By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com 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 SI.com.
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 SI.com 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.
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.
Listen to The Boers and Bernstein Show podcasts >>