When Chicago Went Sour on Sweetness

Nearly a year has passed, and I’m still mad.

Actually, scratch that. Mad is too mild a word.

I am, after all, a veteran member of the media who has made a habit of defending the media. Whenever a friend or associate attacks the press for being too this or too that (too liberal, too conservative, too reactionary, too, ahem, stupid), I’ve been the gangly dolt standing up and shouting, “No! You don’t know, and you don’t understand! You have no remote idea what …”


My outlook has changed.

Last fall, Sports Illustrated published an excerpt from Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, my biography of the legendary Chicago Bear running back. The seven-page magazine snippet (which, for the record, was picked by SI editors) focused upon Payton’s life after football—his infidelities, his heartbreak, his depression. It was, admittedly, hard stuff to read (and, truth be told, hard stuff to report). Chicagoans considered Payton something akin to a football God, and the idea that he wasn’t exactly perfect hit hard. Yet the excerpt was merely that—an excerpt. It was a small piece of a 480-page book that concerned everything from Payton’s birth in Columbia, Miss., to his role in the integration of his hometown’s high school to his time at Jackson State (where he once danced on Soul Train) to his brilliant career as a Bear to the end of his life. The project entailed nearly 700 interviews, and took two and a half years to complete. It was, to understate, exhausting and exhaustive. The book I’d always wanted to write.

And then—bam!—it was demolished.

John Kass, the Tribune’s awful wanna-be-tough-guy columnist, began the onslaught with a column titled, WALTER PAYTON DIDN’T DESERVE THIS TREATMENT. His piece savaged me and my book, and even included what must go down as the dumbest passage in the history of so-called sports journalism: “There are always debates about who was the greatest. But on a football field, there’s only one. It was Walter. And if anyone says otherwise, they’re either stupid or a liar.”

The best part: Kass hadn’t read Sweetness and, I’m guessing, still hasn’t read Sweetness. I left multiple messages and sent two or three e-mails to Tough Guy to find out. He, of course, never responded. Folks like Tough Guy seldom do.

Shortly thereafter Michael Wilbon, a Chicago native, Payton worshiper and a scribe I respect greatly, wrote a column for ESPN.com insisting my book was “pandering—especially when the man in question has been dead for 12 years and can’t defend himself.” Wilbon, also, had not read the book. Like Kass, I can state with 98 percent certainty he never has.

This, alas, was the story of my life for a solid two weeks. Mike Ditka (who hadn’t read the book) said he’d spit on me. Ken Valdiserri, a former Bears employee and a key source for Sweetness, wrote in the Sun-Times that, “my gut tells me is this was a self-serving, profit-mongering effort to sensationalize meaningless details of a complex person…. Pearlman’s yearn to understand Payton has value to him and him only in how book sales convert to his bank account.” (Ken, I should mention, had not read the book).

Tom Kief, an on-air personality at WIIL-FM, hosted a Sweetness book burning that was later posted on YouTube (Tom never read the book). Chuck Wenk, a columnist for the Lake Forester, wrote a column titled PAYTON DESERVES BETTER THAN THIS, that slammed my “hatchet job” and bemoaned the fact that I’d never spoken to Payton (I’ll take a stab and assume Chuck, too, had failed to read the book—considering the opening chapter was a look back at my sit-down interview with Walter Payton).

One after another after another, members of the Chicago (and nearby) media damned to eternal hell a book they had yet to read and an author they had yet to meet or attempt to contact. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and crushing. I came to love Walter Payton—his goodness, his complexities. And now…this. Why, on the day the excerpt first hit, a Chicago television anchor ended her segment by shaking her head and muttering, “Shameful … just shameful.”

So here’s what ensued, in order:

1.    The book made the New York Times’ best-seller list, but flat-lined in Chicago.

2.   Responsible journalists read Sweetness, and then wrote about it. The reviews were universally positive, including Sports Illustrated calling it “the best sports biography of the year.”

3.   The apologies rolled in. Ten … 20 … 100 … 200. On Twitter. On Facebook. Through my website. People who admitted they initially loathed me, but read the book and realized they were off; people who came to love Payton even more through understanding him.

4.   I am here.

By here, I mean, well, here. On this website. Asking the people of Chicago to give Sweetness, now out in paperback, a fair shot; to ignore buffoons like John Kass and Chuck Wenk and (gasp!) read before judging.

I don’t care if you take it out from the library or borrow a copy from a friend or pluck it off the $1 rack. I simply ask that you dig into a fascinating life and see if maybe, just maybe, there’s value in understanding both a man’s highs and his lows.

I simply ask for a chance.

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