Bernstein: Don’t Fear Facts Of Payton’s Life

By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) It’s not a biographer’s job to make you feel good.

Apparently, author Jeff Pearlman has succeeded in angering a sizable number of naïve Chicagoans and Bears fans, based on early response to excerpts from “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton” just published in Sports Illustrated and posted on

The book – which took more than two years to write and required interviews with 678 people – details Payton’s youth, his 13-year career in the NFL, and controversially, the difficulties after his retirement.

Payton became addicted to painkillers in his playing days, according to the book, and his life after football was a mess of extramarital affairs, drug abuse and thoughts of suicide.

Already, these revelations are causing an outcry, based on the responses on social media, radio, and online comment-sections. Pitchforks are out for Pearlman, as he has dared to challenge long-held beliefs about a beloved sports figure.

How – in this day and age – can it still not be fully understood that people are people, prone to frailties, foibles and darker sides? Beyond understood, how can it not be assumed, especially among those who run fast, jump high or throw hard, and then face a troubled existence when the cheers fade?

More than just being common, it’s a full-blown cliché.

We know even more about that story of the former NFLer than ever, too, especially after the recent suicide of Payton’s former teammate Dave Duerson and the spotlight on the brutal effects of the game. Increasingly, we are beginning to understand head injury, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and why ex-players all too often spiral downward. Any Payton fans can mitigate their disappointment, now, by realizing the possibility of some forces beyond his control.

And who is being coerced into reading it? Anyone who is saddened by this news (which was not much of a secret to anyone around him or pretty much any of his teammates, by the way) should simply ignore it, as I imagine they do with everything similar that so terrorizes them. It’s certainly possible to limit all that pesky information to that which reinforces a chosen reality.

Pearlman was asked by if he worried about a backlash, and he said, “I sure do. It hurts me that this will hurt his kids. It really does because Jarrett and Britney are wonderful, engaging, caring fun people and they’re really uplifting figures in the Chicago landscape. That said, I set out to write a definitive biography – period. When people would ask, ‘Well, is this going to be positive?’ I’d say ‘Not positive, not negative – definitive.’”

How does he think fans will receive the sordid details? “Some loyalists will read the book and say ‘How could this guy write about Walter Payton this way?’ I feel almost the opposite. There’s something important about learning that even the greatest among us have their burdens. Whether you’re a Hall of Fame running back or a guy moving cement, we all have issues. No one lives up to the pedestal.”

Good for him.

I grew up with Payton’s poster on my wall and his replica jersey on my back. We bundled up and trekked downtown to watch him run. He was my first sports hero.

But facts don’t scare me, and they don’t alter my memories of his great play one iota.

Those who find their juvenile warm-fuzzies threatened by this book are blaming the messenger for telling a story that they are too intellectually weak to handle, apparently.

The purpose of a biography is to chronicle the life of an important person. It needn’t adhere to public preconceptions or preferences.

All it has to be is true.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein: Dont Fear Facts Of Paytons Life
Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of “Boers and Bernstein” since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein’s columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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  • Larry Horse's Arse

    I hope it is well-sourced and accurate and not a hack job to sell books and make $ on the good name of a dead man.
    If it is true, it is true.

    • Steve from Rockford

      Interviewed hundreds of people, spent 2 1/2 years on it. Pearlman is an established author. People who cannot accept information often try to find anyway to deny the info, including attacking the motivations/intentions of the “messenger”

    • a person

      “interviews with 678 people”

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        and you can get 678 versions of hearsay

        My gut tells me (from reading SI) that this is legit, though.

  • Noots

    His sickness and eventual death tore down my own superhero/indestructible image of him. To believe he was something less than perfect in his personal life isn’t so hard to come to grips with now. He was a man, and as such had challenges to overcome as we all do. To learn that he didn’t stiff – arm and high step his way through every end zone of his personal life shouldn’t come as a shock or be seen as throwing dirt on his grave.


