Jeff Pearlman has written books about Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, the 86’ Mets and the 1990s Dallas Cowboys. His books have dealt with controversial figures but the release of his latest book about Walter Payton, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, put the controversy spotlight on him.
Sports Illustrated released an excerpt from the book before the book’s release and it brought to light some information about the beloved and iconic sports figure that most of his fans wished they never knew… Painkiller addiction, marital affairs and thoughts of suicide.
I was able to interview Jeff Pearlman about the book and the fallout from it for GMEN HQ. After the break you’ll find the complete transcript of the interview in its entirety and uncensored.
QMEN HQ: Obviously you go into writing a book about a legend as large as Walter Payton knowing that if you say anything remotely negative about him that those who worshiped him only as a football player would come out with a furor supporting him. But were you ready for the enormous reaction that parts of the book brought out supporting Payton and dissing you both as a person and writer?
Jeff Pearlman: Nope. Wasn’t prepared. You would think, at age 39 and having been in the business for a while, I would have been. But it honestly caught me off guard. I put so much effort into the book, into writing this definitive, all-encompassing biography … just think I left a blind spot for how people would react to the excerpt; that people might take a brief segment for the whole.
It hurt. A lot. And not because people were calling me names. It hurt because I love this book; because I put so, so, so much into it. So for it to be dismissed and discarded—stung. But I think I’m making a comeback. At least I hope so.
QMEN HQ: Do you think you’re making a comeback because now that people have read the book, in its entirety and not just an excerpt, that they have gotten the whole story of Walter Payton? The good and the bad?
Not to mention the glowing reviews and praise you’ve received for your book by peers such as Peter King and Dan Wetzel must feel good. Also, isn’t it weird that you have to feel like you’re making a “comeback” based on what people thought of the book based on just one excerpt?
Pearlman: The whole thing has been weird. This is my fifth book, and I’ve never experienced anything like this.
To answer the question–yes, I think people are actually reading the book, and seeing what it really is. I’ve actually received myriad apologies from people, generally via Twitter, who slammed me, only to realize, oops, this is a good book. That’s all I can ask for. And if people read the book, then express hatred/anger/whatever, I’ve got no beef.
QMEN HQ: I was actually going to ask you if you anybody who trashed the book based on the excerpt later read it and loved it and apologized to you for their earlier stance? But it seems like they have.
Has that made you feel better about the book? Has Mike Ditka seen you since the release of the book and, if so, has he spit on you?
Pearlman: I’ve always felt good about the book. It’s my ultimate labor of love. I actually wonder whether I’ll ever be able to get into a subject the way I got into Walter Payton. So even though there were people who responded angrily to the excerpt, it hasn’t changed the way I feel about the finished product. Even the people who complained—Ditka, Steve McMichael, etc … it’s never been “You got him wrong.” It’s been “How dare you!” Which, therefore, must be asked of all biographies ever written about the deceased.
And I haven’t seen Mike Ditka. But he was contrite in a follow-up interview. So, no beef.
QMEN HQ: Did you at any point feel that some of the criticism hurled your way had more to do with the fact that it’s your name on the book jacket as the author and that people couldn’t unleash their anger on some of the people you interviewed that revealed this other side of Payton?
Pearlman: Never thought of it that way. Honestly, I think it comes down to this. Walter Payton is a God in Chicago. He died young, which only enhances his already sterling image. There’s a mythology about him, and people love mythology; love believing someone is perfect and ideal and untouchable. It gives comfort, or something. If I’d written the same book about Dennis Rodman or Jim McMahon—not nearly as big a problem, if a problem at all. But parts of this book puncture the perfection, and that’s tough.
QMEN HQ: That’s interesting you would say that if you wrote about Dennis Rodman or Jim McMahon you wouldn’t have had the same problems as you did writing about Walter Payton. Is that because we would have expected something like that from them as opposed to Payton?
What one athlete did you grow up admiring in your youth? If you found out something negative or troubling about them would that have had an impact on how you cheered for them? Would you want to know the dark side of their life?
Now that we know about Payton and his troubles do you think that will have an effect on his legacy in any manner or are those that saw him as a superhero going to continue doing so as if your book never existed?
Pearlman: It depends. As a kid, perhaps. But this is a 460-page biography. It’s not for 10-year olds. As an adult, and as a longtime sports journalist, I know plenty about my past heroes. Much of it isn’t especially positive. But does that change my opinion of them as athletic heroes? Not at all. Because I’m aware no one is perfect; we all have flaws and warts and issues.
As a kid, one of my favorite athletes was Garry Templeton, the shortstop. He flipped off the fans. I still loved him.
