Tackling Sweetness: Jeff Pearlman on His Walter Payton Biography

Jeff Pearlman


Jeff Pearlman’s name is on the best-seller list again. This time it is for Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton. For Pearlman, Sweetness is his Abbey Road; for fans of the former Chicago Bears running back, those clinging to thoughts of Payton as an ideal role model, it is tough to read about a hero with flaws.

Chicago-area media and some former NFL players have skewered the book and Pearlman, who interviewed nearly 700 people in crafting the biography. While weathering the criticism Pearlman said he has lost eight pounds.

Beyond Sweetness, Pearlman’s two other best sellers chronicled the 1986 Mets (The Bad Guys Won) and the 1990s Dallas Cowboys (Boys Will Be Boys).

Pearlman is a columnist for SI.com and a former columnist for ESPN.com. He was a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, getting his break at the magazine with a freelance piece on declaring his eligibility for the NBA draft as a junior at the University of Delaware. Not surprisingly, Pearlman, who didn’t play college basketball, wasn’t drafted. But his ruse received attention when league officials, including Rod Thorn, the NBA’s senior vice president of basketball operations at the time, contacted him. The League office wanted to see if he was serious and suggested he play in Europe or the Continental Basketball Association since no one had heard of him.

In the following interview, Pearlman talks about Sweetness and the book’s controversial issues. He also talks about how being reassigned to the cops beat as a young reporter was a turning point in his career.

Jerry Barca:    What made you pick Walter Payton as a book topic? What was the allure for you?

Jeff Pearlman:    I like writing about icons and iconic figures and there aren’t that many left to write biographies about in sports. There are a lot of B-listers out there who you can write about, and they may sell and they may not.

With icons I’m talking about Jackie Robinson or Babe Ruth or Ted Williams or Jessie Owens, guys like that. They’re hard to find because they’ve been done. Leigh Montville writes about Ted Williams; there’s no reason to write another Ted Williams biography. Jonathan Eig does (Lou) Gehrig. There’s no reason to write Gehrig. I’m always looking for the icon that hasn’t been written to death about. I don’t remember the moment I said, “ahh, Walter Payton,” but it was a moment when I realized here’s a guy, an icon, an all-time great NFL player and all we have is his autobiography.

Generally speaking, autobiographies are sort of flawed historical documents because they’re coming from a very narrow perspective.  When you’re writing your own autobiography, you’re not necessarily writing the complete history, you’re writing the complete history through your own eyes. So, it comes through one perspective with a vested interest in having it come out only a certain way. To me, there’s so much there (with Walter Payton) and he is iconic, fascinating, beloved, historic, and undone. That’s what it was.

JB:    From reading the book, one can tell you got a lot of different perspectives in your reporting. At what point do you feel comfortable that you’ve got it right and you have accurately captured the subject?

JP:    The complicated answer would be never because the truth of the matter is — and it’s hard to explain — a biography is a really flawed thing. It’s a definitive biography, which means you really want to capture someone’s life. If someone were writing my biography, and they talked to my wife, kids, every friend I had, coworkers, and they talked about my Sports Illustrated years and blah, blah, blah. At the end of the day, they still weren’t in my brain; you never fully know how someone thinks. Walter Isaacson writes 600 pages on Steve Jobs. He still doesn’t know how Steve Jobs really thinks. It’s an impossibility. I don’t know if you can ever really, fully 100 percent get someone. You might think someone is thinking about the game in front of them, and really, he’s thinking about pornography. You just don’t know. So, that’s my A-answer, you can’t be 100 percent certain.

But I think my B-answer is when you hit a certain threshold and you’re hearing the same stories again and again or when you’ve found the 40th or 50th person who says, “how did you find me?” Or, “no one’s ever asked me before.” Or, “I’ve never talked to anyone about this before,” and these are all people who knew Walter Payton really well. There came a point in this book where I was talking to people and other people were upset about me talking to those people. “Well, that person really didn’t know Walter,” some would say. Or, “Walter never trusted that person like that person thought he did.” There was this ring of people who always said, “that other person didn’t know him as well as I did.” These people are saying it about each other. You realize that’s the inner circle.

You have reached the inner circle when these people, who have very intimate information on Walter Payton, think they’re the ones who have the most intimate information on Walter Payton. It’s not just Mike Ditka talking about a game or his high school coach talking about a long run. It’s people telling intimate stories about Walter Payton and believing that they know more than anyone else about Walter Payton.

Sweetness is Pearlman's third best seller.

Rarely during the interview process, do I think, “Oh, my God! That’s going to end up on Deadspin.” It’s not like I ever think that way, ever. I just get excited about getting new information. One of the highest moments reporting this book was finding out the name of the dog who found Walter Payton’s Super Bowl ring under a couch. I was digging and digging trying to find the name of this dog, and when I found it was Bailey, I was euphoric. So, it’s not necessarily finding out a guy committed infidelity. I like unearthing information. It’s the exciting part of it. You’re trying to find out who this person is in as much intimate detail as possible. When you find those little details, it’s very meaningful.

