Jeff Pearlman hopes release of his Walter Payton biography in paperback this week will help right a wrong, especially in Chicago.
When excerpts of Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton ran in Sports Illustrated last fall, Pearlman was vilified. It couldn’t have been worse if he dressed in green and gold and staged a Green Bay Packers rally on Michigan Ave.
The excerpt detailed Payton’s troubled life after football; addiction to painkillers, issues with depression, affairs and a non-existent marriage. It hardly was the picture Bears fans saw of the valiant warrior during a spectacular 13-year career.
Reaction was harsh in Chicago. Mike Ditka said he would “spit” on the book. Everyone follows “Da Coach” here and you could have filled Lake Michigan with all the saliva. Not a pretty image.
“To me, it was crushing,” Pearlman said.
Pearlman tried to do damage control. He did numerous interviews in Chicago, pleading with people to read the entire book. He said there was much more than the SI excerpts.
Indeed, the book is meticulously reported, detailing with the incredible highs and lows of Payton’s entire life. Once people read the book, it received rave reviews and landed on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
Now with the paperback edition coming out, Pearlman hopes the critics in Chicago will give the book a second chance. Here’s my Q/A.
How did you feel about the initial reaction to the book in Chicago?
To be honest, I thought I was treated unfairly in Chicago. One anchor on the news did a report and then literally shook her head and said, ‘Shameful, shameful.’
(Chicago Tribune columnist) John Kass became my least favorite media figure in Chicago. I felt like he was another guy who didn’t read the book. I called and emailed him to see if he ever read the book. I offered to send him a copy of the book. He never responded.
I think Michael Wilbon is great, excellent. But he questioned my motives. He said it was all about money.
Nobody read the book (beyond the SI excerpts). In today’s media world, we need to turn it around really quick. ‘What’s your take on this?’ People just read the excerpt and said, ‘How dare he?’ To me, it was crushing.
What kind of reaction did you get once people read the book?
I received a number of apologies over Twitter and Email. I had never experienced anything like it before.
When the book first came out, I got a lot of ‘To hell with you,’ and much more vulgar stuff that I won’t get into.
About a month later, I got a number of notes that said, ‘You know what, I owe you an apology. I was wrong. That was a great book.’
Many people think SI’s choice of excerpts hurt you and the book. What do you think?
I used to think something different, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I thought the excerpts showed a fascinating part of his life. I thought the depression he suffered was pretty telling, especially with what we know now (about concussions). If I was editor of Sports Illustrated, I would have gone with the same excerpts too.
You have said that you came to love Walter Payton more after writing the book. Yet for many of us in Chicago, your details of how he treated some people and other issues made us love him less. Please explain your view.
Walter was aware of his shortcomings. He wanted to be righteous, but he didn’t know how to go about it.
He knew what he meant to people in Chicago. It was very important for them to view him in a positive light. He never wanted people to know about his depression.
You always think, ‘If I could have this guy’s life, that would be awesome. What does he have to complain about?’
Walter had a lot to complain about. I had sympathy for him. I realize it wasn’t easy being him.
Now that it is out in paperback, what do you say to Payton’s fans who initially passed on buying the hardcover edition?
I understand that people want their heroes to be heroes, or that they care only about what happens on the field.
But this guy had an amazingly fascinating life beyond football. There was a lot to him. Just because somebody had hard times doesn’t mean you still can’t appreciate him. It doesn’t mean you should change your perception of him.
For more with Pearlman, here is an interview he did with Steven Bennett on last week’s edition of the Sports-Casters. The interview begins at the 1:40 mark.