Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton

Jeff Pearlman writes in this 2012 book:

* In the year 1975, a significant racial divide still existed in professional sports. White teammates hung with white teammates and black teammates hung with black teammates. There was a lingering mistrust and a pronounced lack of understanding. Locker room card games were split among racial lines. The tension over music was palpable—country and rock vs. R&B. To many of the black Bears, their white teammates seemed stiff and judgmental. How could they possibly trust the Southerners from schools like Alabama and Auburn and Ole Miss—the ones who seemed perpetually uncomfortable in their presence?

A good number of the white Bears, meanwhile, didn’t like what they perceived to be the never-ending crowing and strutting of the blacks. They found the players to be lazy, selfish, and heartless. All skill, no drive. “When I got there we had a bunch of niggers,” said Rives, a white linebacker from 1973 to 1978. “Great ability, but no work ethic. They were selfish twits, and they wanted to blame everyone but themselves.”

Just as he had done at Columbia High School five years earlier, Payton somehow bridged the gap.

* Reporters hated dealing with him. None stated any dislike for Payton. They simply could not pin the man down.

* Payton was prone to making inappropriate comments about teammates’ sexuality that some found funny and others found disturbing.
There were whispers around Chicago that he, himself, was gay—understandable scuttlebutt considering his off-putting behavior. “His nickname was Sweetness,” said Arland Thompson, the team’s fourth-round draft pick in 1980. “He pinched my ass so often I thought he was sweet on me.”
“We were taking handoffs in a drill,” said Dennis Runck, a free agent running back in 1982. “He slaps me on the ass and says, ‘So, I hear you’re gay.’”

“Were Walter alive today, he’d almost certainly have some sexual harassment suits thrown his way,” said Duke Fergerson, a free agent wide receiver in camp with the team in 1982. “It’s one thing to be playful and juvenile about discovering your sexuality. But Walter would almost be sexually intimidating to these rookies. He’d make passes at guys. He may have been kidding, but coming from someone of that status, it was very intimidating. It got to the point where I didn’t want to dress around him. It was too uncomfortable.”

* “He had a big hole inside of him. He did it dishonorably. He used women—and especially younger women—for something he needed. And I’m not saying something merely physical. There was an emptiness in him. He sought out women to fill that hole. It was devilish.”

* Payton loved women. But—and this includes Connie—they were disposable. Athletes often say that excelling at the highest level of sport takes an uncommon level of focus. If one finds a woman willing to accept certain conditions (as was the case with Connie), a relationship can work. It’ll be one-sided and emotionally unfulfilling. But it will, in a strictly mechanical sense, work.

* When Holmes negotiated a new contract with the Bears in 1981, one of the stipulations was that, on the road, Payton be granted his own suite. The reason was simple: He wanted a place to bring back his conquests. Although Payton continued to avoid regularly socializing with teammates, that didn’t mean he failed to go out. From San Diego to Seattle, Detroit to Denver, Boston to Buffalo, Payton could often be found at the hot dance clubs, working the moves perfected on 24 Karat Black Gold a decade earlier. Before long, Payton’s personal black book featured a bevy of women in every city. Wherever the Chicago Bears traveled, Payton had females waiting for the signal to discreetly knock on his door at the Hyatt or Hilton or Marriott.
As Connie remained in Illinois caring for Jarrett, her husband was on the road, living the life. Those who knew him best say one of Payton’s great gifts/ills was the ability to compartmentalize. When he was home in Arlington Heights, he could be the prototypical family man.

