An Interview with Jeff Pearlman, Author of Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated staff writer who has written five wildly entertaining (and frequently controversial) books about colorful athletes and teams, including biographies of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, and investigative histories of both the 1986 Mets and 1990s Dallas Cowboys dynasty. His insistence on slipping behind the popular mythology of star athletes has made his books required reading for sports fans. His latest book, Sweetness: the Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, a biography of legendary Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, has drawn both rave reviews and ire for its clear-eyed portrayal of a legend, including revelations that the star suffered from depression and suicidal thoughts in his post-playing days. Here Pearlman talks about finding the man behind the myth, his love for nostalgia and the growing estrangement he feels from modern sports.
Your previous books’ topics have all dealt with pretty controversial teams or players. What drew you to Walter Payton, who’s typically regarded as pretty squeaky clean?
I think that’s part of it, actually. I really wanted to write about someone who was a blank slate to me, and also someone who was kind of fascinating and riveting and someone who I grew up watching. I didn’t know that much about him. People think, ‘oh, you were looking for dirt.’ I was never looking for dirt. You don’t look for dirt. You want to find out about a person’s life. And here was a guy that was very enigmatic, sort of guarded, and had never had a definitive biography written about him. So for me it was a pretty easy choice when I started looking around for iconic figures that were out there that would make good biography subjects.
You grew up in upstate New York, so what was your relationship watching Walter Payton when you were growing up?
You know, I was like any other kid. The truth of the matter is, I mean, I was a child of the 80s. It wasn’t like you could watch any NFL game you wanted. I probably saw Payton on TV, I saw the highlights basically. Once in a while the Jets or Giants would play the Bears, but it wasn’t that often. But the guy represented something. It was the golden era of running backs. You had him, Billy Sims, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen, the tail end of OJ Simpson. I kind of missed [Simpson], but you had Otis Anderson, and especially in New York, Freeman McNeil and Joe Morris.
But there’s this one picture of Payton that I always remember, that I first saw in a book called the Complete Handbook of Pro Football when I was a kid, and it was him, and he had his shoulder pads squared, and he was wearing a white jersey, and he was just floating through the Green Bay Packer defense. And he just looked mythical. This was always my image of Payton, this guy that just sort of moved and just floated through defenses. I think my relationship with him was really first and foremost pictures, and images, and brief clips, sort of this iconic idea of who Walter Payton was. That may sound corny, but that’s what I thought of him when I was a kid.
How do you feel researching someone who has passed away versus some of the people that you’ve written about that are still alive, like the ’86 Mets or the Cowboys teams of the 1990s?
It’s different. It’s definitely different. It’s sort of haunting, a little bit. It comes with greater responsibility because you’re talking about a person’s legacy. I can’t call it good news, but the thing that makes it an engaging biography is that you have an ending. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end is the end of a person’s life. When I wrote about Roger Clemens, there was a lot of lingering stuff, same with Barry Bonds, same with some of the Cowboys and same with some of the Mets. But there was nothing lingering here. Walter Payton’s career and life are completed, so there’s a full circle. But it’s definitely interesting. When you get deep in to it, and I mean deep, deep in to it, it’s almost like you’re having this conversation with them. It’s a little crazy. You’ll take a run, I like to run at night, and you’ll be running, and you’ll sort of almost think Walter Payton is running along with you. You’ll have these conversations in your head, and you can almost picture him there.
What was your approach to researching and writing about him?
First thing I do is as much paperwork as possible. I try to find every high school, elementary school yearbook, every college yearbook, then you try to find everyone in those yearbooks. Then you go and you try to read every article written about him. And then gradually, you just start to understand the picture that’s already been painted of him. Then you start finding the people. So you go through his high school yearbooks, try to track down everybody. You go through his college yearbooks, try to track down everybody. I found everybody, every teammate, every coach. It’s a long process. It’s a beast. It takes forever. But I always report first, and then take the last six or seven months to write the book.
Is this the book you’ve received the most flak for? It’s interesting, given how controversial some of your other book’s subjects have been. Some people have reacted pretty strongly to some of the revelations at the end of your book about Payton’s depression and troubles after he stopped playing.
