The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton
The definitive biography of Chicago Bears superstar Walter Payton.
In the twelve years since his death from cancer, Walter Payton’s legend has only grown in magnitude. The Hall of Fame running back, who broke Jim Brown’s all-time NFL rushing mark, appeared in nine Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl ring with the 1985 Chicago Bears, and is still revered throughout the sporting landscape. Payton has become the lasting image of what’s great about football. Yet in mindlessly canonizing the man simply known as “Sweetness,” we have missed the opportunity to understand—and appreciate—one of the most uniquely complex and enigmatic superstars in the history of American sports.
No longer. Based on meticulous research and interviews with nearly seven hundred family members, friends, teammates, and various associates, Sweetness delivers an unforgettable portrait of a man who lived his life just like he played the game: at full speed. From his childhood in segregated Mississippi, to Chicago, where Payton emerged from athlete to icon as he broke the NFL’s all-time rushing record and led the Bears to Super Bowl glory; to his darker moments battling depression and adjusting to life after football, Sweetness is an eloquently written, revelatory saga of a complex, guarded superstar who died far too young.
The old man answered the door. I didn’t shudder or take a step back or cringe or gasp or stammer. I simply looked him over, hunched and shriveled inside a fleece jacket, a blue taxi driver’s cap pulled low atop his head.
I had been told ahead of time that Walter Payton’s administrative assistant would likely greet me at his Hoffman Estates, Illinois, office on this arctic February morning in 1999, and while I didn’t picture the person to be a senior citizen, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibilities that Payton—long known for his big heart and common-man sensibilities—would give a seventy-year-old the job.
“And who are you?” the man asked.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Jeff Pearlman with Sports Illustrated. I have an appointment.”
“Uh . . . yeah,” he said. “I suppose you do.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m here to see . . .”
Then I stopped.
With a tilt of his head, I noticed something jarring: The old man’s eyes were yellow. Not light yellow, either. It appeared as if all the white had been drained from the sclera, replaced by the bright hue of a Yield sign. That wasn’t all. Upon closer inspection, his cheeks were sunken, his shoulders coat-hanger thin, his forearms mere pencils.
He was not old. He was sick.
“Nice to see you,” the man said, nodding wearily before extending a hand. “I’m Walter Payton.”
That was the first time I met him.
That was the last time I met him.
We spoke for no more than thirty minutes. He sitting behind a desk, me—twenty-six years old and nervous as all hell—fiddling with my pen and notepad. A couple of days earlier, Payton had announced in a press conference that he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare disease in which the ducts that drain bile from the liver become inflamed and blocked. It was flabbergasting news—not merely because, at age forty-five, Payton was still relatively young, but because he was the last person you would ever think this could happen to.
Forget that Payton was the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, or that he is arguably the league’s best-ever all-around football player, or that he missed but a single game over thirteen seasons. In the course of researching this book, I’ve heard five hundred different descriptions of Payton’s unparalleled physicality— of the weights he lifted; of the linebackers he pulverized; of the cocksure muscleheads he arm-wrestled to submission; of the grip that, according to an old Bears fullback named John Skibinski, “took hold of you like a vise, until your hand turned blue and numb.” My favorite analogy came from one Richard McMurrin, a building superintendent at the Chicago Bears’ training complex in Lake Forest, Illinois, and a man not drawn toward exaggeration. “Walter,” McMurrin told me, “was like a cannonball with skin stretched over it.”
Although he had been retired for twelve years at the time we met, football players old and young still mythologized Payton’s Hill—an incline that once stood near his house in Arlington Heights, Illinois. It was just sixty yards long but rose at an angle of 75 degrees, with loose dirt and small rocks and pebbles making footing treacherous. All off - season long, Payton would be sprinting the hill, up and down, up and down, up and down. “He’d invite some of the guys to work with him,” said Vince Evans, a former Bears quarterback. “If you hadn’t been to the hill before he’d look at you and laugh, because Walter would just climb up that like a bobcat. And you’d follow in his dust. I was a pretty good athlete, so the first time I said, ‘This ain’t nothing.’ Well, halfway up I was sucking air. Once that one was over, he said we were going to do ten more. Ten? That was the real eye-opener to this guy’s power.”
So how the hell did this make sense, me fidgeting before a man who looked nothing like the five foot ten, 205-pound ball of iron from McMurrin’s memories? According to the public statements of his doctors, Payton needed a liver transplant to survive beyond two years. That was, it turns out, incorrect. By the time we met, Payton’s body was already ravaged by bile duct cancer—an awful byproduct of primary sclerosing cholangitis. His odds of survival? Infinitesimal.
I can only imagine what Payton must have been thinking, staring at a trembling Sports Illustrated reporter a mere four years removed from college. “I’m dying, and this is who you send?” He had that right. I was completely unqualified. I knew nothing about liver disease, little about suffering, and even less about death. In the entirety of my life, I had lost only two close relatives—both grandparents in their eighties.
“I’m dying, and this is who you send?”
The interview was mostly me looking down at a sheet of paper with a list of medical terms, reading a few words, then glancing Payton’s way and saying, “So, uh . . . eh . . . are you in a lot of pain?” He was polite enough, under the circumstances, but surely as anxious to end things as I was. When my father inquired later that evening what it was like meeting a football player whose poster once graced my bedroom wall, I didn’t hesitate. “Worst experience of my life.” I sighed. “Like watching a superhero die.”
"Mr. Halberstam would have been the first to insist that we not confuse fiction with nonfiction, and that we not mistake biography -- the telling of a life -- for hagiography -- the burnishing of a legend. Which was football's big trouble last week, it turns out, as lots of folks who should know better took exception to a new biography of Walter Payton."
—ESPN.com, "The Sporting Life"
"I found the Walter of your book to be more of a hero than the one people refer to."
—Rick Hogan, WGN Sunday Papers
I have read the book and I can tell you your appreciation of Walter will be heightened if you read the whole book and not just the excerpt — Rick Kogan
"Jeff Pearlman has written Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, which depicts Mr. Payton as perhaps the greatest all-around football player ever, a generous teammate and a loving father."
—Scott Simon, NPR Weekend Edition
"Over the weekend I read an advance copy of Sweetness and found it to be an incredible, thoughtful, deep and profound read. It’s exceptional work. I wouldn’t let an out-of-context excerpt and some enraged condemnations get in the way of a fascinating read about a fascinating man."
—Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports
"READ THE BOOK...But if you like texture, if you want to get the sense of a real life lived by a real person with real beauty within and real warts, start reading and do so with an open mind."
—The Indianapolis Star
"Pearlman did not set out to expose Payton but to understand him, to identify and define the qualities that made him so appealing. He was a football-playing hero to millions, true, but he was also a human being of considerable complexity. There’s a story in how those two sides intersected, and a skilled biographer gets to that story ... If Walter Payton, magnificent football player and Chicago treasure, is enough for you, ignore the book and cherish your memories. If Walter Payton, flawed but fascinating human being, intrigues you, read it. You might come away with a greater appreciation."
—The New York Times
If Walter Payton, magnificent football player and Chicago treasure, is enough for you, ignore the book and cherish your memories. If Walter Payton, flawed but fascinating human being, intrigues you, read it. You might come away with a greater appreciation
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: