Walter Payton was a hero to the city of Chicago, and he was maybe the greatest running back ever to live. But 25 years after the Super Bowl shuffle, the truth about the Bears icon is more complicated.
Over at Sports Illustrated, an excerpt from Jeff Pearlman's latest book sheds light on a man who was shrouded in mystery for most of his playing days, and his entire time in retirement. Pearlman's the guy who's written two of the raunchiest, most addictive sports books this decade--The Bad Guys Won and Boys Will Be Boys--but his work with Payton takes on an entirely different tone.
Beyond the breathtaking talent on the field, and the man called the "most complete football player in the history of the game", there was a character off the field who would've defied our understanding then, and still seems a little detached from the man America worshipped in the '80s.
There's Payton, the restless, purposeless retiree:
Payton threw himself into as many activities as possible, hoping something would fill the void. He took helicopter lessons. He bought guns. He shopped for antique automobiles, took up auto racing and pursued ownership of an NFL team. Of his many investments, the one Payton enjoyed most was Studebaker's, a 1950s-themed nightclub in a strip mall in Schaumburg, Ill., that opened in 1983. Payton picked the location, interviewed and hired most of the staff, used his name to bring instant credibility. Before long the club was a hot spot for mostly middle-aged revelers. "That was really Walter's baby," says Quirk. "He'd be in the deejay booth spinning records, in the kitchen waving to customers from the back. He was in his element."
There's Payton, the boss who shot an employee by mistake:
In his right hand Payton was holding a 9-mm French-made Manurhin Pistolet that he'd recently purchased. As he spoke with his wife, Payton spun the gun and jokingly pointing it toward Hutson. "He twirled it a couple of times, then came back up with the gun and put it down again," Hutson says. "That's when it went off." The bullet entered Hutson's left knee, fragmenting his kneecap, and traveled nine inches up his thigh, taking out approximately two inches of hamstring and all his cartilage. It exited through the rear of the leg, leaving a three-inch hole.
There's Payton, the nervous adulterer at his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
The last thing Payton needed was to have his Hall of Fame weekend complicated and compromised. But Lita was coming, and she expected to be treated as his girlfriend. "She was insisting she be seated in the front row," says Tucker. "We said, 'Lita, are you insane? We're marketing this man as a family-friendly spokesperson. His whole image is based around decency. You will ruin him.'"
Although Walter hadn't lived at home for nearly five years, Connie was coming too. She was, after all, his wife. She had stuck by him through the tough early years; had left the comforts of Mississippi for Chicago; had endured his moods and his mischief, his intensity and his infidelity. To the press she had never once uttered a foul word about Walter. As far as the world knew, he was a dedicated husband.
And there's Payton's kids, remembering their dad a few years after cancer snatched him from their lives:
Dad had a sweet tooth for Laffy Taffys," Jarrett Payton says. "The banana ones. My mom used to go to Sam's Club and buy the big buckets. About two years after my father died, we moved out of our house. We were packing up everything, and one of the things we had was this big vase in the atrium that had been there for years. It was sitting on top of something, so you never got to see in it because it was high up. When we were moving, we picked up this big vase, and it almost tipped over. It made a rustling noise, and I was like, What's in here? Well, I dumped it out, and hundreds upon hundreds of Laffy Taffy wrappers came pouring out.
"It was the most beautiful thing in the world."
The reporting's exhaustive, Payton's story twists and turns in ways nobody could have known at the time, and it all makes looking back all the more fascinating. All together, Pearlman gives us a pretty captivating look at an American icon who, it turns out, was whole lot more complex than anyone ever realized. Check out the full excerpt here, and check out the new book, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life Of Walter Payton, in bookstores on October 4th.