The negative reaction came to the excerpt that ran in Sports Illustrated. So it’s sort of like the tale of two books and two experiences. The first two weeks were very negative, and to me, not that fun. And then people started actually reading the book. I haven’t gotten a bad review. I really haven’t, which is a first for me. I’m, you know, twelve for twelve in book reviews, and I’ve gotten a lot of emails and tweets from people saying they assumed one thing, and even some apologies, even, from people who said they jumped to conclusions and it wasn’t fair. That was very meaningful to me. It’s been my best reviewed book by far, and also definitely received the most negativity at first. So it’s been kind of both.
What was your reaction to Mike Ditka’s comments on the Sports Illustrated excerpt?
I wasn’t happy. I thought people were just going to sum up a book that they had never read. The Ditka thing was just silly. When I saw the TV interview with him, it was just a TV guy looking for the reaction he knew he would get. It wasn’t very authentic. A couple days later, Ditka basically took the remark back. I wasn’t mad. He was defending a guy who he loves, and had a lot of respect for, and a guy who isn’t here anymore. I understand and can understand where he was coming for not having had all the information.
What do you think about biographies of heroes and myths? What makes people so uncomfortable about a writer like you digging into these people’s lives?
You used the word ‘myths.’ You know, Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries announced they were getting divorced, and we all knew this was coming. There was no doubt that this was coming. These two were not going to be married. They knew each other for six months. And yet so many millions of people watched the special wedding episode of ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians,’ because it’s almost like we want to believe the fairy tale a little bit.
We look at celebrities and we don’t think of them as humans. We think of them as different entities from a different world. When someone comes along and bursts the bubble, or even paints an accurate picture, and dares to kind of go inside a little bit, people are shocked and taken aback. We want to have our mythologies, especially when someone dies young. We want to believe that that person was just perfect and unblemished. The shame in that is that there’s something beautiful about blemishes. And there’s something to learn from someone’s failings and shortcomings. If we only want to believe, if our only view of history is through these rose-colored glasses, we do ourselves a huge disservice. There’s something to be learned.
What got you in to sports writing in the first place? How did you come in to that career?
I was a good athlete, but not a great athlete. I ran college cross country and track, which doesn’t really count. And I always loved writing. At the University of Delaware I was the editor of the school newspaper, and I also loved sports. But as I’ve gotten older, I love sports less and less. I feel like I almost never watch sports anymore. But I love nostalgia. I love, love, love nostalgia, whether it’s Gary Coleman and Mr. T, or old movies, or crappy 80s music. I especially love nostalgia in sports. I love the old Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniforms. I love thinking about the Mets I grew up with, like Joel Youngblood and Lee Mazzilli. You combine the love of writing, which I’ve had for a long time, and the love of nostalgia, and it allows me to write books like this. You’ll never see me write a book I don’t think about, I guess I wrote the Clemens book, but my interest isn’t writing a book about the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals and their journey to the World Series. I like looking back at stuff from my boyhood, and being able to feel those feelings again. Those innocent, young, joyful feelings about teams and athletes I grew up with.
It’s interesting that you say you love nostalgia when it comes to sports. It seems like a lot of your writing deliberately strips that away.
It isn’t stripping to me, it’s just learning about it more. I’m still nostalgic for the ’86 Mets, even though I know they got drunk and destroyed an airplane. I still love them. For me, Walter Payton, during that Super Bowl year, being able to watch those tapes and review all the videos and see what these guys lived through, it’s all the more fascinating for me. The idea that I get paid to delve into the life of Walter Payton, or delve into the 1990s Dallas Cowboys, is mind-blowing to me. It’s the greatest gift to me. People are way too black and white about this. You have to realize that all of your heroes aren’t all that heroic. But that doesn’t make their accomplishments any less or take away from their achievements. It just adds a certain dose of humanity to them.
What’s been your most difficult writing experience with your books?
