Jeff Pearlman Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Jeff Pearlman. Jeff is the author of four previous books, including two New York Times bestsellers, The Bad Guys Won and Boys Will Be Boys. He’s a columnist for SportsIllustrated.com, as well as a contributor to the Wall Street Journal. His latest book is a biography, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton. Blackstone is pleased to be releasing the audiobook version, narrated by Malcolm Hillgartner, and that’s now available from our website, www.Downpour.com. Jeff, thanks for joining us today.
JEFF PEARLMAN: Sure, my pleasure.
GG: It’s no secret at this point that your book has gotten a lot of criticism. Mike Ditka wants to spit on you, and people seem very upset that you’ve revealed more about Walter Payton than maybe some people wanted to know. Too much information. What’s your response to that, talking about the flaws and foibles of a great sports legend, a much-loved one. How do you respond?
JP: Well, first and foremost, I think almost all the criticism came from people who hadn’t read the book. Even before the book was released. From just an excerpt. And during the two weeks that the book has been out—I’m not just saying this—I have not received one negative review. I think when people take the book as a whole, four hundred and sixty pages, they see it’s a definitive biography of a person’s life—of a very fascinating person’s life. And it’s not just that the excerpts that Sports Illustrated chose to run concerned a down point in his life, when his career was over and he was battling depression and some other issues. But if you take his life on a whole, he had this fascinating, riveting existence. And another thing is this is what a definitive biography is. I mean, serious. You do not write biographies of people and say, “You know what, anything negative about him—any tough times—we’re just going to glaze over it because it might be hurtful to someone or it might be hard to read.” And this is what a biography is. This is what history is—you look at a person’s entire life, the ups and the downs. See how they dealt with those situations. And then you have a real, honest portrayal of a human being.
GG: In the course of writing the book, you interviewed over seven hundred people, something like that? What was your criteria for what to include and what not to include?
JP: I don’t know if I had a list—I certainly didn’t have a list of criteria. A lot of it you base on trustworthy sources, people who you know you can believe in and people who give solid information, whose information checks out. And, sure, you really just want to tell the story of a person’s life. So if you’re writing about his boyhood growing up in Mississippi then you want to interview every classmate, every teammate, every coach, every teacher. When it comes to the Bears, you want to talk to every teammate you can find, every opponent you can find from big games, every coach. I interviewed over the course of the research every coach Walter Payton ever dealt with—from high school to his last days in the NFL. I just think the key is whoever can help you paint a thorough, detailed, and accurate portrait, that’s who you want to speak with.
GG: Are there people that you don’t believe, or aren’t trustworthy? Do you just have an instinct for the fact that maybe that’s not information that you want to use?
JP: Well, the people who you go over their stories and you go over what they’ve talked about, and you see that either their dates are off, or their memories aren’t quite right—I mean this is the NFL in the 1970s. There are certain people who factually don’t remember things well. That was a brutal time in professional football. So you talk to them, you see that a lot of their stuff wasn’t right and what not. You sort of move forward.
GG: Early on in the book, you talk about going to visit Payton to interview him, and he comes to the door and you didn’t recognize him because of the effects of his illness.
GG: What was going through your mind? How did you handle that? How did you get in there and recover from that shock, and start the interview?
JP: I don’t know if I ever did fully. I was only twenty-six—I was sort of a young writer at Sports Illustrated. I’d never dealt with disease or death. I remember sitting down across from him. I can still picture it even when I talk about it. Even right now I can still remember sitting across from him. And the thing that was the most noteworthy, I think, even more than the loss of weight, was the eyes. They were very dark and very yellowed. And, he was just this sort of … You know, at the time I wouldn’t say I always had the best judgment in writing, and there was a line in my story that never made it in, but it was really how I felt at the time, which was, it occurs to me I could beat up Walter Payton. And it was a good line—it was good that they didn’t use it because it was very insensitive and whatever. But that’s actually what I was thinking as I was sitting there across from Walter Payton. I cannot believe that this guy was two hundred and something pounds, who was the model of fitness and ruggedness and durability and strength and power. You’re sitting across from him and he sort of looks like just a weathered, battered version of himself. Very, very sort of hard and sad to look at.
GG: In the book you talk about Payton’s experiences with desegregation, the integration of schools in Mississippi. He was part of the first high school class in the state of Mississippi to be integrated, and throughout his high school and college career he seems to have gone out of his way to make sure whites and blacks—athletes of all colors felt respected for who they were and not what they were. Do you think this early experience formed his attitude toward his teammates, or was it just part of who he was as a person?
