COMMENTARY | As a kid, I’d watch Sweetness take the field in jersey number 34, see his mind-bending speed and his trademark strong-arm, and there was a sense of pride that Walter Payton was a part of our own Chicago Bears. Walter Payton belonged to our city; he was our football hero and those unbelievable things he did on the field he did for us. But that was Walter Payton the Legend.
At that time, I never considered that he could also have been Walter Payton the Man. When you’re a kid, there’s no thought that someone so inspiring to the rest of the world could be fallible, could have demons and faults and eat a breakfast that isn’t Wheaties and not wear his jersey always.
We didn’t have digital cameras everywhere, and we didn’t have an Internet powered by gossip sites, so what was private remained private and our city’s giants stayed that way. Now a book claims that Payton abused painkillers, was suicidal at times, separated from his wife Connie, and engaged in numerous extramarital affairs, according to The Associated Press..
In terms of bad behavior by famous athletes, even these allegations – shocking because they are lodged against Payton – are not shocking in the context of dark-side revelations. A retired athlete taking painkillers is not all that surprising. That he was suicidal, though, is something we should not treat as a smudge on his character; rather, when we think of the number of former NFL players who allegedly commit suicide, we should be concerned at the apparent prevalence of depression within the sport. Payton’s teammate Dave Duerson calculated his suicide to keep his brain intact for research for this very reason.
Even if the book is true – and Payton’s family says “the book contains both fact and fiction,” reports the Chicago Sun-Times – it seems a thankless public shaming of a man who, despite his own problems, despite his own alleged depression and later illness, offered his city what he always offered his city: inspiration, hope and light. It is a cruelty to his memory to sully what he gave Chicago, what he gave every single kid who watched him do the Super Bowl Shuffle, every child he visited in the hospital.
That Payton managed to be all of those things for us, even if he was haunted, even if he was not an infallible person who seemed something a little more than human, is an even greater gift. It shows that he knew what he meant to this city, he knew we needed that symbol of utter perfection, whether on third down or through the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation, which is still serving underprivileged, abused and neglected kids all these years after Walter’s death.
So Walter Payton the Man may not have been perfect. There are none who are. But Walter Payton the Legend will remain so in this city. Disgusting, unnecessary tell-all or not, he will always be Sweetness to me.