The Clemens book, easily. I only had X amount of time to do it, and my publisher midway through said, ‘We need you to finish it five months sooner.’ So that was a beast. It also wasn’t that fun. I disliked Clemens. He’s my least favorite guy I’ve written about. He lacks a certain depth and perspective that I like to have in my subjects. I like to write about people that are complex and have introspection, and he was not an introspective human being.
Your books on both Bonds and Clemens came out a time when a lot of similar books were being released. How did you feel about that or deal with the unfortunate timing?
It sucked. It was terrible. The publishing company tried to put a good spin on it, like, ‘Oh, people read the one Bonds book, they’ll read the others.’ But Game of Shadows came out a few weeks before my Bonds book, and it was crushing. Probably the lowest point in my career. It was just heartbreaking. I put so much in to that book, and I thought it was a good book. I still think it’s a good book. But you get beat to the punch. I think one mistake publishing companies make, and authors sometimes make, and I certainly made with Clemens, is just because something is in the news and a hot news subject does not mean people are going to want to spend $25 or $30 on a book. Clemens was big in the news, with the whole performance enhancing thing, and the idea of a book about him made sense, but that doesn’t mean people want to spend $25 to learn more about it. A lot of times we fall into this trap. Look at Tiger Woods. A lot of Tiger Woods books came out after the whole thing with all the women. I think generally people didn’t care, and the books kind of bombed. People had read enough in the newspaper and they didn’t want anymore. It was the same with steroids.
Where do you think your writing will go next?
I’d love to write non-sports books, to be honest. I don’t want to be one of those guys who spends the rest of his life writing about one thing. I left Sports Illustrated when I was 29 or 30, and it was my dream job. I never want to be that guy that has the same job for the rest of his life. So, I’m never quite sure where I want to go or what I’m going to do next. But I want to try different things. I think I may have one or two more sports books in me, but that’s it. You sort of become a one-trick pony if all you do is write about the same subjects over and over again.
What are your writing interests outside of sports?
Politics. I could talk about politics all day. Hip-hop. If someone asked me to write a Tupac biography, I’d jump on it right now. Art, theater. Tons of things. Again, I love writing about nostalgia, and write about the old days. If you asked me to sit down right now and watch the Jets playing this weekend, I think I’d get bored. I just lost a little bit of my passion for it unfortunately.
Do you think you lost your passion because you were overexposed to sports, what with your tenure at Sports Illustrated and your work on your books?
It’s different. It’s like watching the Cardinals win the World Series this year. There’s always a hot shot rookie. There’s always a struggling veteran. There’s always a pitcher who gets on a hot streak. The uniforms stay the same but the names change. And it’s great TV, I’m not reducing sports as an entertainment. It’s got a lot of value. I left Sports Illustrated because I just got tired of the storylines. They were always the same, and I wanted different. Books allow that because you can delve in and see [the subjects] as people and not just two-dimensional sports figures.
What would be your ideal political book?
I’d love to spend a year on the campaign trail, or delve into the life of and write a biography of Gerald Ford. There could be a great Gerald Ford biography. I’m a Democrat, and I’ve always found Gerald Ford fascinating, with him stepping in [to the presidency]. Much like with athletes, I love the inside, what makes these guys tick, what they’re like when they’re off guard. Politics are fascinating. I’ve always been fascinated by the friendship Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter developed. I think there’s a great book waiting to be written there about their friendship. Maybe five people would buy it, but I would be completely in to that stuff.
When you choose writing subjects do you look a little further back so there’s more distance between you and them?
I was a history major in college. I really enjoy history. I love looking back, and there’s so much to learn from history. If you write about something that happened last week, or even last year, you don’t have the context behind it. The context of the times. It’s hard to put the Cardinals world series victory, to use it as an example again, in to proper perspective. We don’t yet know what these times or this period brought us. We have an idea, maybe, a theory, but we don’t know. But if you step back, take 10 years, you have much more context to write about. With Walter Payton, you could write about him growing up in the civil rights era, or what was happening in Chicago in that time period and how it compares to the current period. I just think there’s something to be said for distance.