Conversation with author Jeff Pearlman
At 10:45 p.m., a phone call came 105 minutes late.
“Hi, this is Jeff Pearlman. I owe you a huge apology. This is the lamest excuse ever: I fell asleep, I took an hour nap.”
When you’ve dedicated the last three years of your life to interviewing almost 700 sources to tell the story of deceased Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton – who was recently rated the fifth-greatest player in the history of the NFL by the NFL Network – you can be forgiven for catching up on some “z’s”.
Pearlman, a columnist for the Sports Illustrated website (SI.com) and author of four other books, two of which were also bestsellers, has received plenty of criticism over the past month since his groundbreaking new book Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton was excerpted in Sports Illustrated and released on October 4. He took the most beloved sports figure in Chicago history not named Michael Jordan and revealed a complex man who died too early.
Pearlman recently spent 35 minutes with the New Brunswick Beacon and talked about the book-writing process, the marketing of the book, how the criticism affected him and the man simply-known in the Windy City as “Sweetness.”
The book is as good a read as Payton was a runner.
Sean O’Neill: You did nearly 700 interviews for the book. So over the last month does it seem like you’ve been interviewed 700 times?
Jeff Pearlman: Oh man, Jesus Christ. I was just thinking tonight, ‘if I have to answer the question, “so, why did you write this book?” again, I’m going to freaking slit my wrists.’ It totally comes with the territory, obviously. And it’s a fair question.
You know, every time I do a book, every time I promote a book, my wife starts making fun of me and she’ll just spontaneously start, without any questions being asked, start giving the answers that I give routinely, and over and over again. It gets very, very repetitive.
You’re so anxious when the book comes out to talk about it, and a month later you just want to talk about anything but it. It’s sorta full circle.
SO: So take me through the moment when you decided that Walter Payton was the right subject for the next book.
JP: I didn’t really have a moment. I’ve been asked that, I wish I had one. You know, it’s basically a process of sorta looking around bookstores, and I literally go to the nearby bookstore and sorta go through the shelves and sorta look for ideas, and I’m always looking for an iconic figure — I guess it can be a team or an individual, I really prefer to write about individuals. You’re just trying to find someone iconic or hasn’t been written about a million times. I don’t think there’s any need for another Ted Williams biography or Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson or Jesse Owens, I’m trying to find someone completely fresh and new. At some point I just kinda realized that there wasn’t that much on Walter Payton.
I guess the question was, is he iconic? I always go through this whenever I’m thinking here’s someone iconic: there’s no definitive thing that makes you an icon versus just a really good player. It’s almost like you know it if you see it. Why is Walter Payton an icon and Franco Harris was just a really good NFL player? I kinda feel like Mickey Mantle was iconic but Ken Griffey, Jr. was just really fantastic. For some reason, I kinda thought Payton was on the other side, and actually crossed the line into iconic. It might have been cause he died young, or the way he was signally beloved in the city. At some point I just sorta made the decision, he’s iconic, he’s beloved and there hasn’t been anything great written about him.
SO: The drawing on your site with Walter hovering over you and you’re sitting at your computer, you’re surrounded by notes and you look over-caffinated and you look under-slept. Was that you for three years?
JP: (laughs) That was me for a lot of three, probably two years. Yeah, it’s funny, a friend of mine is a cartoonist and we made a book for cartoon training — I love that cartoon. It’s funny, I didn’t tell him what my desk looks like but he pretty much got it right. Papers everywhere, Payton folders everywhere, books all over the place. I wrote most of this book in different coffee shops but also at my dining room table and — just a mess.
Yeah, you definitely become obsessive with you really get into it, and overindulge and single-minded. And I probably averaged, I would say, four-and-a-half hours of sleep a night during most of this. It was the closest I came to being completely overwhelmed by a subject and consumed by a subject.
SO: So how did you stay sane? Or did you?
JP: Umm, I would say, I don’t know. It’s hard. They are hard, they take a lot out of ya. I think part of it is, I don’t know, I happen to have an incredible — it’s a cliche — but I really have an incredible wife who’s really supportive and really understanding. I mean my No. 1 thing about doing these books — I say the biggest motivator for me at this point in my life — is it allows me to be a stay-at-home dad. My son was in nursery school last year, and I was his class parent, and I go on a lot of my daughter’s class trips.
