Jeff Pearlman (Twitter jeffpearlman) is having an interesting ride with his book on Walter Payton (Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton). Many Chicago Bears fans (including myself) didn’t want to give this book a chance due to some hard-to-swallow details written about Payton. Pearlman has been dealing with negative backlash that wasn’t helped by Sports Illustrated previewing one of the not-so-flattering sections. After growing up and realizing that judging anything without actually knowing it is wrong; I found it to be one of the best sports books I’ve ever read. It taught me that even our biggest heroes are flawed and human (click here for my thoughts). Payton still remains my favorite athlete of all-time; but it helped me understand that we all aren’t perfect. And with that, I introduce Mr. Pearlman…
CBJ: What made you decide to start the Sweetness project?
Pearlman: Well, a few things. First and foremost, when one writes books for a living (as I do), he wants to take on subjects that he’s passionate about, or at least very interested in. Walter Payton was one of my heroes as a kid; his poster was on my wall; he was one of the three of four guys I thought of when it came to the NFL (Earl Campbell, Billy Sims, Ricky Bell and Freeman McNeil probably being the others). So when I started looking for my next subject, that was important. Then toss in the facts that Payton, for all his fame, was sort of mysterious—little known, little understood. I loved that. And he was an icon. Most icons—Mantle, Unitas, Lombardi, Gehrig, Ruth, Wilt, etc—have been written about 1,000 times over. Payton, somehow, hadn’t been.
CBJ: Did anything from this project shock you?
Pearlman: Of course. I knew so little about Payton going in. I mean, he was a childhood hero; a guy I loved as a player. But I knew almost nothing about what made him tick; about who he was away from the field. So was I shocked? Multiple times. By his real age. By the nature of his nickname. By his background in segregated Mississippi. By his infidelities and his out-of-wedlock son. So, so, so much.
CBJ: Did you expect the backlash you received for this project? Did the Sports Illustrated piece contribute to it?
Pearlman: Honestly, I’m naive, but, no, I didn’t see it coming. Clearly the Sports Illustrated excerpt didn’t help, in that it led to the impression that I was out to destroy Walter Payton. Clearly, if you’ve read the book, that wasn’t true. I guess I was thinking of the project as a whole, even when people were only reading the few pages in SI. And the backlash was intense. And painful. And hurtful. I lost a lot of sleep and a lot of weight, because I truly put so much love and effort and heart into this project. 678 interviews. Thousands upon thousands of clips. Trips to Mississippi, Chicago, Chicago Mississippi. I felt like screaming, “Please! Read it first!” Hell, I did scream. Finally, people read.
CBJ: How does this project compare to other things you’ve done?
Pearlman: It doesn’t. I’ve never put more time, energy, effort, heart, sweat into a project. Never even came close. I think a big part of it comes with writing on someone who is deceased. It adds something … a level of responsibility, maybe. You feel like you’re walking along with him, if that makes sense. Not that he’d be thrilled by everything being out there—obviously, detailed, thorough, definitive biographies don’t only tell everything in a glowing light. But I really wanted to get the story right, and have it serve as THE Walter Payton saga. Where, 50 years from now, people curious about Payton will refer to my book.
CBJ: The Payton family has voiced their displeasure with this book? If given the chance, what would you tell them?
Pearlman: Well, I’d tell that that my goal wasn’t to tell their story, but his story. And that my goal wasn’t to hurt them or help them, but to write the most detailed, fair portrait humanly possible. I don’t like that people’s feelings get hurt in biography. I really don’t. But when one starts a project like this, he can either write truthfully, or write fluff. It’s a very clear choice. And while fluff is more digestible, it’s not real.
CBJ: Any hints on your next project?
Pearlman: The definitive biography of Mike Phipps (former NFL quarterback)
CBJ: How did you get into sports biographies?
Pearlman: I was a baseball writer at Sports Illustrated in the early 2000s. My friend and colleague, Jon Wertheim, had just written a book about Venus Williams. I was intrigued and jealous … thought, “I bet I can do that, too.” An agent, Susan Reed, approached me with the idea for an 86 Mets biography. Here I am.
CBJ: Any advice for aspiring sports writers?
Pearlman: Sure. First, report, report, report. There are a million people out there with quick pens and wicked phrases and cool transitions. But it’s all about details; specifics; nooks and crannies. Not just saying, “He had a dog,” but naming the dog; describing the dog; what the dog looked like and smelled like. Those details, seemingly tiny, make a piece.
Second, be curious. Always ask questions. Stop talking about yourself. Be genuinely inquisitive. About everything. And if you have prejudices—drop them. Open-mindedness takes a reporter far, because he/she wants to know it all. That’s a common trait among the greats–they’re genuinely fascinated by everyone from the Yankee pitcher to the kid delivering newspapers.
I want to thank Mr. Pearlman for his time and honesty. In two weeks, Mr. Pearlman will be making two Chicagoland appearances. On Monday, November 28th, he will be at Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville (123 West Jefferson). You can also catch him on Wednesday, November 30th at KAM Isaiah Synogogue in Chicago’s Hyde Park (1100 E Hyde Park Blvd). For more information on Pearlman’s other appearances, please visit here.
Follow me on Twitter at ChicagoBearJew.