Book Review: Jeff Pearlman’s “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton”

I’d imagine a good biographer is probably best-served to be as neutral as possible about his or her subject.  I may be way off-base here, as I’ve certainly never written a biography, but I’d still guess that neutral is better here.  As an honest biographer, you certainly don’t want to paint an untrue picture of your subject – whether overly positive or negative.

In this respect, Jeff Pearlman may not the best choice on the surface to write a definitive biography of Walter Payton, the former Chicago Bears running back and Hall of Famer who passed away from bile duct cancer in 1999 at age 45.  Pearlman has openly proclaimed his love for Payton – in fact, he does so right from the foreword.  But it’s a testament to Pearlman’s integrity that Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton actually goes in the other direction.

Not this direction, though.

This biography is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of a man whose name graces the NFL’s Man of the Year award, but who was a serial womanizer whose relationship with his wife was often nonexistent.  Sweetness defines one of the most fun-loving practical jokers in the NFL who also deeply struggled with depression after his career.  It pulls no punches in its honesty.  Sweetness is not a takedown of Payton by any means – but simultaneously, it’s by no means a tale of unadulterated praise.  That’s about as high of an accolade as I can bestow upon a biography.

There should be a quick-pitch angle to every good biography – or, in plain English, it should answer the question why should I read this book?  For Sweetness, it’s that Pearlman presents Payton as a subject who’s difficult to pin down.  Here is a man who came from a segregated world in Columbia, Mississippi and helped turn the town’s fortunes around through his universal charm and his football skills.  Here’s a man who dominated high schoolers to an astonishing extent but never received any SEC interest, settling in at historically black Jackson State University.  Here’s a man who for most of his young life wasn’t even considered the best athlete in his family – his brother, Eddie, also ended up in the NFL.  And, of course, here’s a man who was drafted by a flailing franchise and helped lead it out of darkness and into a dominant Super Bowl team, who still resonates as one of the greatest players in the rich history of the NFL.

But above all, Sweetness has enough information to let you make your own decisions about Payton.  (Pearlman interviewed more than 600 subjects for the book.)  Was he a terrific person who had maddening personal moments?  Or was he an inwardly bad guy who just protected a public happiness to so many who didn’t know him well?  I’m inclined to believe it’s much more of the former than the latter – in fact, I’m all but positive.  But see for yourself.

One thing that can’t be doubted, though, is the thoroughness for Pearlman’s work.  Writing a blog post can be exhausting at times.  Writing a novel must be an incredible chore.  Writing a biography for which you interview six hundred and seventy eight people?  My goodness.  Pearlman has an occasional tendency to over-describe situations or conversations, but it’s a far better notion than the alternative.  There’s not a point in Payton’s life in Sweetness that feels incomplete.  Pearlman’s description of Payton’s childhood days, now half a century removed, are as vivid as can be.  With 678 different interview subjects – none of whom, obviously, were the late Payton – Pearlman undoubtedly received conflicting narratives.  You wouldn’t know it, because Sweetness feels factual from its first page to its last.  In fact, Pearlman even debunks a few widely held stories about Payton.  He was recruited by Kansas State, not Kansas (check yourself, Wikipedia), and he was actually 46 at the time of his death – not 45, as is commonly held.  How could an NFL Hall of Famer born in the 50s have the wrong age universally presented – and how did Pearlman find out?  The devil’s in Sweetness‘ details.

From Pearlman’s website.

Unfortunately for Pearlman, Sweetness made headlines last year for all the wrong reasons.  Carefully-selected excerpts of the near-500-page book exposed Payton as an adulterer and an abuser of painkillers, and former Bears coaches and teammates alike ripped into Pearlman.  My advice for them?  Read the damn book.  Pearlman tells the truth, and more often, that truth is the Walter Payton that fans, admirers and friends like to fondly remember.  Witness the book’s final lines, written from Pearlman’s perspective: “I love what (Payton) overcame, I love what he accomplished, I love what he symbolized, and I love the nooks and crannies and complexities.”  I’m pretty sure that Mike Ditka would get a different idea of what Jeff Pearlman set out to do if he actually read Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton rather than blasting it unfairly thanks to an excerpt.  I suggest you, dear reader, do the same.

Grade: A-


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