Pearlman says Payton book is misunderstood

Pearlman says Payton book is misunderstood
September 30, 2011, 3:13 pm
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Friday, Sept. 30, 2011
Posted: 10:07 a.m.

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com Bears Insider Follow @CSNMoonMullin
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It is not one of those things on which folks will be neutral. They arent now, by any means. And neither is the author.

Jeff Pearlman, author of the soon-to-be-released biography Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, said on The Dan Patrick Show on Comcast SportsNet Friday that he understands the reaction to the excerpt of the book, which sets the book up as another sleazy expose.

Its not. And any feeling that his goal was to savage Paytons legacy and to just make a buck could not be further from the truth.

I love Walter Payton, Pearlman said. I love him a million times more now, understanding him as much as I feel like I do, than when I was just some guy, a fan reading love notes to him.

Not surprisingly, the reaction to the book (which really is just a reaction to the excerpt in Sports Illustrated, since the book wont be out until Oct. 4) rocked Pearlman.

Its been pretty fierce, Pearlman said. Ive never had a backlash like this in my life. It hasnt been the most fun day in my life.

Pearlman spent almost three years working on the book, doing nearly 700 interviews.

It is so not a lets slam Walter Payton or lets mock Walter Payton book, Pearlman insisted. Its been reduced, without anyone having read the book, to a Kitty Kelly sleaze job.

The problem now is that first impressions are difficult if not impossible to change, and the first impression created here is one of muck raking, because of what Sports Illustrated elected to excerpt in its current issue.

That involves, among other things, his depression that began after his retirement and part in the failed bid to buy the St. Louis NFL expansion franchise.

When you decide to write a definitive biography of someones life, that means youre taking everything, Pearlman said. Youre writing the good and the bad. It doesnt mean youre writing just the slap on the back, that everythings great.

The truth of the matter is that after he was done playing, he felt physically battered, he felt very much alone, his marriage was in shambles, he was depressed and sad. Would that have been the part I would have preferred excerpted in the beginning? Probably not.

But it was a true part of his life.

Family matters

The charges that the book had truths and untruths and did not have cooperation from Paytons family befuddles Pearlman. He had long interviews with Paytons son Jarrett, daughter Brittany, brother Eddie as well as Paytons mother.

The whole idea that I did not get family cooperation, Pearlman said, is just not true.

Pearlman has had hostile emails and other reactions, but no death threats.

This was really a labor of love for me, Pearlman said. I love Walter Payton. I love his life more now, actually understanding it and knowing it.

What he does not understand is the sentiment that if someone is beloved, we should never their flaws or shortcomings or setbacks or troubles that it is somehow sacrilege to say that a hero went through some of the same troubles that normal people do.

I do not feel that way, Pearlman said, citing a number of great biographies that dealt with both the good and bad in the life of the famous.

Bears fans will never take him off his pedestal, as Patrick pointed out. And Pearlman did not have an idea what the statute of limitations is or should be for writing this kind of biography.

But I guarantee you, when people read the full book, all 460 pages and not just the five in Sports Illustrated, theyll consider it a very detailed and all-encompassing and very fair look at his life.

There is more to Sweetness than the marital or drug or other issues. You will find out where the nickname Sweetness actually came from. Youll find out how old Payton actually was, and why it was different from the published age. And how he came to have a hamburgers-for-life card at Wendys.

Understandable slide

Paytons troubled post-football life was not a complete mystery to Pearlman. I think the adjustment for all athletes from super-duper star to just being asked about being a star, Pearlman said. Youre reminded of what you cant do anymore.... I really do find that sort of haunting.

Pearlman in fact did interview Payton, in 1999 not long after the press conference announcing his illness. He went to Paytons office and encountered an older gentleman in the outer office.

Im here to see Walter Payton, Pearlman said to the man.

Its nice to meet you, said the man.

The man was Payton. Pearlman did not recognize him.

I just hope people give the book a chance, Pearlman said.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.