JP: Well, first I’ll correct you on one thing. His wasn’t the first desegregated class in the state of Mississippi. It was only in Marion County, where he was from. Columbia, Mississippi. I think this guy just happened to be a very good person—especially in this area. And he happened to be a very, very open-minded person. A guy who … I don’t know if it’s ever true that someone doesn’t see color, per se, but who was not affected by color. He happened to have a pretty impressive mother—his mother, Alyne Payton—one of her jobs when Walter was growing up was at the local golf course, where she and her family were not allowed to play or eat or anything. And she somehow maintained this very open-minded, positive outlook about humanity and about people, even though she was making them pancakes and they were the same pancakes she could not eat. She would not be allowed to go there. She maintained this sort of progressive outlook, and sort of non-race-based outlook. And preached that to her kids. And had her kids going to church. And talking about loving thy neighbor. But really preaching it, not just saying it, but really preaching the idea. And Payton was the exact same way. He really was. He was not a guy who saw race. If anything, he went out of his way to make whites feel comfortable, knowing in some cases they might not feel comfortable at all.
GG: Why was he called “Sweetness?”
JP: (chuckles) It’s one of my favorite stories. I started working on the book, and nobody knew the answer. And when I found it I was euphoric. Right before he reported to the Bears in 1975, he was drafted out of Jackson State. And before he reports to the Bears he takes part in this college football all-star game, where a bunch of graduating seniors form a team and they play the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in an annual game. So all these guys gather at Northwestern University in Chicago—outside Chicago—and they’re practicing one day, and Payton takes a handoff and he’s running into the secondary, and the guy’s about to tackle him and he screams out just for no reason, he screams out “Your sweetness is your weakness!” really loud. And everyone starts cracking up. What the hell did Walter Payton just say? Something about your sweetness, something about your sweetness. And he shows up the next day and he scribbles “sweetness” across the blackboard in the clubhouse in the locker room. And from that day on, first kind of jokingly, then obviously it stuck, his nickname was Sweetness.
GG: What was it like meeting legends from the seventies and eighties—interviewing them? These huge football personalities.
JP: You know, I’ve been doing this a long time as a sportswriter. So I would say the main thing that sticks with me is that with football players, especially football players of that era and this age, a lot of them are just beaten up. Either in wheelchairs, or using canes, or have had triple knee replacement. Or torn this, or battered that. Their backs aren’t straight, their bones have been broken, their fingers are crooked. And there came a point where I interviewed this one guy, Wally Chambers, who had been a defensive lineman with the Bears, and he’s just a wreck, physically a wreck. And after talking to him, I started asking each guy, “So, what kind of physical shape are you in?” And there was one after another: “Man, I can barely walk. Man, I’m beaten down. Man this, man that.” And it became really sad, because you realize these players made good money in the ’70s and ’80s, but not insane money. And the NFL hasn’t exactly looked out for these guys. So in a lot of cases, they don’t have much money. They’re broken-down guys and as far as the book, I think they were happy to go back in time for a couple minutes because a lot of their lives right now are just waking up in the morning in pain and going to bed in even more pain.
GG: I was going to ask you if Walter Payton’s situation toward the end of his life was unique, but you just answered my question, I think.
JP: No, not even remotely. Not even remotely. And the other thing … I wrote in the book obviously about his depression, and people have asked me “Was it related to the beating he took in football? Is there brain injury? Blah, blah, blah.” I don’t know the answer because after he died he was cremated so there were no studies of his body. But I can tell you that what a lot of athletes go through, including him, is sort of a sense of waywardness and a sense of meaninglessness, and looking for something in their life to fill that void. And you were a guy who played in front of sixty-thousand screaming fans, chanting your name, getting everything for free, women all over you, eat at any restaurant you want. You know, the most famous man in Chicago at the time. How do you replace that? How can you possibly replace that? And so many athletes go through it. That’s why when guys retire you find such high rates of substance abuse. Such low rates of marital survival. A ton of depression. It just comes with the afterlife of an athlete.
GG: Your other books, The Bad Guys Won, which is about the ’86 Mets; Barry Bonds’ biography Love Me, Hate Me; Roger Clemens, The Rocket That Fell to Earth. There seems to be no shortage of controversy in the subjects you choose to write about. You seem to enjoy writing about them, but they seem to be damaged men or controversial people. Is this a conscious decision or just something that came up as you chose each new subject?
