Over the past two days, I have twice heard Eddie Payton, Walter’s older brother, call me a liar.
In both instances, Eddie referred to the exact same thing; that I told him I was working on a Sports Illustrated article on Walter, then later—much, much later—said it was a book. Hell, here are his exact words to Mully and Hanley …
“I had a lot of anger and really never read the book. A lot of people told me what was in there. My sister read it, she came over crying. My mother wouldn’t justify it or dignify it with even getting a copy of it. And all the Bears players in Chicago that I stay in touch with, they kept calling me talking about, ‘We need to do something. They weren’t talking about shaking his hand or getting a book. They were talking about physically doing something … and there was a point where I really considered coming up, finding, a placing my foot where it really belongs.
“[Jeff Pearlman] didn’t misrepresent himself. He flat-out lied to me. I never met him. I talked to him on the phone. He introduced himself as a writer for Sports Illustrated; he wanted to come on down; he was thinking about doing an article for Sports Illustrated about Walter; he wanted to meet some of his old teammates, his coaches and yadda yadda yadda. And I was gung ho about that. I introduced him to 10-15 people. And in doing that … about, two … three days later one of the guys comes in and says, “This book ought to sell a bunch of copies.’ I said, ‘What book? He’s writing an article.’ He said, ‘No, he’s writing a book.’ And when I confronted him with it he kind of heed and haaed and heed and haad and said, ‘Well, it may be a book.’ And then we asked him about Walter’s scholarship. And I said, ‘If you’re going to write about the man, you need to help continue what the man was doing.’ And he heed and haaed, and wouldn’t make a commitment, and we pulled. Everybody we knew, we pulled. Because at that point we realized we’d been had. And we’re not gonna go along and be a part of this charade from this a-hole. Who said he’d do one thing and did another. And the book is such a work of garbage and fiction.”
A good chunk of time has passed since Sweetness was released—first in hardcover, then in paperback. I certainly experienced a lot of anger, as regular readers of this blog know well (probably all too well). I felt like—with obvious exceptions—the Chicago media covered the whole deal with a lightweight, protective mentality. Walter Payton wasn’t a sports figure to covered. He was our sports figure, to be protected and cocooned. We don’t mind biographies on deceased celebrities—Tupac, JFK, MLK, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Roberto Clemente—just as long as they’re not our dead celebrities. Then we must shout, “How dare you! And after only 12 years!”
I digress. My point is, I’m no longer especially angry. I just think Eddie Payton is a dolt.
To be 100-percent clear: I did not lie to Eddie Payton and I did not misrepresent myself to Eddie Payton. Never. As I always do when working on a book, I introduce myself thusly: “My name is Jeff Pearlman. I was a longtime Sports Illustrated writer, and I’m the author of X books. I’m working on a biography of Walter, and would love the chance …” This is how I’ve done it for years, this is how I’ll continue to do it. Why? Because SI supplies a backdrop to my career, and the books show I’ve done this before. It establishes my cred, so to speak, which is important.
In hindsight, I suspect that Eddie may well not know what the word “biography” means. I’m not joking or being snide. He has a unique way of mangling and misusing words; Walt Frazier without the smarts. Maybe, just maybe, he didn’t understand. I’m willing to offer that benefit of the doubt, I suppose.
I’ve now been writing books for a long time. People don’t always love the results (“Why do I need to know about a guy’s off-the-field life?”), but I’ve never, ever, ever been accused of misrepresenting myself or my intentions. Eddie later said in one of the interviews that I was elusive when asked about the content of the book. I wasn’t elusive—I genuinely didn’t know. A book isn’t a book until it’s reported. It is, literally, a bunch of blank pages. If you begin a project with an agenda, you’re generally doomed to produce crud.
I found Eddie’s scholarship mention especially irksome. Actually, scratch that word. Misleading is better.
During my second visit to Jackson State, I asked Eddie if he could help me get in contact with his mother, who didn’t return my calls. He told me, sure, if I agreed to pay for a scholarship. I told him, flat out, that I couldn’t pay for interviews; that it would be unprofessional and call into question the book’s content. He apparently didn’t like that response. He also didn’t note in the interviews (it’s possible he’s just unaware) that the wife and I made donations to the Mayo Clinic (where Walter was treated with marvelous care) and the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation after the book was completed.
I have no real beef with Eddie Payton. If he really wants to beat me up, well, he knows how to reach me.
One thing I will say is this: Eddie was the common link throughout my reporting, in that nobody seemed to especially like him. Walter’s wife, Walter’s kids, Walter’s business partners, Walter’s friends. There was a near-universal agreement that Eddie was, more or less, a non-factor.
Which doesn’t mean I lack sympathy. He lost a brother; lost a friend. That’s horrible and tragic, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. His eulogy of Walter, which I originally posted on YouTube, is a thing of absolute beauty.
I just don’t appreciate being called a liar.
PS: All that being said, how do Mully and Hanley allow a guy to continue—uninterrupted—when he openly admits to having not read a book he’s about to thrash? Sports talk radio never disappoints.