I guess being around my kids and being heavily involved in their lives is the upside of any negative parts of being an author, the obsession of the subject. I always think to myself, I could be freaking — as hard as it can be at times — there are guys working construction and there are cops and there, you know, I mean I’m blessed. The fact that I get to write books for a living it’s freaking beyond belief. It’s hard but I recognize there are eight million harder jobs than this. I hate even overplaying how difficult it is, I mean it was really hard but compared to other jobs out there, it’s a blessing.
SO: Tell me why you decided to do a bunch of videos on YouTube to spread the awareness of the book.
JP: (laughs) You sorta have to be your own publicist. The thing is, I wrote my first book, it came in 2003 or 2004 about the Mets. And now in the span of five books, and you just see that promoting a book has changed so drastically and the way you go about it.
My first two books I hired an outside publicist to help out with the process. The things they did mainly were calling sports-talk radio stations and getting me on sports-talk radio. And trying to get newspapers to write reviews of the book. It’s such a different world now, it’s a drastically different world now. It’s all about tweeting, you can reach more people by tweeting and Facebook and getting word out through the internet, you can be your own best publicist. So you know the sports-talk radio is gonna come, the sports-talk radio interviews are gonna come. I think I built a pretty good reputation, I think. I was just trying to think of really inventive ways to do it.
My favorite thing is the rap song. I love the rap song.
SO: Now you’re saying the whole thing has changed. Your livelihood depends on selling books in a time of social media and short-attention spans. Obviously the book’s done really well and it’s on the New York Times Best-Seller’s List, but was it worrisome at all during the process that, ‘hey, I may be doing something that’s going against the current of our society as opposed to with it?’
JP: You’re definitely aware of it. Books are not selling like they did. It’s weird. I don’t feel people really have a grasp on it right now. I mean industry doesn’t have a grasp on it, publishing industry doesn’t. It’s not that people aren’t reading, they’re just not reading in the same old traditional format as much. You have Kindle’s exploding and I think the publishing industry is concerned about that because they don’t make the same money off of it. They charge $10, and you can have more and more authors perhaps bypassing agents and bypassing the publishing companies altogether and selling directly to Amazon. I don’t think writing is no longer en vogue, I just think we need to think about it in a different way.
The truth of the matter also is, you still want your book to sell and you bust your ass doing it and the goal is you want people to read your work because you worked so hard at it. But the truth of the matter is when you’re in the middle of it, when you’re working on it and when you’re actively writing and when you’re actively reporting, you’re not thinking to yourself, ‘I need to sell X-number so I can stay relevant.’ You’re just thinking, ‘man, I better write a freaking great book,’ and hopefully the rest will fall in line. You can’t say you actively think while you’re doing it, like, ‘here I am, writing this book and publishing is going through a really tough time.’ It just doesn’t cross your mind that way.
SO: One of the books you credit as an influence in the sports biography world is Richard Ben Cramer’s The Hero’s Life [which is about Joe DiMaggio]. I don’t know if you ever noticed, in the acknowledgment section he said after DiMaggio died people started to talk about him more because as he said, “journalism became history.” So doing a book about a man who’s been dead for a decade, were you doing journalism or were you doing history?
JP: I think, I guess both. But I do think — it’s a good question, it’s a good question. I feel the people who have criticized the book, especially early on and said, “how dare you do this after he’s been dead for 12 years?” I feel it’s such a moronic take because it really ignores the importance of history, and sports is a huge part of the culture in this country, and certainly writing a biography like his biography of DiMaggio, that’s not just a sports biography, it’s a documenting of history. I like to think the same thing of the Payton book, I’m not saying it’s in the same class with the DiMaggio book.
I really do think it’s both. I do think it’s journalism but I just think that it’s not different than writing a biography of John F. Kennedy or Manning Marable on Malcolm X. These are important books documenting important figures in our culture and I think Walter Payton sorta qualifies, not the same as Kennedy or Malcolm X, but he certainly had a profound impact on sports in America. So in that regard it is history. I’m definitely babbling here, but the thing that always bothered me about the criticism of, “how dare you write about someone who’s dead?” I kept thinking, ‘how dare you fucking criticize someone for writing about someone who’s dead?’ This is what history is. This is how you learn about some of that. And a full biography is a birth-to-death look at someone’s life.
