Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton
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The definitive biography of Chicago Bears superstar Walter Payton.
In the twelve years since his death from cancer, Walter Payton’s legend has only grown in magnitude. The Hall of Fame running back, who broke Jim Brown’s all-time NFL rushing mark, appeared in nine Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl ring with the 1985 Chicago Bears, and is still revered throughout the sporting landscape. Payton has become the lasting image of what’s great about football. Yet in mindlessly canonizing the man simply known as “Sweetness,” we have missed the opportunity to understand—and appreciate—one of the most uniquely complex and enigmatic superstars in the history of American sports.
No longer. Based on meticulous research and interviews with nearly seven hundred family members, friends, teammates, and various associates, Sweetness delivers an unforgettable portrait of a man who lived his life just like he played the game: at full speed. From his childhood in segregated Mississippi, to Chicago, where Payton emerged from athlete to icon as he broke the NFL’s all-time rushing record and led the Bears to Super Bowl glory; to his darker moments battling depression and adjusting to life after football, Sweetness is an eloquently written, revelatory saga of a complex, guarded superstar who died far too young.
was the last time I met him. We spoke for no more than thirty minutes. He sitting behind a desk, me—twenty-six years old and nervous as all hell—fiddling with my pen and notepad. A couple of days earlier, Payton had announced in a press conference that he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare disease in which the ducts that drain bile from the liver become inflamed and blocked. It was flabbergasting news—not merely because, at age forty-five, Payton was still relatively
adjustment to college was smooth, and the first few days were filled with the euphoric giddiness of a new adventure. Yet the freedoms that came with life away from home were mere mirages. Soon Walter would get to know a force of nature known as Bob Hill. He was born in 1935 on an eight-acre farm in Tippo, Mississippi, a nondescript rural town with dirt roads and dirt driveways and dirt aspirations for the black kids who filled its streets. Robert Hill loved sports as a boy, but had little
bread. “There weren’t many fat kids in the South, so he immediately stood out,” said Eddie. “Walter had a chubby face and a chubby body, and you couldn’t help but notice it. As he started to thin out a little, the nickname changed. Instead of ‘Chubby,’ we nicknamed him ‘Bubba.’ That one stuck.” In the South of the 1950s and ’60s—and especially in the black South—children generally went by two names. Eddie wasn’t Eddie—he was Edward Charles. Yet Walter Jerry was rarely Walter Jerry. He was
June 1958. Holmes began practicing law locally, and also worked on a handful of political campaigns. His true passion, however, was assisting the Southern Miss athletic department. Oftentimes alongside Phillips, he combed the state looking for high school gridiron stars worthy of playing for the Golden Eagles. The Southern Miss brass came to trust Holmes, who compensated for his lack of athleticism (he was a high school cheerleader) with a keen eye for talent and a confident swagger that sold
found in his rainbow-hued van, featuring an eighttrack player and shag carpet. He went about his business quietly, which Pardee liked, but then, seemingly without warning, would pull these juvenile pranks that reminded everyone of his youth. Payton enjoyed sliding behind the Bears’ switchboard and, in the highest of high-pitched voices, answering the phone as Louise, the female receptionist. He took to filling the socks of unsuspecting teammates with Swiss Miss hot cocoa powder and lathering