If you ever saw Walter Payton run, you’ve never forgotten it—not just his elusive speed, but the power that routinely broke tackles. Then there was that exuberant kick with which he finished runs—often gaining additional yards—and which in the fourth quarter made defenders look like slackers who had run out of steam.
For years before the arrival of Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka, Payton gained yardage behind offensive lines that were mediocre at best, his margin not just talent but a toughness fostered by his own grueling work ethic: He ran up hills and stadium stands in season and off, and sprinted after each practice play.
He wasn’t the fastest or biggest running back, but Chicago fans learned he was the best all-around runner, blocker and receiver, and probably the best player, pound for pound, in the history of professional football. He was further endeared to fans by his reported penchant for pranks and a publicly self-effacing attitude, underlined by a calm voice more evocative of Michael Jackson than Dick Butkus.
We loved him, but alas, Walter, we hardly knew ye, as Jeff Pearlman’s detailed, thoroughly researched yet also thoroughly readable biography “Sweetness” makes eminently clear. Perfect athletes are perfect people only in adolescent biographies, but after reading this “warts-and-all” book, the reader may be forgivably sad about how lost and misguided Payton often was away from the game he loved, and be deeply wistful at his untimely wasting away from cancer.
Despite his apparent affability and often-gifted platform presence, he was often lonely; his close friends on the Bears were a short list, chiefly running back Roland Harper and, later, fullback Matt Suhey. We learn too that his marriage to Connie Payton was marred by his attraction to a succession of other women and that he was prone to pain killers and depression, made manifest in suicide threats unreported in the press.
His greatest sin may have been in not publicly acknowledging an out-of-wedlock son who was the result of one of his affairs, Nigel Smythe (now twenty-seven), although Payton accepted financial responsibility. Through it all, Payton maintained an image as a family man, welcoming his and Connie’s daughter Brittney only two months after Nigel’s birth. Payton was even named Chicago’s Father of the Year.
By no means does Pearlman overlook Payton’s greatness on the field. In November 1977, for example, the 3-5 Bears had not been in the playoffs in years and were on the verge of statistical elimination. They had just lost 47-0 at Houston. Quarterback Bob Avellini continued to manifest arrogant pride for no good reason because the only bright spot was Payton’s 937 total running yards, best in the NFL.
Then against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bears seemed languid until the second half when both the line and Payton really began to click. Early in the third quarter, with Chicago down by 17, Payton ripped off a run that began right, when Payton spun away from linebacker Willie Lanier, changing direction to the left, evading other defenders and breaking tackles.
Free safety Gary Barbaro said he “exploded” against Payton but failed to wrap him up, Payton stepping on him and continuing on. Payton broke seven tackles and gained eighteen critical yards, sparking a 28-27 victory.
“A better run has never been caught on tape,” writes Pearlman. Sitting at home, the retired Cleveland Browns great fullback, Jim Brown was watching. He rarely paid attention to pro football anymore. “I didn’t know who (Payton) was and I saw him make this run,” Brown recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh, my goodness—what kind of animal is this?’”
The public perception was that the relationship between Payton and his line was almost familial, but Pearlman insists it was not nor did it need to be. In public statements, Payton ever credited the line when he was successful, and sometimes this paid off. Linemen learned that if they even gave Walter only half a hole, he would break through.
To his credit, the authoritarian Ditka was aware enough not to interfere much with Payton even as he put better linemen in front of him. This plus a first-class quarterback, Jim McMahon, and a powerful defense produced the greatest team in franchise history in 1985-1986. If only Payton had had a touchdown in that dominating Super Bowl appearance!
Though that event was huge in Payton’s achievements, it is interesting to reach back—as Pearlman does—to the game after the 1977 win against the Chiefs. Then the tough, division-leading Minnesota Vikings stood between the Bears and the playoffs, and their defense knew they had only one job to do: Stop Payton. In Soldier Field, in brawling Central Division fashion, the Bears won, but only by 10-7.
Payton had been out all week with a brutal flu, but the Bears succeeded on the back of Payton’s 275 yards—an NFL single-game rushing record. After the hoopla died down, a sports writer approached a thoughtful Payton as he sat alone. “How would YOU defend (against) Walter Payton?” the writer asked.
The running back was quiet for a moment before answering: “Well, the night before the game I’d kidnap him.”
“Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton”
By Jeff Pearlman
Gotham Books, 496 pages, $30