So to criticize someone for, “how dare you upset the family?” or, “how dare you upset people? How are people gonna feel about this?” Well, you know what? To a certain degree, it doesn’t matter, it’s insignificant, it’s not about that. It’s about a fascinating historic figure in American sports and American entertainment and who this person really was. And that’s what history is about, and that’s what learning is about. It’s about understanding not just a person’s strengths, but a person’s shortcomings. Not just knowing how he handled the Minnesota Vikings defenses, knowing how he handled depression, knowing how he handled the demise of his own career and sort of that acknowledgement that he was just a human being and he wasn’t a superhero. Those are important things that people go through, especially athletes go through. I don’t know, that’s my long-winded rant answer.
SO: I guess to go off on that, the people who criticized you initially, have you had any contact with them since then? Have some of them read the book?
JP: The answer is yes. I’ve had a lot of people that said, “I’m sorry,” or, “I didn’t realize,” or, “now that I’ve read the book.” I just did a radio interview today, someone from the midwest and some sports station said he was really upset at first when he heard about it but then he read the book and he was blown away. I keep getting that over and over again. It’s extremely satisfying to make, I’m not someone who overly cares about what they say on sports radio but, you know I put a lot into this book. A lot into this book.
The criticism that really got me early on was people would say, “you got such thin skin. Why is your skin so thin? Blah, blah, blah.” And I kept thinking, ‘man, I put fucking three years of my life into this book, and you’re defining it as something it’s not, and you’re being lazy about it, and you’re criticizing it without having read it.’ “Well why does that hurt you?” It freaking hurts me because this is my life, you know. I put more into this book than any project that I’ve put in because I love Walter Payton, and I think he’s a fascinating person. To just take the simplistic approach and to sorta dismiss it because it’s an easy thing to do and because you have your 20 seconds of time to delve into this before moving to the next item in the news cycle, it was so lazy and so bothersome to me. Part of it was my fault for being a little naive about how people would respond to the SI excerpt but it was a painful thing. So to a few people reading the book and liking the book and acknowledging that they were wrong is meaningful to me.
JP: Ahh, I don’t know, I don’t know. I would say probably not. I don’t know. I just had a meeting the other day. I went out to lunch with the president of Gotham — the group that published the book — and two of the publicists and my agent and we were debating, “did it do more good than harm?” I think maybe sales-wise, it’s hard to say being on the cover of SI hurt your sales. But I think for me personally, if I could do it again I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t do it because it was such a painful two weeks for me.
SO: On your resume you have the John Rocker interview, and four other books that were controversial topics or topics that had some salaciousness to them. Was there any part of you that when you decided to do Walter Payton, you did it to want to show other people that you’re more than that as a writer?
JP: It wasn’t about showing people but I was excited to write about something that wasn’t thought of, or had the preconceived notions of scandal or anything like that. That was something I looked forward to. The truth of the matter is we all have our shortcomings and we all have our rough moments and we all do things we’re ashamed of. But I might have been a little naive going into Payton because I think I didn’t see a lot of this coming. When you learn of the out-of-wedlock kid or the infidelities or the suicide threats, I didn’t really see it coming.
And I’ll tell you the strangest thing, I just sorta thought of this the other day for the first time. When I was working on the book, I felt the strength of it was, Jane Leavy writes a book about Mickey Mantle and she writes all about his infidelity and his alcoholism. But everyone knows about it. It’s not like it’s a mystery about Mickey Mantle and his infidelity and his alcoholism. Now, she wrote a great book and she delved into it with a bit more detail, but it didn’t catch anyone off-guard.
SO: When Mickey Mantle died in ’95, I was seven and I knew he was a drunk.
JP: Exactly, everyone knew. And I felt the strength of this book — I kept thinking during the book — the one thing this book is gonna have is it’s going to be truly revealing, not negatively or positively, just really revealing about his life because he was so mysterious, and no one had ever written about it. And then the book comes out and it sorta almost backfired on me. It was like if the expectations were there people wouldn’t have reacted so negatively towards it. But people had this idealized view of him. He wasn’t Mantle and he wasn’t DiMaggio, and people knew that DiMaggio could be a real ass. People knew Ted Williams and his ornery nature. Most public figures we have some idea of what we’re walking into and I think with Payton people didn’t have that idea.
