A decade later, sportswriter Jeff Pearlman may still be most famous for unspooling enough rope that Atlanta Braves closer/Cro-magnon John Rocker could hang his career from the elevated tracks of the 7 train. Since that Sports Illustrated bombshell, Pearlman has written five books, sticking mostly to sports blackguards: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, the ’86 Mets, the mid-’90s Dallas Cowboys. One man’s sports hero is always another man’s childhood-wrecking villain, and any portrayal of an athlete’s flaws are bound to be ripped in some quarters, but that compounds when the subject is a jock who isn’t widely acknowledged to be the sort of indictable sonuvabitch that Clemens or Bonds is. Let’s say, in fact, that the subject in question happened to amass NFL records and public adoration in a city that views itself as a football town. And that the subject also died a public, stoic, early death a dozen years ago.
Now let’s say you portray that subject fully, including the lesser-reported, deeply personal facts that he was depressive, harbored murder-suicide fantasies, got giggly on nitrous oxide even at training camp, half-stayed in a three-flat-tires marriage and was perpetually blotto on painkillers:
As a player he had numbed his maladies with pills and liquids, usually supplied by the Bears. Payton popped Darvon robotically during his playing days, says [his longtime agent Bud] Holmes, “I’d see him walk out of the locker room with jars of painkillers, and he’d eat them like they were a snack”, and also lathered his body with dimethyl sulfoxide, a topical analgesic commonly used to treat horses.
Why, if you were to write such things, then you might just piss off a few Walter Payton fans.
Sports Illustrated this week rolled out an excerpt from his latest book, due for release next week, and SI.com has a quick round-up of some of the juicier slabs of Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton. Pearlman says in a separate Q&A with SI.com that he insisted on writing an exhaustive account of Payton’s life, backlash be damned: “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.”
But he still knew he was going to draw some fire. His Twitter feed, which is worth following even during news lulls, has been like watching gladiatorial battle. It started early Wednesday morning with the tweet “Today should be … interesting,” and sure enough ramped up from there, with responses like these:
* “read the entire book before you make such accusations. Please. this was one period of his life.”
* “uh … you read one excerpt about his darkest days. how about reading the actual book before taking a stance like that?”
* “i understand your reaction, but why do flaws/struggles/issues damn a legacy. He was a great RB; a great man who happened to have his struggles. as we all do. to make someone a mythical figure … what service does that provide?”
* “how can you say that without reading the whole book? seriously, feel free to kill me … after you read the whole thing.”
* “by ‘fucking asshole,’ I’m guessing you’re not gonna buy the book.”
A running theme: Pearlman urging people not to judge the book by its most dour parts alone. (Conveniently, that line of rejoinder dovetails nicely with a suggestion that someone actually Buy the Book before railing against him.) Eventually time will iron out Payton’s legacy the way it has for Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb. There’s a reason people keep talking about the legendary bastards long after they’re gone. Without a nasty streak, a dark side, an athlete’s legacy fades into his stats and still photos. Unless you’re Seabiscuit, no one’s gonna buy that book. Who in his right mind wants to read about clean living? If you want to join history, it’s better to be remembered weaknesses and all than to be substantively forgotten.