Twelve years ago today the world lost one of the best players to ever play in the NFL, running back Walter Payton.
He battled bile-duct cancer and died at the age of 45. Payton, often referred to as “Sweetness”, played all of his 13 NFL seasons with the Chicago Bears, missing only one game.
During that span, Payton was voted to the Pro Bowl nine times, won the MVP two times, the Super Bowl once and is a Hall of Famer.
He is simply one of the best players to ever take the field. He is rated as the #5 player of all-time by NFL.com.
Author and Sports Illustrated columnist Jeff Pearlman decided to take matters into his own hands and write a book about the great Walter Payton, titled Sweetness: The Enigmatic of Walter Payton.
Pearlman portrays the story of Payton’s life in great detail. He spent years compiling many different sources to make this book a success.
The book, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, has spent three weeks on the New York Times’ Best Sellers list.
I had a chance to catch up with Jeff this past week during the Bears bye and he gave me the inside scoop on everything you need to know about Walter Payton and the making of the book itself.
Q: What inspired you to write this book about Bears running back Walter Payton? When did you decide you we’re going to write it?
A: Decided about three years ago. Inspiration was Payton himself. Fascinating man, iconic, beloved—yet mysterious. We know him, yet know almost nothing about him. It’s funny. When Walter died he was eulogized for 45 great years. He was 46. When Walter was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, he talked about placing fourth in the 1975 Heisman voting. He placed 14th. He had the most famous nickname in football, yet nobody knew where it came from. Just a riveting, unique, enigmatic man.
Q: How long did it take for you to write the book? How many sources did you interview?
A: Overall it took 2 1/2 years and 678 interviews.
Q: Who was your favorite source and least favorite source? Why?
A: Favorite: Bob Hill, his Jackson State coach. Fascinating man, amazing memory, great stories and willing to share them. We met at his apartment in Mississippi, and all I’d heard were these stories about the fierce, sadistic Bob Hill; the one who tortured his players. Man, he was a joy. A teddybear. Just wonderful. Least favorite: Mmm … not sure. If people gave me time, I was appreciative.
Q: Which source was the hardest to convince to be part of the book?
A: No one comes to mind. Sorry to be lame. They either agree or don’t. I certainly don’t make threats or twist arms.
Q: How many interviews have you done since writing the book? Is it too many too count? Which one was your favorite?
A: Man, hundreds. I’d say my favorite was Morning Joe on MSNBC. So fun … rapped the Super Bowl Shuffle with one of the hosts toward the end. Joyful. Plus, gave my parents a highlight. Also, I loved the Payton documentary on the NFL Network. We sat down to watch it, and my voice was the first thing played. Corny this may be, but that was a thrill.
Q: How much did you know about Walter Payton’s life prior to writing the book?
A: Very little. A hero when I was a kid; always loved his style and approach. Met him once, in 1999, when he was dying. Haunting experience—thin, jaundiced eyes, tired. Like seeing Superman without the cape. I also read his autobiography, Never Die Easy. A good book, but limited and one-sided. Which is fair, considering it was his take.
Q: Walter’s son Jarrett recently defended you on the darkness of the book, but former Bears coach Mike Ditka didn’t. Do you expect both kinds of criticism after writing a book like this?
A: Well, I wouldn’t say Jarrett defended me so much as he was classy and decent and didn’t slam for the sake of slamming. I have much respect for him. And, to be honest, for Ditka, who acted emotionally when he thrashed me (“I’d spit on him.”) then took a step back and sort of apologized. No hard feelings. Comes with the territory. If you write an honest portrayal, not everyone will be happy. It is what it is.
Q: Have you talked to Mike Ditka since he made the harsh comments towards you?
Q: Did you expect all of this criticism? Did you expect to be talked about so much, after the book was published?
A: No. I mean, I thought the book would get attention … hoped it would. Because I worked insanely hard on it, and love the finished product. But I’ve been disappointed by the initial, knee-jerk reaction to the SI excerpt, which was a mere fraction of a fraction of a 460-page text. But I also understand it. People are loyal to Walter Payton; they love him and feel the need to protect him. I understand. But if people read the book, they’ll see. This is a life story, not a slash job.
Q: What is your favorite part about writing books? What was your favorite part about writing this book?
Favorite part: Easily, the digging and the research. Learning details, finding people to interview, uncovering nuggets of information. And I don’t mean gossip. I mean the name of a dog; the type of soda someone was drinking. Little tiny things that bring an image to life. Least favorite: Also easy—the publicity. When I was younger, ego mattered more. The attention. The praise. Now, it’s about crafting a book and seeing it come together into a finished product. That’s euphoria.
Q: How many books have you written so far? What do you plan on doing after this book?
A: Five books. A long nap and play with my kids.
Q: Are any of your friends Bears fans? What exactly do they think of the book?
A: Sure. I’m not just saying this, but they love the book, because they understand me and they’re smart enough to know people are complex and nuanced and unique; that our flaws don’t damn us, they help explain us. That the way people handle tough times and rugged situations says more than a great game against the Steelers. When people say, “How dare you write this about Walter Payton?” I cringe. It’s as if, once someone dies, we are not permitted to examine and understand his/her life. That flies in the face of biography.
Q: When did you know a career of being a sports writer was a possibility?
A: When I was in junior high I told my mom that, one day, I’d write for Sports Illustrated. She said I needed to be realistic. “Lawyer … how about lawyer?” But, for some reason, I knew. I just did. And I pursued that dream with dogged, stubborn determination. Internships, unpaid opportunities, a summer from hell in Urbana, Illinois (two broken ankles!). If you have a dream, but you don’t work for it, it’ll remain a dream.
Q: Where did you start out? Did you ever expect to be where you are now?
