Walter Payton is one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. His importance to the game of football is cemented forever, and the league even named its “Man of the Year” award after him.
The amount of times he went out of his way to sign an autograph, talk with a young fan, or help out a teammate is beyond any athlete I’ve ever heard. It’s no question why so many people loved him.
He retired from the NFL in 1987, long before I was born, but my thoughts come after just finishing Jeff Pearlman’s excellent biography on Payton. The book, Sweetness, is not new (it was published in 2011), but is a must-read for football fans.
One thing I struggled with throughout the book was weighing the good and bad in Payton’s life. Payton was likely one of the nicest and most genuinely caring NFL players ever. But he also made lots of questionable decisions that seemingly get left out in many people’s stories of him.
He relentlessly cheated on his wife, as if he were trying to achieve new records after beating nearly all of them in the NFL. He had a romantic relationship with a flight attendant for more than a decade, while married. He also had a son out of wedlock and refused to be a part of his life despite living close to him.
He also was selfish about stats, emotionally took advantage of people (especially post-career), and was absent for parts of his two legitimate children’s early lives. The response of many Bears fans, and probably other NFL fans—so what?
A lot of pro athletes are selfish. Payton is certainly not the first star to cheat on his wife after being provided unlimited opportunities to do so. He was one of the best running backs ever. So does it all matter?
To many people, probably not. To me…I’m not sure. After reading Pearlman’s biography on Brett Favre, who also endlessly cheated on his wife, it made me ponder whether athletes like these should be propped up as much as they are. How could the NFL’s award for the man of the year be named after someone with the personal troubles that Payton had?
These are questions that I’m not sure I’ll ever know the answer to, and it’s normal for people to struggle with finding the right answer. To non-football fans, it’s probably an easy decision—Payton was an often absent father whose personal life was riddled with infidelity. To football fans, especially Bears fans and even former players and coaches who were interviewed, the personal life stuff can be forgotten.
In an email interview I did with Pearlman in 2017, he said he hated having to write about Payton’s infidelity, but I respect him for doing so. It would be pointless to write a biography and not provide the entire story of a person’s life. Even though Pearlman received a lot of backlash for including the negative parts of Payton’s life in the book, it’s a journalist’s duty to provide the full truth. Most people who criticize the book probably never read it.
I keep coming back to a line from a song by The Wonder Years, one of my favorite bands:
Growing up means
watching my heroes turn human in front of me
I didn’t know who Payton was until after he had already died, so it’s not like I looked up to Payton, but the line made me think of people who eventually find out the negative side to their hero athlete. Kids idolize athletes and often don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. When they grow up, it’s up to them to decide whether that athlete is still a hero to them. Either way, it’s a reminder that everyone is human.