And I thought that would be the strength of it. I thought people would be like, “wow, this is amazing. I didn’t know this about him.” And instead there was this, “how dare you write this about him?” that I’m sure Jane didn’t get with Mickey Mantle.
SO: Now I’ll ask you a few things about Walter himself. When I think of the ’85 Bears I think of [head coach Mike] Ditka, I think of [defensive coordinator] Buddy Ryan, I think of [quarterback Jim] McMahon, I think of [William] The Fridge [Perry], I think of the defense. Is it true to say the year they finally won the Super Bowl that Walter Payton was a secondary story for that team?
JP: Yeah, I think so. He wasn’t a secondary player, he was still their marquee offensive player and it was still a run-based offense. But his story had been told a million times. For years and years he was the only thing worth writing about for the Chicago Bears. All of a sudden there’s Jim McMahon and this sort-of quirky nature, and William Perry, the funny fat guy and Buddy Ryan and Mike Ditka fighting, there will all these dazzling things to write about. The Chicago media had been talking and writing about Walter Payton since 1975. He was kind of an old story. It was nice to write about guy finally having his success and getting his due as a player by going to the Super Bowl. But I think there wasn’t a new story, there was nothing fresh about Walter Payton. Yeah, he was definitely a secondary narrative of that team.
SO: I watched a video of you on YouTube talking about the Mets book and you said you wouldn’t want your kids to be an athlete because there’s nothing more pathetic than an ex-athlete. Was Walter Payton a pathetic ex-athlete?
JP: Pathetic probably isn’t the right word. I guess when I say pathetic — it’s probably the wrong word — but what I mean is there’s something sad about hanging on to what you were at 28, and that’s your identity and you can’t escape it. I mean, the other day my kids and I just totally randomly we went to a nearby Stop & Shop. The store manager announces over the PA system, “attention, Stop & Shop customers. Former New York Giant Billy Ard will be signing autographs in the front! Billy Ard!” And here’s Billy Ard — have you ever heard of Billy Ard?
SO: I’ve never heard of him, no.
JP: Alright, Billy Ard was an obscure offensive lineman for the New York Giants in the 1980′s. He was on their Super Bowl team in ’86, I think. He’s signing autographs and he probably got $500 to do it, and there’s nothing wrong with Billy Ard signing the autographs and he seems like he actually had a successful life. I’ve looked him up — I think he went into financial planning, he’s done quite well. But there’s something about that scene, about the ex-athlete sitting in front of a Stop & Shop with a Sharpie and people sorta passing by and getting the autograph cause he seems like he’s somebody but not really knowing who he was. And a couple of guys walking up and saying, “I remember that game against Seattle in 1983! Ahh, that was a good game! Blah, blah, blah, blah.” And there’s something to me that’s just kinda tragic about it all. Maybe not with a guy like Billy Ard but with a lot of athletes who can’t escape it and are forced to tell the same stories and forced to relive this, and they’re like superheroes but they don’t have any of their powers anymore.
I just think it’s really hard when you’re physical decimated and financially, you didn’t have the wherewithal to hold on to your money, I mean it’s a dark freaking world. I don’t think Walter Payton was pathetic but I think he really struggled with that, being an ex-athlete, 90 per cent of guys probably do. It’s like the guy you meet and who’s like 42 and all he wants to talk about is his fraternity days. It’s just like, I don’t know, there’s something sad about being trapped. The question is is it better to have those moments or to never have those moments. And I don’t know, sometimes I think it’s better not to have had ‘em at all. I don’t know.
SO: After Walter Payton’s retirement from playing he headed that ownership group to bring an expansion team to St. Louis, which lost to Carolina and Jacksonville. In retrospect giving a team to Jacksonville was a horrible, horrible mistake. If they had won that team, what type of impact would that have had on Payton’s life for the rest of it?
JP: I think it would have changed it drastically, and there are some people I talk to who really think he would be alive today. That doesn’t make any medical sense whatsoever. That just took him to such a low level for years and years, I don’t think he ever recovered from that. This was his transition; this was going to be his purpose. I think he would have been quite good at it. He was smart, he wasn’t a dummy. I think he would have been able to really run that team well and he was so gregarious and so good with people. I just think it was just a natural fit for him. It was devastating to him, I mean devastating to him and it took his life in a completely different and dark direction. But I don’t think he’d still be alive, sickness is sickness, but I do think his life would have been so much more joyful, his post-football career if that had worked out.