You’re thinking about it for the book. That’s the thing. You’re not thinking about it for publicity. I hate the publicity part of this whole book experience anyway. I just like writing the books.

JB:     That is a writer’s thing though. Those euphoric moments that it seems most people don’t care about it, but other writers love hearing.

JP:    When I found out Walter Payton was 46 years old when he died, I thought that detail was amazing. I tell that story on different radio shows when they ask what was a moment for you? And I tell this whole story about how he lied about his age, and people are like, “that’s the best you got?” I’m like “what? Are you kidding me?”

JB:    Do you think you’re getting criticized because the you write about Payton’s flaws and it discredits the mythological status fans and even society wants in sports heroes?

JP:    There’s this one columnist John Kass of the Chicago Tribune. I had never heard of him until I wrote this book. He wrote this column and trashed me, trashed my writing. One of his final lines was, and it was one of the worst lines I have ever read anywhere, was: “There are always debates about who was the greatest. But on a football field, there's only one. It was Walter. And if anyone says otherwise, they're either stupid or a liar.” This is not a guy who should be criticizing someone’s writing. What he’s writing about is not even the point. Who gives a shit? Who cares?

Why is it wrong to look into someone’s life and see who they are and see what they were, and what they thought and how they handled life? Why is that so wrong? What are we afraid of? Why is it wrong to learn a person had issues in his life? Or that person dealt with difficulties?

The other thing is why is it so wrong to write about someone after they died? People said, “oh, you should have written this book when he was alive.” Would it have been so much better if I wrote this book when he was on his deathbed, battling cancer? I’m an agnostic atheistic Jew. I don’t think I believe in heaven. I think you live, you die.  So, why is it wrong to write about someone when he dies? I don’t understand that argument at all. Like he’s floating on a cloud, looking down, and he’s very upset I wrote this book? He’s not here. This is an analysis of his life after he passed.

JB:    Why do you think some people have greeted this book as such an affront?

JP:    I think Payton was a really good guy. He was great to Chicago fans. I think they’ve taken ownership of his legacy and his memory. If I were a Chicago writer, it would be a slightly different reaction, I’m guessing. It seems like, “who’s this outsider, Jeff Pearlman? I don’t know Jeff Pearlman.  This guy comes in and he’s writing about our Walter.” I also think, like you just said, we mythologize our athletes and our sports heroes. When someone dies young, we build them up even greater. They’re almost God. In the minds of certain people, Walter Payton has never done a thing wrong in his life. There’s nothing to criticize. There’s nothing to write harshly about because he was the perfect human being. “Because he signed my wristband when I was 12 at training camp.”

JB:    Did you expect this criticism with the book?

JP:    No, I didn’t see it. I didn’t see it coming. I actually thought, honestly, this is the best book I’ve ever written. Here’s a bad example, but years ago, the rock group Kiss did an album called The Elder. They thought it was going to be the greatest album in the history of mankind. It was panned miserably. After writing four books I really liked, this was going to be the book, my definitive biography. I put more into this book, and worked harder on this book and feel better about this book than anything I’ve ever written in my life. It’s so meaningful to me, and I feel like, in Chicago, it’s been treated a little like The Elder. When to me, it’s my Abbey Road. I’m saying for me, it’s as good a book as I can write at this point in my life.

JB:    Do you think you’d be as successful if you weren’t as immersed in your subjects or obsessive about your subjects?

JP:    I don’t think the books would be very good. It’s an interesting question because my first book about the ’86 Mets was my second bestselling book.  It was on the best-seller list and it’s my worst reported book. I didn’t really know what I was doing to a certain degree. In Sweetness, I interviewed almost 700 people. In The Bad Guys Won, I think I interviewed 180. Many people loved the subject, though. Maybe there’s no correlation, but I would feel like I was leaving something on the table. I wouldn’t feel good about it. Maybe the Payton book would have sold a million times better if it were just warm, great, and happy stories about Walter Payton.

JB:    Before the book even starts you write briefly about changing the name of certain sources. Has that come up at all in the criticism? Does it make you less comfortable to have to change the names?

JP:    I hate doing that. I haven’t gotten any criticism for it. If someone did criticize me for it, that would be a very fair criticism. To be honest you’re the first person to ask me about that. I wrestled with it a lot. I decided to do that especially in the case of the girlfriend and the (illegitimate) son.

With the son, he didn’t do anything wrong at all. He was born to Walter Payton. That wasn’t his doing. His family was very upset that I found him, and when they thought I was going to use the name, they were really upset. I thought about it and thought “you know what, why would I do that? This guy’s been able to live a normal life. He hasn’t been burdened by a father who didn’t take care of him. What’s the point?” Then with his mother, it was kind of the same thing. She talked to me. She put some trust in me, but she only agreed to do so if I didn’t identify her. I thought that was the only fair way.

But do I like that? I definitely don’t. And do I like that it’s the first thing you read in the book? I don’t like that, but I didn’t know another way to go about it. If you write a definitive biography of someone and you find out he had an out-of-wedlock kid, it’s hard to just overlook that completely. Which I didn’t do, but there weren’t many details out there. The details I needed came with promising anonymity.