    I agree with you L.H.A. And, I think I’ve gotten all I need from the book with that review.
    I made it through, about, half a chapter, of Into Thin Air.

  • Sebastian Oñate

    ” There’s something important about learning that even the greatest among us have their burdens. ”

    And if splashing his “burdens” on the front page just happens to sell a few more magazine articles, everybody’s a winner right?

    • Chris in Scottsdale

      If the subject was of no importance, or the author had no intention of trying to make the story available to the largest possible audience, then he’d be selling it at a flea market.

      I don’t hate the fact that he’s going to get more sales and attention – that’s kind of the point. He also apparently poured his life into it, so if the book is well-crafted, then more power to him.

    • Meatless Meatball

      Don’t be dumb. Everybody’s a winner when the truth comes out because we all have flaws. Walter had his flaws. He apparently had a lot of them. They actually make me like him more. Nobody — NOBODY — likes the choirboy.

      It’s like Jordan. People absolutely fawned about how great a guy Michael was. Turns out, he’s kind of a deutsche bank. In fact, he’s kind of a BIG deutsche bank. I’d rather know that because it helps me separate the mythic superman who played basketball better than anyone I’ve ever seen, and the insufferable jerk inside his personality.

      Besides, you’re under no obligation to read SI. Ever. At all. Don’t read the article. Don’t read the book. Go out and convince more people to think like you do. Get a national boycott of SI going until they retract every word. This is a free country, so that’s within your rights. Just like it’s within the collective rights of the rest of us to think you’re an imbecile.

  • Meatless Meatball

    I’ve never understood the whole idea of sports iconography, anyways. I mean, if you’re a running back, and you want to be a really great running back, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better hero than Payton. But the idea that his legacy would somehow be diminished in any way because he was depressed, addicted to painkillers, and enjoyed a little wah-wah on the side is simply ludicrous. I mean, Brett Favre did the same thing, but if I were a QB, I’d be hoping to have a career like he did (albeit one that ended about five years sooner).

    It’s pretty simple: if you want your kids to idolize somebody for being a good citizen, don’t let their heroes be athletes. But if you’re a fan who’s offended somehow, some way by any of this, or if you feel like you’ve been cheated by a guy who’s just telling the truth that, as Dan says, we knew anyways, then you’re beyond the reach of rational human beings. It’s not a smear campaign to say that a professional athlete took a bunch of painkillers and banged a bunch of loose women; them’s just the facts, boy-ohs.

    • FullofMeatMeatball

      Walter Payton has done to much for the chicago community to just label him jock icon. Cancer research and Education programs and inner city youth football. I do not feel cheated by him. Not surprised. Do not forget his civil service he did for chicago.

      • EK

        Walter is definitely no “jock icon.” The main was as complex as any famous person of note from the past 50 years, whether you’re talking about Elvis, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan or even John F. Kennedy. T

        his book humanizes him in a way that none of us who only knew him as an awesome running back from the TV/Solider Field could know, and frankly, I’m better off for it. Not because “now I know the truth about Walter,” but because I can see that despite his flaws (and the fact that he seemed to understadn that he was flawed, which is pretty impressive considering his fame) he still tried to be a really great human being. It’s incredibly hard for people who are suffering from some form of depression to strive to do good in this world (whether it’s by offering words of encouragment to a kid on an airplane or raising money for schools), especially when they know they’re not the same person their adoring public thinks they are.

        So I would say thanks to Jeff Pearlman, but also thanks to Walter Payton for not being perfect, but still having the guts to try.

    • mike

      Hear hear: “It’s pretty simple: if you want your kids to idolize somebody for being a good citizen, don’t let their heroes be athletes.”

  • Aging Disgracefully

    I just hope everyone can keep their gob shut about Carlton Fisk’s hair care.

  • Chris in Scottsdale

    “Catching Hell”. Anyone else have that twinge of disgust as we listened to Cub fans speak the way they did of Bartman?

