Bears legend Walter Payton is more than just my favorite football player, but the favorite of my entire family. My nephew's name is Payton.
To celebrate birthdays, we would trek out to the Roundhouse in Aurora, the restaurant he once owned. I signed up to be an organ donor because that's what Walter urged me to do in his final days.
His "Sportscentury" from ESPN Classic is on my DVR, and it will stay there until either I or the DVR die. I was away at college the week he passed away, and drove six hours to be home that weekend because I felt the need to be around Bears fans.
Payton is nothing short of a hero to me, so it was painful to read "The Hero No One Knew," an excerpt from Jeff Pearlman's new book on Payton that will appear in Sports Illustrated this week. Using interviews from those closest to Payton, Pearlman attempts to create a more complete picture of No. 34.
Pearlman writes that Payton wasn't just the smiling, hard-working, jokester who was beloved in Chicago. He was also prone to huge mood swings, and popped painkillers like they were candy. His Hall of Fame Enshrinement weekend was far from the joyous experience it should have been as Payton tried to keep his wife and his longtime mistress from meeting each other.
"When we present people as a sort of athletic cliché, and this golden guy who had no flaws whatsoever, I think we do people a disservice. I don’t think there's anything wrong with knowing that a person was flawed. I don’t think anything is wrong with knowing that a guy suffered through severe depression after his playing career was over, after he spent 13 years brutalizing his body… and living and dying with football and then it all of a sudden comes to an end and he doesn’t know what to do with his life," Pearlman told NBC Chicago on Wednesday.
It also gives a closer look at Payton's final days, as he hosted dinners for his old teammates. He reestablished a relationship with Mike Singletary, who says that Payton never asked, "Why me?"
Payton is shown to be an imperfect man, and after years of seeing the man as a hero, that is nothing short of shocking. But my impression that Payton was superhuman was not something wrong with him; rather, it was my ideal. I didn't want to believe that this man who would hurl himself into the end zone with no consideration for his safety would feel pain when he landed. It never occurred to me that he would be unhappy or cheat on his wife, though he was a human being prone to the mistakes of any other human being.
Does anything that Pearlman wrote take away from the 16,726 yards that he gained for the Bears, or the Super Bowl championship that he brought to Chicago, or the electrifying runs, terrifying blocks and beautiful catches that he made every time he put on a Bears uniform? Does it take away from the thousands of Illinoisans who registered to be organ donors upon Payton's request?
Not at all. It simply gives a more human portrait of the man that so many idolized for years. Though it may be painful to read, Payton fans should pick up Pearlman's look at him. It doesn't make him less of a hero, just more of a human.
Payton's Family Reacts
Walter Payton's family takes issue with some of what Pearlman included in his book, and accused the author of profiting stories, "many told by people with little credibility."
"Walter, like all of us, wasn’t perfect. The challenges he faced were well known to those of us who loved and lived with him. He was a great father to Jarrett and Brittney and held a special place in the football world and the Chicago community. Recent disclosures – some true, some untrue – do not change this," the family said in a statement.
Chicago Bears: Nothing Changes Our Feelings for Payton
The Bears organization released a statement Wednesday, saying:
"The Chicago Bears had the unique honor and privilege of having Walter Payton as a part of our organization for over two decades as both a player and board member. We believe his competitive spirit lives with us today. When we take the field each Sunday, we represent the great players like Walter who helped build the rich tradition of our organization. Nothing will change our feelings for a man we have the deepest respect for and miss having around Halas Hall to this day."