JB:    Do you trust that? Because the concern with giving people anonymity is that their ass isn’t on the line for the truth. What was the process where you said “all right, I can trust the information coming from them?”

JP:    First and foremost, there were people telling me that they were trustworthy. Second of all, their information checked out. Third of all, I can’t lie, there’s a certain leap of faith involved. She’s telling me about the intimacies of the relationship she had with Walter Payton. You’re putting the same trust in her that you would put in with his wife or anybody. The flaw of the whole process is there’s a certain degree of trust you’re putting in people. That the stories they’re telling you are accurate, that their memories are accurate.

JB:    Did people really not know he had a kid with a girlfriend while he was married?

JP:    No one. Very, very few people.

JB:    Sometimes in the press corps that follows the team, everybody knows the stories, but they just don’t write them. So, when a particular story finally comes out it’s not as shocking. But that was not the case with what you wrote in Sweetness. Did these guys, reporters like Don Pierson of the Chicago Tribune, really have no idea? Or was it a different time and Payton was able to control his image that much?

JP:    Pierson is a great example. That guy, first of all, was an amazing writer and an amazing reporter. One of the best. One of my favorite things about writing this book was I got to read the articles of Don Pierson. I didn’t even know who he was before this. Now, I think he’s one of the best beatwriters I’ve ever read in my life.

It’s two things.  Number one, his job was to cover the Chicago Bears in the 1970s and 1980s. It wasn’t his job to chase around and see if Walter Payton was fooling around on the road. But even if he found out Walter Payton was fooling around on the road, it wasn’t his job to write about it. Now, there were certainly rumors about Walter Payton and women. There’s no doubt about that. But whose job was it to dig and report and find out that stuff?

Even today, if you’re covering the Mets for the New York Times and you find out a player had an affair, it’s not something a beatwriter even writes about unless it’s a child support case or he’s being sued for something. It’s just not something you cover. Maybe Deadspin covers it, but the general media doesn’t. There were rumors that Payton liked the ladies. Who would cover that back in the 1980s in Chicago? And the out-of-wedlock child, as far as I can tell, no one knew about that. No one.

JB:    Do you think sometimes you’re getting criticism from people who aren’t actually reading your book?

Walter Payton

JP:    I’d say 99.99999 percent of people who have ripped the book, didn’t read the book. I would say 99.999 percent of sports media people I’ve done interviews with didn’t even read the book, didn’t even open the book. There was one columnist, I don’t remember his name anymore, from a suburban Chicago paper, who wrote a column saying my book was trash, and that I never even interviewed Walter Payton. The first chapter of the book is me interviewing Walter Payton. Give me a freaking break.

I called him on it. I called him up; he’s the only guy in the media I called. I said “I’ll be happy to send you a book. You should maybe reconsider and at least read the book.” He was nice about it, but he said “you have your story and I have mine.” So, what the fuck is that?  You didn’t read the book. There’s no story here.

This guy John Kass of the Chicago Tribune, he didn’t read the book.  There was a column in the Chicago Tribune by Fred Mitchell, an excellent writer, and he quoted Steve Michael, the old Bear (defensive lineman), saying, “Never met this guy (Pearlman). So who is this guy? He interviewed 700 people? You know, interviewing Matt Suhey and Roland Harper- the guys who were closest to him (would have been better). What they had to say about what he (Payton) did or what they saw … there's the truth.” I interviewed both those guys. All he had to do was call me for two seconds or send me an email.

JB:    You’re very intense. Were you always this intense in your approach to writing?

JP:    My first job was at the Nashville Tennessean. I came out of the Delaware and I was the food and fashion writer. I was the typical 22-year-old: a cocky, straight-out-of-college kid who thinks he’s God’s gift to writing, and I was a lousy, lousy reporter. The worst reporter. I kept making little stupid mistakes. Getting names wrong, getting dates wrong. I was one of the better writers on my college paper and I just thought you could write your way through anything. People were complaining about not just the mistakes, but the attitude. I had this horrible attitude. My editor, a woman named Catherine Mayhew, reassigned me to the cops beat. She said, “just focus on getting the reporting right.”

That was really a turnaround for me in my career. Catherine Mayhew putting me with the cops was the difference between writing books now and looking for another career a long time ago. I wasn’t always intense about the reporting. I always loved writing. I think the intensity of the reporting started then. You come to the realization that if you want to write really well, and you want to do stuff that people remember, you have to report it 1,000 times more gently than you think you need to.

I’m probably not as intense as you think. I really love doing this. There are some guys that live and die with this work every day. My biggest joy about my life now is that this morning I took my kids to school and at 3:00 I’ll pick them up from school and take them to a party. Writing affords me the opportunity to be a full-time stay-at-home dad. I’m not 24/7 always thinking about writing. I take much more pride in my kids than I do my books. That’s the truth.

For more on Jeff Pearlman visit his blog and follow him on Twitter.

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