A: Well, my first job was a food and fashion writer for The (Nashville) Tennessean. I knew nothing about cooking or dressing. There was an opening, they liked my writing, I jumped in. First salary: $26,000—and I thought I was loaded. But the goal was always SI, SI, SI. Never, ever thought about books until my friend Jon Wertheim, SI’s killer tennis writer, wrote “Venus Envy.” I thought, “Hey, I can do that, too.” And here I am—able to pick up my kids from school, infrequent wearer of shoes, happy.
Q: How should Walter Payton be remembered? Do you think your book will change people’s perception about him?
A: Iconic. Strong-willed. Determined. Stubborn. Mostly, human. He had tough times, like we all do. But he fought and fought through them. I like to think of him at the end of his life, when he was dying but refused to tell people how dire it was. He convinced people he was holding a pager, one buzz away from a new liver. Was never true—he had cancer, and the liver would never come. Yet the man continued to do public service announcements about organ donations, because he understood the different he could make. To hell with Jim Brown or tearing up the Vikings for 275—that’s courage. I don’t think it’ll change perceptions, so much as educate and, hopefully, enlighten.
Q: What is your favorite part of the book? Could you give us an excerpt?
A: Jackson State—him dancing on Soul Train.
It’s tiny, but you get the idea …
Midway through the academic year, King announced that 24 Karat Black Gold was affiliating itself with the first-ever Soul Train National Championship Dance-Off . Throughout the country, each state would host its own competition, with the winning couples flying to Los Angeles to appear on Soul Train and vie for the title of America’s Best Dancers. At the time, Payton and Jones were teamed on Black Gold with fairly mediocre partners.
“So Walter came up to me one day and said, ‘How about entering the Soul Train contest together?’ ” Jones said. “‘I really think we can win this thing if we team up.’ ”
For the next three weeks the two met in a second- floor room of Jackson State’s student union building and danced until their toes blistered.
“We had forty-fives and LPs, and we practiced for endless hours,” Jones said. “We expected to win.”
The first round of the competition was held at the College Park Auditorium on Lynch Street. Hundreds of couples took to the floor as the judges cruised the room, tapping out those who didn’t make the cut. Along with forty-nine other couples, Walter and Mary survived the first week, then lasted again as the total was reduced to twenty- five, and then again to a mere ten. The championship round was held on a Sunday, ten couples dancing for the right to appear on one of black America’s most popular television programs.
“I’d never left Mississippi in my life,” said Jones. “I’d never even been on an airplane. So the possibility was breathtaking.”
The ten couples were pared down to five, then three. Walter gazed at Mary. Mary gazed at Walter. They locked eyes, knowing to ignore the judges and just move. Finally, the music stopped. The couple looked around, and nobody was left.
“I was overcome with joy, and so was Walter,” said Jones. “To be chosen to represent the entire state of Mississippi! What an honor!”
By the time Walter and Mary flew to Los Angeles, it was the summer of 1973. The local radio station, WOKJ, presented both students with plane tickets and five hundred dollars in spending money. (“Five hundred dollars!” laughs Jones. “I couldn’t believe it.”) They stayed at the Hyatt in Los Angeles, and were given tours of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Upon arriving at Soul Train’s studio, they met Don Cornelius, the famed deep-voiced host and producer. The show was taped the night after they arrived. Couples from across the nation danced away, until fifty were whittled down to thirty, and thirty were whittled down to fifteen, and fifteen were whittled down to two. The victors would be gifted two brand-new olive green Dodge Chargers—“and we really wanted those cars,” Jones said.
Walter wore jeans with wide legs, a cutoff shirt that revealed his muscular stomach, and Gene Simmons–esque platform heels. Atop his head was an apple cap, a style staple for black men in the early 1970s. He and Mary danced as well as they ever had. So, unfortunately, did the couple from Louisiana.
“Mississippi and Louisiana were the last two standing,” said Jones. “They were just a little bit better than we were.”
Walter and Mary left empty-handed.
“But the story of dancing with Walter,” said Mary, “has lasted me a lifetime.”
Q: What does an average day for you consist of?
A: Wake up at 7, make my kids breakfast and their lunches for school, drop them off at school, take a run/go to the gym, hunker down in Starbucks or Panera until, oh, 2:30, pick up my kids from school, play/help with homework, greet the wife when she comes home, dinner, give the kids a bath, read to them, bed, spend time with the wife, she goes to bed, midnight run, stay up and work until, oh, 2ish. Glamorous.
Q: What advice would you give to someone trying to do a job like yours?
A: Details, details, details. The best way to tell a good writer vs. a bad writer isn’t, literally, the ability to come up with great phrases. It’s details. Reporting. Making the extra call, even when you’ve already interviewed 600 people. It’s taking that second trip to Mississippi, just to make sure you got everything. When I graduated from the University of Delaware, I was this cocky jackass who thought he was God’s gift to the pen. Then I arrived in Tennessee and realized I had no clue. None. It took a demotion to the police beat to understand the importance of hard reporting. The sooner a writer gets this, the better.
Q: How would you like to be remembered? Do you think this book will alter people’s views about you?
A: Honestly, I don’t worry about being remembered at all. One day I’ll be dead, and other people will write books and articles and whatever. Circle of life and all that jazz. As long as my kids were raised well, and my wife was happy and loved, I’ll be very content.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job? Would you trade it for another one?
A: Honestly, and this isn’t a sexy answer, I love that I’m the one dad who’s able to be a class parent and attend school trips. I know all my kids’ friends; know the pediatrician and the teachers, etc, etc. It’s the greatest joy I’ve ever known—not just being a father, but being an actively involved father. That’s the greatest gift of this career—I’m here.