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Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton

A thoroughly researched, frank, and deeply engaging biography by Jeff Pearlman sheds new light on the player who was the heart and soul of the Chicago Bears.

By Ross AtkinStaff Writer / February 3, 2012

Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton By Jeff Pearlman Penguin Group 496 pp

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One of the most telling anecdotes in Super Bowl history involves Walter Payton, who was the heart and soul of the Chicago Bears for many years.

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After 10 mostly futile seasons toiling for the franchise, the punishing running back finally could call himself a champion after Super Bowl XX in 1986.

The Bears had just shellacked the New England Patriots, 46-10, in the Super Bowl’s most lopsided victory to that point. But in the joyous aftermath in the New Orleans Superdome, Payton went missing. Instead of celebrating with his teammates in the Chicago locker room, he had retreated to a broom closet for a good cry – not of joy, but of disappointment.

Payton was heartbroken. On the sport’s biggest stage he not only hadn’t scored a touchdown, but when Chicago had a short-and-goal opportunity late in the third quarter, a hulking rookie defensive lineman, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, was sent into the game to carry the ball the last yard into the end zone. It was a whimsical, gimmicky moment that would forever prevent Payton’s name from appearing in the game’s scoring summary. 

It took his angry agent to read him the riot act and force him to return to the locker room and put on a good face. Anything less, he warned, would ruin Payton’s good-guy image and paint him as a selfish moper.

This is just one of the windows on the inner Payton that Jeff Pearlman offers in his nearly 500-page biography of the Hall of Famer, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton. It stands as one of the most engaging, thoroughly researched, and frank football books imaginable.

As a powerful, well-told, and tragic story, it ranks alongside Jane Leavey’s 2010 blockbuster about Mickey Mantle, “The Last Boy.”

One irony here is Mike Ditka’s reaction to Pearlman’s “tell it like is” profile of Payton. The Bears’ former coach said if he met the author, he would spit in his eye for revealing so much of the seamier side of Payton’s life after his death, including his marital infidelities and suicidal thoughts. This was without reading the book, and by the coach who’d missed the opportunity to call Payton’s number, not the Fridge’s, in the Super Bowl.

Pearlman claims his portrait of Payton is not meant to be exploitative, and that the 678 interviews he conducted were a reflection of his desire to tell a fascinating life story well. The end result: He came to love Payton, not for his insecurities and shortcomings, but for his sheer humanity. “I love what he overcame, I love what he accomplished, I love what he symbolized, and I love the nooks and crannies and complexities,” Pearlman concludes in the book’s final paragraph.

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