Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman

March 17, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): At five feet ten inches tall, running back Walter Peyton was not the largest player in the NFL, but he developed a larger-than-life reputation for his strength, speed, and grit. Nicknamed “Sweetness” during his college football days, he became the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing and all-purpose yards, capturing the hearts of fans in his adopted Chicago.

Crafted from interviews with more than 700 sources, acclaimed sportswriter Jeff Pearlman has produced the first definitive biography of Payton. Sweetness at last brings fans a detailed, scrupulously researched, all-encompassing account of the legend’s rise to greatness. From Payton’s childhood in segregated Mississippi, where he ended a racial war by becoming the star of his integrated high school’s football team, to his college years and his twelve-year NFL career, Sweetness brims with stories of all-American heroism, and covers Payton’s life off the field as well. Set against the backdrop of the tragic illness that cut his life short at just forty- six years of age, this is a stirring tribute to a singular icon and the lasting legacy he made.

Liked:

  • I think Pearlman wrote a pretty balanced piece about Payton’s life. He didn’t focus only on the good while ignoring the bad, but neither did he go out of his way to make this a complete hatchet job. Payton came across as a true human being, with both strengths and weaknesses, which is what I think most readers want to see.
  • I liked how Pearlman made it clear that Payton cared A LOT about individual stats. Every pro athlete says the right things in interviews, of course, but there have to be plenty of guys like Walter who think about that stuff constantly. It was refreshing to hear a sportswriter come out and say so.
  • Walter Payton seemed like a decent person. He was selfish, yes, and not a good husband or father. But it didn’t sound like he ever went out of his way to hurt anyone, and he seemed to really enjoy life. It’s unfortunate that his was cut so short.
  • I enjoyed hearing about the ’85 team — especially the off-the-field stuff. I had no idea those guys barely practiced and were more interested in partying than working on their game. The trips to Florida were especially bad as far as the shenanigans were concerned. I’m sure every limo service tampa had to offer at the time was booked up full when the Bears were in town, ferrying the players to and from the hottest nightclubs.
  • It was great to read about some of Walter’s biggest games. I started watching Bears football in the mid-’80s, when Payton was already starting to lose a step or two, so I never appreciated him the way people who saw him in his prime do. Thank goodness for YouTube, which has allowed me to check out some of Payton’s greatest runs, including the one against the Chiefs.
  • The chapters about Payton’s death were handled respectfully. That would be a hard subject for anyone to address, but I thought Pearlman did a good job. He didn’t become overly sentimental, but he wasn’t cold either.
  • Apparently, the author interviewed something like 700 sources for this book. Wow, that’s being thorough! (But it has a flip side too; see below.)

Disliked:

  • It seemed that Pearlman wanted to make sure he crammed every tidbit gleaned from his research into this book. How else can you explain why readers are subjected to mini-biographies of Payton’s college coach and agent along the way? Or that we were “treated” to the details of Payton’s father’s autopsy? There are numerous such tangents, and though Pearlman admittedly doesn’t stray that far, it was still frustrating because the book was so damn long. Just stick to Payton and shave 30-50 pages or so, ya know?
  • I thought giving a game-by-game, season-by-season recap of Payton’s high school career took things a bit too far. Those details weren’t all that important, it seemed to me. Heck, not even Tim Tebow talked about high school football that much in his bio!
  • Pearlman was too harsh on Connie. He basically said that the marriage was one of convenience: It gave Walter the clean-cut image of a family man, and it gave Connie money. Pearlman didn’t interview Connie for the book (I guess she didn’t want to talk to him), so he probably got his info from people close to Walter. They surely would have had biased stories to pass along, don’t you think? Connie might not have totally been the poor, suffering wife, but I have a hard time believing she was as bad as Pearlman infers.
  • I didn’t like how Walter treated his out-of-wedlock son. He never acknowledged the child’s existence beyond paying a monthly stipend to the mother. How terrible.
  • Walter moping in a utility closet after the Bears WON the Super Bowl, all because he didn’t score a touchdown? That takes “selfish” to a whole new level.
  • I wanted to learn why Walter and his brother Eddie were barely speaking by the end of Walter’s life. What happened between them? Was it sibling rivalry/jealousy, or was there an actual event that caused them to drift apart?

Rating:

Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton is an aptly named, comprehensive biography of the great Chicago Bears running back. Walter’s life was an enigma, full of exasperating contrasts and inconsistencies that make you just want to grab the guy by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. But those are the flaws that make him human and relatable. Author Jeff Pearlman does a good job of presenting both the good and bad quirks in Walter’s personality, and will leave readers feeling like they know Walter a whole lot better. I don’t know what’s true and what’s not, so I’m not going to bother with that kind of debate. Just taking this book at face value, I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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