* When the television camera lights were on and the reporter notepads were out, Payton did his best to only talk team-team-team. All he wanted was for the Bears to win. If he ran for zero yards but the other fellas did well, he was happy. Whether he surpassed Brown or not was insignificant. Blah, blah, blah. It was utter nonsense…

* In the fifth game of the ’83 season, the Bears were leading Denver by seventeen points with less than two minutes remaining—yet there was Payton, struggling with a nagging knee injury (he would have arthroscopic surgery on both knees after the season), still slamming into the line. When a reader wrote the Tribune a letter that called Payton’s usage “idiotic,” Don Pierson, the Bears beat writer, responded with a piece titled “Jim Brown the Reason Payton Ran.” “He is in pursuit of Jim Brown’s all-time rushing record,” Pierson explained—as if that were enough…

Nobody grasped Payton better than the Tribune’s Pierson, one of the sport’s great beat writers/B.S. detectors. In the aftermath of the Bears’ 21–14 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on November 6, Payton— who cleared eleven thousand career yards that day—told the scribe that, “I’d rather turn back the eleven thousand for a win today.” Pierson ran the quote, but only with the addendum, “Payton remarked typically but not convincingly” (emphasis added).

“Despite what Walter said, it was clearly obvious that surpassing Brown meant everything to him,” said Pierson. “He liked to make no big deal of it, but it was enormous. “He wanted that record.”

* Brown, on the other hand, was someone Payton wanted little to do with. While he spoke glowingly of the Hall of Famer in public, Payton failed to understand the bitterness that seemed to accompany Brown’s words. He was the one, after all, who chose to retire in the prime of his career, at age twenty-nine; the one who walked away to become a movie star…

Brown had mostly kind words for Payton, referring to him as a “gladiator.” But Payton, to his credit, wasn’t swayed. He found Brown to be an arrogant, dismissive, rude old man crying for a breadcrumb of attention. Were he to eventually own the mark, Payton promised himself he would never behave as Brown had.

* Unlike Payton, who rarely voted and never talked politics,16 Brown dove headfirst into social causes.

* The 49ers were talented and experienced and widely believed to be chemically enhanced. “They beat the shit out of us,” said Fred Caito, the Bears trainer. “And our offensive and defensive linemen said, ‘These guys are ’roided up, and they’re destroying us in the trenches. We can’t compete with that.’ I assure you many of our linemen started using after that game.”

* The $265,000 contract disparity between McMahon and Payton made the running back’s blood boil. So, for that matter, did the mounting dismissiveness he perceived to be coming from the press, the fans, and the Bears organization. “This is my eleventh year, and nobody takes me seriously,” he moaned to Sports Illustrated… Entering the 1985 season Payton was, for the first time, not the team’s sole focal point. There was McMahon, the hard-living, attentionseeking quarterback who talked smack and wore sunglasses indoors. There was Willie Gault, the speedy wide receiver who longed for a career in movies. There was Mike Singletary, the Butkus-esque middle linebacker, and his two high-flying cohorts, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson. And, of course, there was Ditka, the snarling head coach, and Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator who hated him. So loaded was the team that, shortly after reporting to training camp and soaking in all the talent, Butler called Cathy, his fiancée, and told her their wedding had to be moved from January 25, 1985—the day before the next Super Bowl. “We had so many weapons, and Walter wasn’t the center of it anymore, even though he was so valuable,” said Covert. “And while I’m sure he really enjoyed being part of all the winning, the other side of the coin was that it wasn’t all about him. I think that was sometimes a little bit difficult for him. The other personalities came into play, and it wasn’t that he was ever overshadowed, but he had competition.”

* What irked Payton most was the emergence of a rookie defensive lineman named William Perry. …When asked, Payton said all the right things about Perry. But inside, he hurt. The kid had been with Chicago for half a year, and he was already earning pitchman deals Payton could only dream of.

* Blessed with the NFL’s best offensive line, Payton no longer had to create his own holes and hope for random openings.

* It was a strange time to be Walter Payton. His out-of-wedlock son, Nigel, and in-wedlock daughter, Brittney, were born months apart. His team was hot and his Q-rating on the wane. He was piling up Pro Bowl–worthy numbers (he finished the season with 1,551 yards, the fourth-highest total of his career), yet wasn’t the same back he once had been. He put on the happiest face possible, but came across to teammates as moodier and crankier than ever. “Walter was the personality of the team,” said Butler, the kicker. “If Walter was loud and rambunctious that day, the pace of practice took off. But if things weren’t going well, Walter would wear it on his forehead.” When he was the only story in town, it was easy to say, “I don’t want the attention.” Now that the attention didn’t exist, he wanted it.