SO: What’s your favorite Walter anecdote?
JP: I really like the one that I ended with, there’s something very cool about that one. I was sitting in a diner when this guy told me this story, I was sitting in my nearby diner and this guy called me back. I don’t remember how I found this guy, I think this guy posted a story on some-Walter Payton website and I tracked down his name and called him and the idea, this kid met Walter Payton. His dad took him to a Bears training camp when he was 12 and Walter Payton invites him in the huddle and gives him a wristband and whatever. Thirteen years later the guy is working for an AM radio station in Waukegan, Illinois.
He’s going to get his media credential at the Bears headquarters and Payton’s been retired for a few years and he happens to see Walter Payton walking down the hall. And the guy says, “hey, Walter,” and Payton stops and says, “ahh, we’ve met before, haven’t we?” And the guy was like, “yeah, but you wouldn’t remember me.” Payton goes, “try me.” He’s like, “all right, I was a 12-year old.” [Payton's] like, “you were with a guy in a purple hat.” And he remembered him, 13 years earlier when he was a 12-year old boy.
He really had a magical way with people. For all the freaking negatives and for all the different issues with his marriage and with women and whatever, I think the reason people are so loyal to him and people have responded so negatively at first is because he really did more than a Mickey Mantle, more than a Joe DiMaggio, more than a Sandy Koufax, he really reached out to the people of Chicago. And he really took the fans as his own. I thought the way he remembered that guy blew me away.
It’s the last story in the book, and it just blew me away.
SO: If Walter read the book, and this is completely hypothetical, would he be proud of it?
JP: If I’m being honest and realistic, probably not. It was raw and it’s real. It’s interesting, I keep diaries, I’ve always written diaries for the last 14 years. I keep honest, and all my embarrassing things and things I’m not proud of and blah, blah, blah, and I lock them up somewhere. The kids can read these when I’m gone, and my wife is always like, “you really want them reading this stuff?” And I say, “yeah, I guess I do. I guess I do.” But how would I feel if that stuff got out? I wouldn’t feel great about it.
And I’m sure Kennedy never wanted people to know he had an affair with Marilyn Monroe. I’m sure Joe DiMaggio certainly didn’t want people to know how greedy he could be at the end of his life. I guess I’m defending myself a little, or trying to, it’s sort-of what comes with biographies. Not everything’s gonna be great. Would he be thrilled that I’m the one telling the world that he had an out-of-wedlock kid? I can’t imagine he would be, I mean maybe he’d have a little sense of relief, but overall I don’t think he’d be thrilled by it. Just being honest.
SO: If you were to move away from sports writing, which subjects would you want to write about?
JP: My dream biography is about the deceased lead singer of Blind Melon, Shannon Hoon. I love Blind Melon, I can’t explain why. The lead singer died of a cocaine overdose when I believe he was 28 or 29. I’ve been fascinated by the guy’s life. I admit right off the bat I could not sell more than 400 copies of that book. So if there’s ever going to be a Shannon Hoon biography it’ll have to be self-published. But I’d love to write the world’s first definitive Shannon Hoon biography.
SO: Finally, in two sentences or less, who was Walter Payton?
JP: It’s not even an answerable question. I could try it but it’s not answerable. It sounds like a Barbara Walters question, and you’re supposed to give some profound answer but the truth of the matter is his lives were at different stages. There’s the Columbia, Mississippi Walter, some kid trying to figure himself out. And there was the Jackson State Walter Payton where he kinda came into his own and started developing his worldliness. Then there was the early-Chicago Walter Payton who arrived there and was this quiet, unassuming, nervous, insecure guy, Bible-thumper and very devoted to the Lord. Then there was the later years, confident, yet insecure, womanizing, all-over-the-place guy. And there was the post-career, depressed Walter Payton and then there was the near-death Walter.
I mean life isn’t that simple that you can honestly define him in two sentences or less. He was really complex and he was a man of different stages. But I think overall he was a good guy, I really do. He had issues like we all do.
SO: I noticed on Twitter, did someone rip you again today on a podcast?
JP: Yeah, I should probably ignore these people. Some die-hard Walter Payton fan. The only thing that frustrates me, I don’t care if people rip the book if they read it. I have no problem with that. I just hate these people that don’t read the book and go off and talk shit when they haven’t even read it. It just frustrates me.