QMEN HQ: You might be aware that not everybody is perfect and I might feel the same way but there are still many sports fans that look at most athletes as some sort of superhero. They cheer them on when they lead their team to victory and tend to brush aside any seedy part of their personal life, unless they repeatedly do it such as Pacman Jones, as long as they play at a high level.
Nobody wants to peak behind the cape or mask and see broken down athletes, be it those who are broke, suffering from a mental disease or are physically beaten down after their physical playing days. Alan Moore can write about superheroes like that in Watchmen but we don’t want that in our real life, especially in regards to athletes. What do you think it is about athletes that cause fans to feel that way?
Pearlman: Athletes represent, in many cases, that which we long to attain, but never can/will. They’re superheroes—dashing around in bright outfits, overloaded with muscle and speed and power. Most of us are has-beens—we had moments, very brief, of mediocre athletic glory. A high school home run to beat Carmel. A tackle in the big game. I ran one year of mid-level Division I track and cross country. That’s as good, athletically, as it got to me. So we look to our athletes longingly; they have what we want.
To learn that they are, come day’s end, human, can be very, very deflating. It’s sad, because they’re often fascinating people with remarkable backgrounds. But that’s not always what we want to hear.
QMEN HQ: Ain’t that the truth. I’ll never forget about that one time I got to carry the ball as a 300-pound plus defensive lineman back in high school.
On your site it says it took you three years to complete this book. Can you explain why it took such a long time for you to complete Sweetness?
Pearlman: Well, that’s from signing to release. But the reason is simple: Dedication. Never have I been more dedicated to a project; more determined to write a full and complete story. So that doesn’t mean talking to, oh, 10 people from the Jackson State years—it means going through every media guide from his four years there and trying to find absolutely everyone. Now take that same philosophy and apply it to two different high schools, 13 years with the Bears, an auto racing career, etc … etc. It winds up being nearly 700 interviews—which take forever. And that’s just the tip. I probably read 10,000 articles about Walter; watched countless tapes, videos, games, etc. Read every Payton-related book I could find, traveled repeatedly to Mississippi and Chicago. On and on. I could have used five years, to be honest.
QMEN HQ: Why were you so dedicated to this project? How did the amount of research, time, and effort you put into Sweetness compare to what you put into your other books about the 90s’ Dallas Cowboys, Barry Bonds, Walter Payton, Roger Clemens, and the 86’ NY Mets?
What makes you choose whom you write a book about?
Pearlman: Well, as far as picking a topic, I’m always on the lookout for icons. Iconic teams, iconic players. And especially icons who haven’t been written about 800 times. The world doesn’t need another biography on Willie Mays or Joe DiMaggio or Jackie Robinson. But with Payton, there was this big question mark. Who was he? What made him tick? And why did we know so little about the man? That’s where the dedication to the projects stems from—my genuine curiosity about his life. And, as I went on, the curiosity only increased.
And it blew away the other books, research-wise.
QMEN HQ: Why do you think there wasn’t a definitive biography already written about him?
Pearlman: Well, it’s pretty clear nobody in Chicago was going to do it. There were certainly ideas within the media of Walter’s womanizing, but to write it inside the city would be, in a sense, career suicide. It’s a very protective city, and the media—with some noble exceptions—goes along. Their job doesn’t always seem to report, but to glorify. So who there would write a true book?
QMEN HQ: And you can’t not write about that, right? A definitive biography tells us everything, the good and the bad and everything else in between. But isn’t it a writer or journalist’s duty to inform us? Some reporters risk their lives passing along stories about injustices happening all over the world. And to think that a sports journalist in Chicago would protect an athlete sounds kind of ridiculous. But then again I’m not getting paid to write about sports in Chicago so I don’t know what the consequences would be.
The atmosphere around sports journalism has changed in recent times with sites such as Deadspin reporting on everything about an athletes’ personal and professional life. If Deadspin had been around during Walter Payton’s era do you think most of the information you discovered would have already been publicized?
Pearlman: Without question. Much of it was out—just ignored. Actually, not “much”—”some.”
QMEN HQ: There might be some aspiring sports writers reading this interview. Do you have any advice for them? Can you explain your writing process, style or habits?
Pearlman: Well, the best advice I can give is report your ass off. Details, details, details, details. Don’t just think writing skill is enough. It’s all about digging, then digging some more, making the extra call and another call after that.
My writing style? Not sure. I like being in public, working near noise. So I’m usually at Starbucks or Panera or Cosi.
QMEN HQ: Okay, last question. Since you’ve written about controversial sports figures and have been in the middle of some controversy because of your books can we expect you to write the definitive Tim Tebow biography and what do you think the response to that book would be like if you were to write anything negative about the chosen one?
Pearlman: Ha, not even on the radar. What is he? 23? 24? Hasn’t even liven life yet …