Depending on where in the country you live (some people are going to be deluded into thinking that either the Philadelphia Phillies or the Buffalo Bills are more important), Walter Payton is once again on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
No, he hasn’t done anything new. He hasn’t done anything, period. To riff on Chevy Chase for a moment, Walter Payton is still dead.
IT’S JUST THAT there’s a new book being published – one that purports to be the definitive biography on the one-time star running back of the Chicago Bears. And one that tells us that Payton abused drugs, experienced mood swings later in life that had him contemplating suicide and was less-than-faithful toward wife Connie during their marriage.
Now all of this stuff may be true. Not that I care much. For I didn’t know Walter Payton as a person. Nor did many of the people who are now getting all outraged and claiming that it is somehow disrespectful to report on Payton’s failings as a human being.
They want the illusion maintained that Payton the person was somehow as gifted as Payton the athlete. Which in the case of 99 percent of professional athletes is a serious miscalculation.
I’d argue that it doesn’t really matter. In fact, we’re probably better off realizing that the people on the playing field of the various games we enjoy watching for our entertainment are really just human beings like you and me.
BEING CAPABLE OF throwing a curve ball with a sharp break on a reliable business or being able to stuff a basketball into the hoop isn’t what makes one a preferable excuse for a human being.
It isn’t even the discipline that it takes for one to develop such athletic skills through constant (and single-minded) practice throughout the years. If anything, you could argue that it is a flaw that a person didn’t use such dedication to develop some skill that could better benefit humanity.
My point is that Walter Payton was a ballplayer. For those of us who didn’t know him personally, that’s all he was. Why we should feel compelled to make him into more than that probably says more about our flaws than Walter’s.
So those people who want to “spit” on Jeff Pearlman (or commit more severe bodily attacks) because he would dare to take down “Saint Walter” are being absurd. When Mike Ditka said he would plant a hocker on Pearlman if he ever saw him again, all he did was showed that Ozzie Guillen is far from being the biggest ball of hot air to ever be involved with Chicago sports.
NOW BEFORE ANYBODY starts saying that I’m not appreciating what Walter Payton meant to Chicago, I’d argue that I really do. I was in junior high school when Payton was a rookie out of Jackson State University, was in college back when the Bears won their only Super Bowl title with Payton and was in the early years of my time as a reporter-type person in Chicago when he finally quit playing.
I’d say the only reason Michael Jordan gets a bigger rep than Payton is those six NBA titles, compared to only one NFL title for Walter.
But do our memories of what happened on the turf at Soldier Field really get impacted because of what we know about Walter as a person? I’m not downplaying the significance of abuse of prescription drugs (the death of Michael Jackson easily shows us what can go wrong).
Although with all the battering that a professional football player takes during his career, I’d be amazed if Payton was NOT taking some form of pills to cope with the pain.
AND AS FOR the part about infidelity, he’d hardly be the first professional athlete to cope with life on the road by cheating. I’d argue that is an issue for his wife to deal with in whatever way she is most comfortable doing (and my understanding is that Connie and Walter came to some sort of forgiveness just before he died in 1999).
It doesn’t change the recollections I have every time I hear the “Super Bowl Shuffle” and think of that one Bears team that actually managed to “win the whole thing” during the past half-century.
If anything, I’m more offended by Payton’s one-time teammate, Dan Hampton, saying he plans to blow off the ’85 Bears visit to the White House on Friday, in part because he doesn’t approve of President Barack Obama’s politics.
Which means he just politicized an event that could easily have been about fluff – a sin bigger in my book than acknowledging athletes as mere people.
BESIDES, BASED ON the excerpts of Pearlman’s book, I have to admit to getting my biggest kick out of something other than the so-called salacious stuff.
For it seems the post-football Payton had an appetite that could have put William Perry to shame. “Pilgrimages” to Bob Evans for eggs and bacon (with side orders of sausage) and taking advantage of a card offered to him by a Wendy’s corporate executive for free food.
“Let’s just say they knew him at the Wendy’s drive-thru,” Pearlman quoted someone as saying. “He loved those free burgers.”
Be honest. Isn’t at least a part of you wondering how many patties (single, double or triple) Walter had on his burger, along with what toppings?