    The fact that he has maintained a private life in this age of Gawker, TMZ, and overzealous jornalists is kind of mind-boggling… and the fact that he has utterly refused all chances to speak out or make a buck off of the whole situation makes him admirable.

    …And Moises? Kiss off. You weren’t catching that ball. Quit throwing the kid under the bus.


      In MLB, is the offense allowed to run on a caught fowl ball? If it is, they were going to get burned on the play.

      and, it sure looks like the Cardinals are headed to the playoffs. I had this feeling last
      April when I was sure that the ‘hawks were NOT.
      But they Cardinals are playing the Astros, and the Braves are Playing the Phillies.
      As Long as Pujols doesn’t end up with 606** address, next season, I’d guess everything else will work out.

  • Chris in Scottsdale

    Interesting interview with Bernsie- I just came across it this week, but it came out on the 14th. Anyone else seen it?

  • Ozzie Guillen

    Who is Walter Payton?

  • Cream of the Class

    After reading the excerpts, WP’s statements during his HoF induction take on new meaning:

    “And I want to stand up here and say that in this point of my life, that Jarrett, Brittney and your mom you guys will not have to worry about anything in your life no matter what the situation or how it ends.”

    “When you speak of role models, when we talk to our kids, everybody is a role model, everyone just as you look at a Michael Jordan to be the terrific athlete he is and you look at a Pete Rose to be the terrific athlete he is and then he falls on hard times but when he played the game I got something from the way he played the game because he hustled every play and just because he had one mistake in his life am I supposed to throw back everything that I gained from him, you can’t do that and I am talking to the kids. “

  • Michigan Bear Fan

    As hard and as violently as he ran, coupled with 170 consecutive starts, there is very little doubt he played in games he wouldn’t be able to today. His body and mind took a huge toll…for us the fans and the game he loved. We shouldn’t expect perfection but celebrate his memory…as he was, who he was.

  • Soccer Limey

    I agree that we are all fallible human beings and no-one is perfect by any stretch, but it’s human nature to dislike destructive information about people who you love or respect, no matter how much it’s true.

    I’m sure none of want to hear truths about grandma and grandpa, but they are facts.

    I think my concern is how much validation of the facts has been done here, and probably more relevant is the question of why, after so long, do we need to know all of Payton’s sins.

    ……..oh, that’s right. We’re selling books here. I forgot.

    • Denver Deadite

      No, it isn’t a relevant question at all.

      Somebody wrote a book about Payton. Perish the thought. Hey, guess what? Biographical books about people – living and dead, current and historical – are written all the time. Sales will tell you pretty quickly how much interest there still is in the man, in Chicago and around the country.

      Of course the goal is to sell books! Have you ever written a book? It takes a lot of time, and this guy spent 2-odd years on this one and conducted hundreds and hundreds of interviews.

      Oh, that’s right: Payton is revered in Chicago. And since the book isn’t just singing his praises and roses and rainbows, it’s therefore automatically wrong.


      • Bronzo

        Lighten up Denver…I personally don’t care about Payton’s personal life. he is by far one of my favaorite sports figures of all time . And as a life long ( 48 years ) Chicagoan I know that some people might have some strong opinions on him. Bernstein is correct by telling people not to be afraid of what they might find in this book. Frankly most of this stuff except maybe the drug addiction were well known by most people. It didn’t get much media attention because he like Jordan always got the benefit of the doubt from most people because they were always avaliable and nice to people.

        So spare me the meatball references…Some people would rather kick dirt on his grave.

        I was only concerned about what he did on the field…and that speaks for itself.

  • Bearsfan4071

    I don’t give a damn about their private lives, only about what they did on the field.

    That being said, why does Bernstein have to be such a condescending (sp) deutche bank when talking about (and to) the fans, as one person said in describing Jordan?

