From King David to Martin Luther King Jr. and — more recently in sports — from Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods, plenty of high-achievers have been known to commit adultery. Others in all fields have strayed, perhaps, without being busted. But all it takes in many cases is one dogged reporter interviewing 678 people over the course of 2 1/2 years to produce a 496-page biography.
That appears to be the case with a new book on the late NFL Hall of Fame running back, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, written by Jeff Pearlman and excerpted in the current edition of Sports Illustrated. The author told SI.com that he "set out to write a definitive biography — period. When people would ask, 'Well, is this going to be positive?' I'd say, 'Not positive, not negative — definitive,' " Pearlman said.
If anything was left out, we probably don't want to know. The book details Payton's alleged extramarital affairs, bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts and abuse of painkillers.
It's a side of Payton we never knew, but that's the point. That's the very definition of one's "private life," especially concerning public figures whom we delude ourselves into thinking we know.
Payton, who retired in 1987 after 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears, died of liver disease in 1999. He was nicknamed "Sweetness" for his personality more than his running style, though the latter made him the NFL's alltime leading rusher until Emmitt Smith broke the record in 2002. Pearlman said he was drawn to Payton as a topic because he wanted to write a book on "someone decent; about someone caring."
At least that was the image, Payton as a wholesome family man. But it goes to show that you never really know.
If he truly was a philandering, suicidal drug user, that doesn't take away from his exploits on the field. Just as whatever MLK or JFK or whoever did behind closed doors doesn't diminish their accomplishments in public life.
Our so-called heroes have flaws, just like everybody else. Being reminded of such, painful as it might be, should serve to encourage, not discourage.
Because it means you don't have to be Superman or Superwoman to do big things. You just have to be human — warts and all.