a teammate made a terrible mistake that lost the game, he would console them. There are plenty of stories of how he touched someone with a simple, kind, generous, or supportive gesture.
As Pearlman writes at the end of the book, "Has I so desired, I could have written a seven-hundred-page book consisting solely of You're-not-gonna-believe-this stories of Payton's goodness."
Long before I read this book, Walter Payton had stopped being my hero. Growing up will do that. But after reading this book, I realize that my hero was just a caricature to begin with. I only knew him as a running back, and that's all that mattered.
Perhaps a better nickname for Walter Payton would be Bittersweetness.