SI.com and Wall Street Journal writer Pearlman (Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, 2008, etc.) delivers a definitive biography of one of the NFL’s all-time greats.
Though some of Walter Payton’s (1954–1999) records have been broken since his 1987 retirement, his image as a gridiron hero, and arguably football’s greatest-ever running back, has endured. Pearlman’s book provides much to enhance that image, and a bit to tarnish it as well. An extraordinarily gifted athlete known for his ferocious stiff-arm, his refusal to run out of bounds and his unparalleled work ethic, Payton was, and is, beloved by football fans. But to those who knew him, even close friends and family, he was an enigma. Praised as the ultimate team player, he would sulk and whine if not given the ball as much as he felt he deserved. After years of carrying mediocre Chicago Bears teams, Payton threw his equipment to the ground in disgust and hid in a closet after finally winning a Super Bowl, when Bears coach Mike Ditka allowed William “Refrigerator” Perry, not Payton, to score a touchdown in the game. Known for going out of his way to befriend marginal players who were certain to be cut, for spending hours with sick children, for knowing the names and backgrounds of every employee, Payton was an absentee father and serial womanizer who provided financial support for, but never met or acknowledged, his illegitimate son. Pearlman at first seems not to recognize the disparity, repeatedly describing Payton as a humble man while recounting anecdotes that indicate otherwise. Eventually the author confronts the puzzling contradictions of his subject’s personality, but refrains from psychoanalysis or other attempts to explain them. The section on the infamous 1985 Bears, a team rife with dysfunction everywhere but on the field, is a highlight, as is the description of Payton’s senior year in high school, when Mississippi schools were forced to desegregate. The book’s devastating conclusion shows the familiar depressing decline of an athlete in retirement and his shocking death from cancer at 45.
A highly readable warts-and-all portrait of an athletic giant, but those who prefer their idols unblemished may want to steer clear.