Why This Book Exists
Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton exists because of Roger Clemens.
As strange as that sounds, it’s true. Three years ago my fourth book, The Rocket that Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality, arrived in stores. It was, of the myriad projects I worked on, by far the least satisfying.
To begin with, Clemens wasn’t an especially endearing guy. Not merely as a person, but as a biographical portrait. When you research and write these books, you give your life to a subject. You think about the person, dream about the person, obsess over the person. You become something of a literary stalker, wanting to know, well, everything.
That was the problem with Clemens: Everything was sorta nothing.
Oh, the people surrounding the man were oft riveting. And the stories of his boyhood, and his older brother, and his sister in law all interested me. But Clemens was, to be harsh, an empty shell. Were one to take a reading of his thoughts, I suspect they’d go like this: baseball-baseball-baseball-breasts-baseball-beer-breasts-baseball-baseball.
Hence, with a bad taste in my mouth (and frustrating sales totals to boot), I set forth on a search for the next person I wanted to write about. I have a general list of criterion, which goes like this:
• 1. Would the person be considered iconic? (Ted Williams yes, Wesley Walker no)
• 2. Have there been 800 previous books written on the person? (Ted Williams yes, Wesley Walker no)
• 3. Is there sales potential? (Ted Williams yes, Wesley Walker no)
The problem is, finding the ideal subject is hard. Like, really hard. Think about the genuine icons of sports: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Nuu Faaola, Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson. They’ve all been written about. And written about. And written about. Is there anything left to say about, say, Joe DiMaggio that wasn’t covered by Richard Ben Cramer? Has Mark Kriegel left out any details on Joe Namath? Did Howard Bryant skip some nuggets of Hank Aaron? Answer: Maybe—but not many.
The last thing I want to do (and this doesn’t mean I won’t ever do it) is write the 23rd Jordan biography.
Enter: Walter Payton.
I’m not sure how the idea first popped into my head. I was probably roaming the shelves of the local (now extinct) Borders, looking for … something. I usually do so with a pen and a scrap of paper, jotting down names and thoughts. One day, I called my friend Paul Duer and said, “How about Walter Payton?”
To which he responded, “Oh, good one!”
And here, three years later, I am.
Walter Payton was a good one. A great one. First, so little is known about the man. He released an autobiography, also called Sweetness, in 1978 that was actually pretty good (I say “actually” because Payton had just completed his third NFL season at the time—how much is there to say?). Then, shortly after his death, Never Die Easy, a collaboration with Don Yaeger, came out and sold huge numbers. I actually read that book shortly before signing the deal with Gotham for Sweetness—and my reactions were mixed. On the one hand, the book seemed awfully detailed, and I wondered whether there was much more left to say. On the other hand, the thing was slim. I’m not referring to the number of pages, but to the narrative. One walks away from Never Die Easy thinking Payton’s life was one of flowers and candy; that he was a man of few doubts; of unwavering positivity; of nonstop strength from birth to death.
Which, if you’ve lived more than three weeks on earth, you know to be an impossibility.
We all have struggles. We all have dark days. We all have doubts and letdowns and pain and hurt. Those are the things that, I believe, make us who we are. Were one to write a Jeff Pearlman biography tomorrow (and, obviously, the thing would sell -12 copies), he’d find that for every great moment there were 12 lousy ones; for every good decision there was an equally crappy one.
With Walter Payton, I wasn’t looking for the crap. What I was looking for was the texture. The depth. The foundation.
I didn’t want to know merely what made Walter Payton tick.
I wanted to know Walter Payton.