January 4, 2012
To seriously date myself, over twenty-two years ago in 1989, a classic video game was born. To older gamers like myself, Tecmo Bowl a clunky simulation of NFL football was one of those iconic, male-bonding games that you just had to have if you owned a Nintendo Entertainment System. In high school, I can tell you that my studies suffered as result of playing this game to the point of aching thumbs and sleepless nights.
Although I wasnt a Chicago Bears fan, I played them in the video game because I admired late Hall Of Fame running back Walter Sweetness Payton and I got a chance to meet him in Washington, D.C. during an event for teens and sports in 1990. He was still a vision of health, much stronger looking in person than on television and I didnt get to say much to him. But I walked away thinking that I may have met the greatest running back of my time.
Payton played all 13 of his NFL seasons with the Bears, entering the Hall in 1993 after retiring in 1988. He unfortunately passed in 1999 at age 45 as a result of rare liver disease that made the muscle-bound Payton wither away. In the years gone by since his passing, books and articles have been written about Sweetness, but a story I recently came across nearly crushed my image of him.
Cleveland publication The Plain Dealer ran a piece last week focusing on an upcoming biography from writer Jeff Pearlman which digs deeper into Paytons life revealing dark secrets that could mar the legacy of the Bears legend. Infidelity, a child out of wedlock (that he reportedly didnt acknowledge), drug addiction and a hidden affinity for fast food are all laid out for fans to read. I didnt want to leap to judgment, but I couldnt ignore what I read.
Pearlman, a former Sports Illustrated writer, was an old-school journalist who undoubtedly fact-checked with the best of them. Clearly hes not accepting vague accounts from the reported 678 interviews he conducted to complete his book. I trust the writer to have interviewed close friends of the player and write the truth. The truth, it appears, was less than glossy but does it take away from the fact that Payton did leave behind some sweetness along with his legacy?
In a series of interviews last fall, Connie, Paytons widow, disputed Pearlmans claims. She didnt deny that her husband was troubled, but she also didnt throw her husbands name into the gutter, nor confirm any of Pearlmans other claims. Mrs. Payton is also set to release her own memoir.
On the positive side, Walter and his wife started a foundation, which serves underprivileged children, and there is also a cancer research fund in Paytons name. His oldest child, Jarrett, assisted with running The Walter and Connie Payton Foundation in the past.
The truth is, none of us will know what truly happened during Paytons life except for the parties involved which is immediately rendered one-sided because Payton isnt here to defend himself. Until then, Ill continue to think of Sweetness as one of the best ever to play the game and remember what his own son said during Paytons Fame induction, I am sure my sister will endorse this statement, we have a super dad.
Payton was not only a role model for many in his sports position, but as a husband and father he was a role model at home. Thats why NFI places such an importance on helping men understand the value - and difficulties of - entering the union of marriage. Men considering marriage, or those organizations working with young men, may want to consider NFIs Why Knot? program, a perfect place for men to start before making the vital leap into matrimony. Learn more at www.fatherhood.org/why-knot.