* “At his core, Walter was incredibly insecure,” said Holmes. “He would do things to draw attention, but only if it looked like he wasn’t trying to draw attention. He might go to a banquet and if they were bringing out steak he’d say, ‘I don’t eat red meat.’ And they’d ask what they could bring him and he’d ask for fish—then complain it wasn’t cooked right. An hour later, he’d be sneaking to McDonald’s for a Big Mac, begging me, ‘Don’t tell anybody! Don’t tell!’

“We would go to Chicago Bulls games and he’d know exactly where the cameras were. You’d see him go up to the kids in the wheelchairs, and he’d go up, shake their hands, knowing the camera was on. Does that mean he didn’t care? No. But he was aware of how it would be perceived, and that mattered immensely to him. On more than one occasion, Walter went to the airport without a ticket or reservation or nothing. He’d walk up to the American Airlines counter and say, ‘I need a ticket to Las Vegas.’ They’d be oversold, but they’d kick people off the plane and place him in first class. Walter loved that, even as he played humble.”

* In pileups, Chicago’s defenders twisted Dickerson’s ankles and clawed at his eyes. When referees were looking elsewhere, they made his knees prime targets. It was, by far, the most vicious beating he would take in what became an eleven-year Hall of Fame career.

* Payton steadfastly pursued other women. It was around this time that he was diagnosed with genital herpes, a sexually transmitted disease that causes recurrent painful sores. Payton was initially shocked and dismayed by the diagnosis, but rarely—if ever—found it necessary to inform future sexual partners of the viral infection.

* Devoutly Christian and unafraid to show it, Singletary watched with great disappointment as Payton regularly cheated on his wife. He obviously knew athletes did such things, but expected more from someone of Payton’s character and esteem. “Mike finds out that despite Walter’s stellar career and reputation, he’s catting around on the road,” said a friend of Payton. “He had a devoted wife, precious children, and yet he’s being unfaithful.” One afternoon during the 1985 season, while taking a team bus to the airport, Singletary slid into the vacant seat alongside Payton. “Man, you’ve got to clean up your act,” he said. “You’ve got a beautiful family and you claim to be a Christian. You know better.”
This was the first time someone had confronted him on his womanizing, and Payton was shocked. He turned toward the window, away from Singletary, and pretended not to listen. In the reflection, Singletary saw tears streaming down Payton’s face.
Singletary had no idea what his friend was thinking. Through the end of Payton’s career, the two never spoke again.

* Payton was a nonfactor. The man who overcame prejudice and smallschool bias and injury and shoddy offensive lines couldn’t get the fumble out of his head. The mishap plagued him. Haunted him. He moped along the sideline, and though he was handed the ball twenty-two times, he ran for a meager sixty-one yards while failing to catch a single pass. Afterward, Chicago’s players
and coaches rationalized his poor performance by insisting New England obsessed over him, and that Payton’s mere presence allowed McMahon to throw for 256 yards and run for two touchdowns. “The Patriots,” said Gault, “were dead-set on holding Walter down.”

* “Those last two minutes of the game were agony for Walter,” said Covert. “You could see it on his face— he just wanted out of there.” When the final whistle sounded and the Chicago Bears were officially Super Bowl champions, Payton headed directly to the locker room. He entered, tore off his jersey, and slammed his shoulder pads to the floor.

“If you looked at Walter,” said Ken Valdiserri, the team’s director of media relations, “you would have thought we’d lost.”