  • mike in davenport

    There are few sports figures to put on a pedestal. Roberto Clemente may be th ebest example I can immediately think of.

  • lonilon

    This is old news—I didn’t even live in Chicago that long and I knew of some of this. Please people, stop being naive about athletes. The majority are cheating on their wives and taking drugs(recreational or performance enhancing), The old timers were just as bad—this is nothing new. I’d say you are an idiot if you are older than 30 and are stunned by this.

    • Chris in Scottsdale

      The only people that saw Payton play and still remember it are over 30… and those are pretty much the only people stunned by this to begin with.

    • Larry Horse's Arse

      I was shocked to find there was gambling in Casablanca.

      • Bronzo

        round up the usual suspects

      • mike in davenport

        SHOCKED, I say!

  • Harry's Phlegm

    As for me, I’m ambivalent on all this except for Bernsteins’s usual smarter-than-thou take. On the one hand, I never idolize athletes or put them on a pedestal so I’m not surprised or disappointed and I don’t have this overarching obsession with find out “the truth” about someone I don’t know personally.

    On the other hand I believe that while he has 1st generation family around still, it strikes me as unnecessary to p*ss on his grave and cloak it all by saying “I’m just telling you the truth.” Wanna’ write about Winston Churchill or Abe Lincoln and all their flaws? Knock yourself out.

    My biggest problem is, as usual, Bernstein telling others how they should think. And if you don’t agree with him or his blog apologists, you’re a meatball. So much for nuance.

    • Denver Deadite

      IIRC, his children are grown. Not that that should matter either way.

      And really? P*ssing on his grave? Again, the assumption that if it isn’t roses and rainbows, then it should be swept under the rug. I call BS to that.

      • Denver Deadite

        You’re the one accusing Pearlman of p*ssing on Payton’s grave and yet you have a problem with my saying that you don’t want the truth to be known?

        Go find a mirror and ask yourself “Wha… ?” as many times as it takes. Maybe add some cold water and a few slaps to the face.

      • Harry's Phlegm

        If you don’t write a book about someone you’re “sweeping it under the rug”? Wha…?

    • Chris in Scottsdale

      So, you’re implementing a statute of limitations because he’s only been dead for a decade or so? Seems rational.

      FWIW, Churchill’s youngest child is still alive, so you can’t write that one yet.

      • Harry's Phlegm

        No, I’m implementing having some class. But I see both sides and I don’t think there’s an absolute wrong or right with either viewpoint. Like I stated earlier, I’m ambivalent and I don’t need DB telling me what I should think in something that can’t be broken down as if it were math.

        Alas, we can agree to disagree.

        Agree with you on last night though baseball-wise. I’ve never seen anything like that.

  • Chris in Scottsdale

    What a night of baseball last night. Just amazing.

    • Bronzo

      yes it was!! pretty exciting stuff…never seen anything quite like it

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Actually I have read enough of Churchill to conclude that he was clearly on the bipolar spectrum. 3 of the 4 on Mt. Rushmore likely had psychological issues (Lincoln’s depression, TR’s bipolarity and, given his spending sprees, likely Jefferson was bipolar too…not to mention the schtupping).
    GW seems to have not had psychological issues, though he did have a major thing for Lady Fairfax his neighbor.
    And that’s just Mt. Rushmore as one example.
    The clay feet of those who have gone before us actually make them more human to me, as compared to the hero-worship bios I read as a kid.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    The book that made me most revere Lincoln was called “Lincoln’s Melancholy” and it showed me how utterly heroic he was to struggle through his depressive episodes and still lead the nation.
    I had a higher opinion of Lincoln having read the “dirty laundry”.

  • Harry's Phlegm

    You are an educated man LHA! Love you guys…or at least as much as a man can love other men I don’t know personally (LOL).

    I’m out for today!

  • Denver Deadite

    Courtesy of the author of this book:

    “What’s the point of history, if history can only be approved talking points?”

