Since news broke about the Jeff Pearlman book, "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton," the controversy surrounding the excerpts provided in the Sports Illustrated piece have caused quite a stir in Bears country. Perhaps expectedly, both sides of the argument - why do we tear down our heroes or this is a peek into a man that was - have valid points, and my purpose here isn't to change your opinion on whether or not Pearlman is a hack, or a sensationalist, or a quality journalist. I want to look at why the controversy is a positive thing, and why the book should and does matter to Bears' fans and NFL fans. Hit the jump for more.
I'm going to read it. It may be a second-hand purchase online, or from the library, or a Christmas present from a relative, but I want to take a look at it. Dane already posted an explanation by Pearlman from his website about why he wrote it, and Pearlman also wrote a piece in the Tribune as a kind of launching point for Bears' fans into the story he's telling; its not a defense against retractors like I thought it would be, but an interesting piece that helps show the story within the book is more than just trashing Payton. Its about uncovering one of the most recognizable faces and most amazing players in the NFL's storied history, and yet a man we know little about outside of his abilities on the field and the heart-wrenching end to his life.
Kevin Seifert of the NFC North blog on ESPN posted something earlier essentially saying "don't be afraid of it without knowing everything about it." From the excerpts out there now - and yes, the book publisher/marketing arm are looking to make the biggest splash possible, hence the controversial stuff coming out - they don't paint Walter in the best light. For me, I'll take any information I can get about the man I idolized as a Bears' fan growing up, whether its about his determination, running up that stinking hill over and over to better himself, or his post-career struggles.
Pearlman's books are either sensationalistic (if you hate the Payton book) or throwing back the veil on sports history (if you respect the work, regardless of whether you like it or agree with it). None of us can say he's a liar without the subsequent proof, but that also doesn't mean we have to fully believe that what Pearlman writes is the whole truth. The controversy should be expected - you take a storied sports franchise's most deified player and reveal him to be human, to have faults and low moments like the rest of us, and his fans aren't exactly going to be singing the author's praises. But the plus side of the controversy is regardless of opinions, there's another opportunity to learn more about Payton, if you choose. If you don't, no problem. You don't want to read about Payton's low points in life? I understand.
What I plan on doing is taking the book with a grain of salt, knowing that embellishments and inaccuracies happen in the media, but make my primary objective in reading the book as a chance to learn more about number 34, his success and failures, his youth, his final days, and his struggles. I've enjoyed reading comments from our community and other media sites discusses the book, from both sides of the coin, and think that if nothing else, we're drumming up some new found interest for people that don't fully understand how great or how impactful Payton was, and giving him the second glance he deserves. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, spending time discusses the greatest running back of all-time makes me happy, and leaves me wanting to read that book to learn more.