“For the ten years I had played with him, Walter claimed it didn’t matter how many yards he got, how many touchdowns he scored—it was about winning,” said Brian Baschnagel, the veteran receiver who, because of a seasonending knee injury, watched the game from above in the coaches’ box. “That was the attitude I took, too. I didn’t care how many passes I caught, as long as the Bears won. And I always felt Walter felt the exact same way. But when he reacted the way he did . . . it was the exact opposite of what he had claimed to be as an athlete.”

* Without a football career, without a racing career, without the potential ownership of an NFL franchise, Walter Payton often found himself suffocated by darkness. Oh, he wouldn’t let on as such. He smiled and laughed and told jokes and pinched rear ends and tried his absolute best to come across as the life of the party. Inside, however, happiness eluded Payton in the same manner he had once eluded opposing linebackers.

* “I always wondered whether I did Walter a favor by helping him get so big,” said Bud Holmes. “It’s a fine line whether
he would have been happier as a larger-than-life celebrity, or as a man back in Columbia, Mississippi, fathering ten or twelve illegitimate children, getting thrown in jail once a month, working some blue-collar job. If Elvis had it to do all over again, would he rather just drive a truck in Tupelo?”

* Payton was the clichéd celebrity—surrounded by admirers, yet alone. “He called me many times at two, three in the morning, just wanting to talk,” said Holmes. “There’s a Norman Rockwell quote—‘Pity the poor genius.’ I pitied Walter.”

* Quirk and Tucker came to expect Payton’s manic mood swings—giddy one second, despondent the next. He kept a tub of painkillers inside a desk drawer and popped them regularly. He ate greasy fast foods and gorged on fettuccine carbonara (his favorite dish) and dumped ten sugar packs into each cup of coffee and dunked pork rinds into hot sauce. Though a fast metabolism prevented Payton from gaining excessive weight, they worried how it all impacted his psyche. “He ate junk,” said Conley. “Fettuccine Alfredo with
crumbled bacon. Chili dogs. Corn dogs. And fried pork chops, and I mean fried hard.” Never an imbiber as a player, Payton now drank his fair share of beer. He behaved erratically and was prone to strange and confounding moments. Holmes vividly recalled visiting the office for a meeting. “Walter came in and he was bouncing off the walls,” he said. “He was totally incoherent, all hopped up on these painkillers. I remember he turned on his computer and he wanted to show some old porn crap. His eyes were all weird. I said, ‘Walter, what the hell?’ He drank a couple of beers and I couldn’t believe it. Who was this person?”

* Once, during a particularly down period, he entered the house at 34 Mudhank with his gun drawn, telephoned a friend, and crying, uttered, “I’m going to end it now.”
“Walter would call me all the time, saying he was about to kill himself,” said Holmes. “He was tired. He was angry. Nobody loved him. He wanted to be dead.” The first time such a threat was made, Holmes dropped what he was doing and flew from Mississippi to Illinois to console his client. By the time he arrived, Payton’s mood had swung positive. Holmes never again took his threats seriously.
Despite the urging of those around him, Payton refused to see a psychologist or social worker. What would that say about his strength and fortitude? He was supposed to be a hero. Heroes didn’t do therapy.

* Payton probably isn’t the greatest pure running back in NFL history. Jim Brown was more skilled. Emmitt Smith gained more yards (he broke Payton’s record in 2002). Earl Campbell was stronger, Gale Sayers was faster, Barry Sanders was more elusive. Throughout his career, Payton was routinely overshadowed by his peers in the same position. He never matched the splendor of O.J. Simpson or the grace of Eric Dickerson. Marcus Allen boasted a regalness Payton lacked. Billy Sims entered the league with greater hype.

* Nigel Smythe, Walter’s second son, had never looked especially hard into this part of his life. He understood that his biological father was one of the most famous sports figures in the United States. But he also knew the same man—one adored by millions of people—had made no effort to be a dad. From the day Nigel was born in 1985 until Walter’s death in 1999, the two never lived more than thirty miles apart from one another. Despite that, Walter Payton—the onetime Illinois Fatherhood Initiative Chicago Father of the Year—wanted nothing to do with the boy.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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