    Spot on, Mr. Pearlman. Spot on.

  • meesohawnee

    this is exhibit A number one why people called the media cheap hoes! Really. i could care less what walter did. Show me an athlete that doesnt bang somethin else on the side..its like .sayin your stunned Milton Bradley has anger issues.. And leave it up to the single digit IQ st to make it the headline story. We have a collective society in economic pain and we getting our panites ruffled ona guy thats been dead over a decade and cant defend himself.?? Wonder how much all the print media got paid to make this “a story”. Put the book in a garbage can. we more important things to worry about. Boy Pearlman your my hero!! Im a little shocked DB didnt blow this subject off. Seemed a little above this.

    • Chris in Scottsdale


      If Bernsie HADN’T hit this one today, I’d have assumed he was kidnapped ;)

  • Saul Rubenstien

    Pearlman/Bernstein………of course they’re in agreement.
    Phew!!!!! Glad I made it home right as the sun went down…….

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Well, now, you need not read the book because Da Coach has spoken.
    Da Coach called the author “gutless.”
    Da Coach failed to call the author “inaccurate” or “wrong about the facts.”

    • Denver Deadite

      Gutless is saying you’ll spit on Pearlman.

      Or is Ditka also going to spit on all of The Score hosts for basic saying, “You know, there’s really nothing in the excerpt that we didn’t already know”? If you were a sportswriter, you knew about all of this already.

      Da Coach needs to go away. He’s the reason we have an entire generation of football stupid in Chicago.

      • Bronzo

        I have no doubt that Ditka would spit in his face…I don’t know what ‘s gutless about that?

        None of this stuff happened during Payton’s playing career. He missed 1 game in 12 years. He played and worked harder than almost any other player. If I’m not mistaken didn’t the NFL rename their Man of the Year after him?
        Can we move on please…

      • Denver Deadite

        “I don’t know what ‘s gutless about that?”

        Because anymore Ditka is a mouth-breathing deutschebank who panders to the football stupid.

        “None of this stuff happened during Payton’s playing career.”

        So the drug use – confirmed by the likes of Boers and Bernstein – was entirely made up. I guess. Gotcha. I think.

        “If I’m not mistaken didn’t the NFL rename their Man of the Year after him?”

        And? Any other non-starters you’d like to throw out there?

        “Can we move on please…”

        Sure, but first let me take the gun away from your head that’s forcing you to make these posts.

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        DD and MM have it right about DaCoach these days.
        I almost want to type it as DaKoch if that sounds more meatbally.

      • Larry Horse's Arse

        I meant “MBF” and not MM.

        I’m an idiot!!!

      • Michigan Bear Fan

        “Da Coach needs to go away. He’s the reason we have an entire generation of football stupid in Chicago.”

        No truer words have been typed on

  • Bronzo

    What’s your point? I liked Payton you don’t …was he a great football player? I think so. You obviously don’t..
    Did he have many post NFL problems ? Yes he did ..he sure wasn’t alone.

    as far as the gun to my head….You sure got me there….

    • Denver Deadite

      Please tell me where I’ve said I didn’t like Payton? Because if you’re just going to put words in my mouth, you’re just coming across as as much of an idiot as Ditka.

      I barely remember Payton as a player, and my appreciation of him is certainly muted by the fact that he passed away so young.

      But that doesn’t change the fact that Pearlman has every right to write a biography of Payton, whether you like it or not.

      The pathetic thing here is that if it were rainbows and puppies, all the mouth-breathers like Ditka would be falling over themselves with praise for it. What’s a little hero-worship when we can hide the facts, eh?

      Seeing as Ditka’s responsible for The Score’s signature segment, this should not come as a surprise to anybody.

      • Bronzo

        Bingo! You hit the nail on the head. Your appreciation is muted… mine is not…. I saw almost every game he ever played in.. That explains just about everything.

        This not about Ditka it’s about Payton.

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