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The Real Walter Payton

"The book Sweetness, written by Jeff Pearlman, is highlighted in the current edition of Sports Illustrated and reports Payton was involved in several extra-marital affairs and fathered an illegitimate son," the Tribune reports. "The author also cites sources who claim Payton routinely mixed a cocktail of Tylenol and Vicodin after his playing days.

"'I don't know why people would want to tarnish his image 12 years later with stuff people probably don't want to hear,' said former Bears tight end Emery Moorehead, who was a teammate of Payton on the Super Bowl XX champions."

I'll tell you why.

Because a false image of Payton was created that was then sold to fans. And no one was damaged more by that than Payton himself, who, like many star athletes, was dehumanized.

"Anything for a buck, I guess," Moorehead says.

Well, yes. For Payton. He lived an incredible set of lies for a buck. And it made him miserable. Perhaps there's a lesson there; perhaps now Payton can really be a role model.


Excerpts from the Sports Illustrated excerpt of Sweetness:

"Now that he was retired, the self-medicating only intensified. Payton habitually ingested a cocktail of Tylenol and Vicodin. In a particularly embarrassing episode, in 1988, Payton visited a handful of dental offices, complaining of severe tooth pain. He received several prescriptions for morphine and hit up a handful of drugstores to have them filled. When one of the pharmacists noticed the activity, he contacted the police, who arrived at Payton's house and discussed the situation. Payton was merely issued a warning."

That kind of special treatment did Payton no favors. Perhaps the consequences of a drug bust would have changed his dark trajectory.


"Shortly after he learned he'd been voted into the Hall of Fame, Payton spoke with Lita Gonzalez [not her real name], a New Jersey-based flight attendant with whom he'd been in a tempestuous relationship since they'd met at the Michael Spinks-Mike Tyson heavyweight title fight in Atlantic City in 1988. 'I'm coming to the ceremony,' Gonzalez said. 'There's no way I'd miss it.' 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.'"

Perhaps knowing the real man and not an image created for profit would have been healthier for him and us both.


"One of Payton's favorite employees was Elmer Hutson, a 28-year-old manager known to the staff as J.R. On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 13, 1988, Hutson arrived early at the bar and engaged in a heated phone exchange with Mike McKenna, a Coors Light representative. Fifteen minutes after hanging up, Hutson was summoned to see Payton. 'I walk into his office, and he had a couch and two chairs up against the wall,' says Hutson. 'He was sitting on one chair and Mike McKenna - who came to complain about me - was in the other. I sat down on the arm of the couch. Walter had the phone to his ear, talking to Connie.' 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.

"The next morning the news that the NFL's all-time leading rusher had shot an employee swept the nation, and talk radio hosts wondered whether Payton would face charges. (He didn't.)"

I wonder how Plaxico Burress feels about that. Or, for that matter, all the schmucks in prison for lesser incidents.

Payton was a danger to himself and others; he reportedly talked incessantly about not only killing himself but taking others out with him. Again, giving him special treatment - no charges? Really? - did him no favors. He needed help, not worship.


Comments welcome.


1. From Jerry Pritikin:

Sometimes the truth hurts, and in this case it's no different. I have met many of my sports idols as well as other legends and found the pedestal they stood on were too often based on P.R. and not facts. I happen to live across the street from the Walter Payton College Prep High School and feel sorry for many of the students and faculty. Those kids were painted a picture a Sweetness as a hero for his legendary life on the football field. It's for them I feel the pain of this story.

I met Walter at a Chicago Sports Show at Mc Cormick Place in the late 1980s. He was signing autographs for a License NFL products manufacturer. When it was my turn, I mentioned to him, that I had made a popular Walter Payton Voodoo doll that was a 49er fan favorite when the Bears were in San Francisco. He looked up at me and said "Maybe that's why he's been hurting so much." It was not yet known publicly of his illness. Often, after sports stars retire, they begin to believe the stories that fans had based their devotion on, too.


Posted on September 29, 2011

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