JP: Well, it’s funny you ask that, because the truth of the matter is, it started in 1999 when I was at Sports Illustrated, and I wrote the profile on John Rocker that got a lot of attention—sort of the racist Braves pitcher. And it’s hard to shake that. And I wrote the ’86 Met book because I loved the ’86 Mets when I was a kid growing up in New York. And I wrote Barry Bonds because he was hugely popular at the time, and kind of mysterious. One of the appeals, I’ll say, of Walter Payton, was that he wasn’t one of those guys or one of those teams. You know, he was a guy who was beloved, and who was as anti–Barry Bonds as a person could get. But the problem is I believe in full biographies. I think you have to write about a person in full or what’s the point of it all. You’re writing a lie. So, I think people looked at the excerpts in this book, especially, and said, “Oh, here he is again. Writing about another … you know, digging dirt on another guy, blah, blah, blah.” And I wrote this book out of love for Walter Payton. And I was thrilled to write about a guy who didn’t come with his own baggage. And, the truth of the matter is when I first found out that he had an out-of-wedlock child, I wrestled with that a lot. And I was really disappointed. And bummed out about it. How do you write about this? And yet, how do you not write about this? If you’re writing a definitive biography about someone that’s a huge moment in his life. But I sort of hate that reputation. I just love writing about people, and I love writing about interesting people. If they happened to be controversial, I guess that’s part of the interest.
GG: You’ve done a lot of interviews, you’ve been asked a lot of questions. Is there anything you haven’t been asked that you want to answer?
JP: Hmm… I haven’t been asked where people can send hundred-dollar bills to support the Jeff Pearlman charity…
JP: …the gangly Jewish journalist of New York. No. I mean, I don’t know. I’ve probably done three hundred interviews for this book. I’ve been asked everything … the thing I like getting across is that he was a fascinating man. A really fascinating man, and yeah he had flaws in his life, but who doesn’t? I mean if you did the Jeff Pearlman biography tomorrow, a) It would be really boring and nobody would read it, but b) You know, you’d find out things about me too. This is what, this is who we are. I love biography, I love reading biographies, I love Manning Marable on Malcolm X, and Richard Ben Cramer on Joe DiMaggio and Jane Levie on Mickey Mantle and David Maraniss on Vince Lombardi, and what makes those books great is that they’re full, detailed scopings of a human life. And I just hate when people confuse thorough reporting and detailed reporting with a slash-and-burn job. Because this book is, if you read it cover to cover, is anything but.
GG: We always ask. Do you listen to audiobooks?
JP: (laughs) I’ve probably in my life listened to one.
JP: I like reading and the question I ask you—does it count reading a book if you listen to an audiobook? My wife and I debate this—she loves audiobooks. Can you say, “I read the book,” if I listened to the book?
JP: Yeah, that’s what she says.
JP: I don’t know.
GG: Because it’s word for word. You’re not getting it any different.
JP: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true.
GG: What’s next?
JP: Oh, man, I don’t know. I’m just trying to do a lot of freelance and take a little break. These were three very intense years of my life and I loved writing this book so much. And this is the first book that I’ve written where I feel like I absolutely love it. And I love the finished product. You know, this is the book that I really wanted to write, so I feel like I need a bit of a—a tiny little break, to sort of regroup and figure out what I want to do next.
GG: All right, well, we’ll look forward to it, whatever it is. Thank you very much. Thanks for joining us today, Jeff. We really appreciate your time, and it’s been a wonderful experience for us to do the book.
JP: Thank you very much.
GG: Thanks a lot, and best of luck.
JP: All right, take care.
GG: Thank you for joining us. You can find all of Blackstone Audio’s titles and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in October 2011.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The first definitive biography of Chicago Bears superstar Walter Payton
At five feet ten inches tall, running back Walter Payton was not the largest player in the NFL, but he developed a larger-than-life reputation for his strength, speed, and grit. Nicknamed “Sweetness” during his college football days, he became the NFL’s all-time leader in rushing and all-purpose yards, capturing the hearts of fans in his adopted Chicago.
Drawing from interviews with more than seven hundred sources, acclaimed sportswriter Jeff Pearlman has crafted the first definitive biography of Payton. Sweetness at last brings fans a detailed, scrupulously researched, all-encompassing account of the legend’s rise to greatness. From Payton’s childhood in segregated Mississippi, where he ended a racial war by becoming the star of his integrated high school’s football team, to his college years and his thirteen-year NFL career, Sweetness brims with stories of all-American heroism and covers Payton’s life on and off the field. Set against the backdrop of the tragic illness that cut his life short at just forty-five years of age, this is a stirring tribute to a singular icon and the lasting legacy he made.