Monday, October 3, 2011

THE JEFF PEARLMAN INTERVIEW: PAYTON, DITKA, AND GETTING SPIT ON.

On Tuesday morning, the book, "Sweetness: The enigmatic life of Walter
Payton" goes on sale. It's a biography about an NFL legend, icon, and
a person who was of great character. But Jeff Pearlman, a writer who
has seen two of his books appear on the New York Times best-seller
list, exposes some of his flaws. Reaction, particularly from Chicago
Bears fans, has been harsh. On the eve of the book's release, Pearlman
who burst onto the sports literary scene more than a decade ago with
his portrayal of John Rocker, talks about Payton, the criticism, and
Mike Ditka's vow to spit on him.


DEVLIN: What did you set out to accomplish when writing this biography
about Walter Payton?

PEARLMAN: I wanted to write a definitive biography of a fascinating man
—period. People always look for suspicious motives—"He's just looking
to make a buck" or "He wanted to destroy Walter Payton." It's infuriating.
Looking for a buck? I spent nearly three years on this project; interviewed
700 people; put everything I had into this. And not to destroy or even lessen
Payton, but to understand and appreciate and grasp who he was; what made
him tick. And guess what? He was human. Fully human. He made mistakes.
He had depressed times. He hurt. It's human. And, to me, a person's faults
don't lessen a legacy. They help explain it and, to a degree, add to it.

DEVLIN: Payton was universally loved and respected in the NFL, the
 league named its Man of the Year award after him. He's deified in
Chicago. You've been in the business for a long time, you had to expect
that a lot of people, especially the ones in Chicago weren't going to take
too kindly to the explosive things that were written about Payton,
specifically, the charges that he talked of suicide, infidelity, and the
abuse of painkillers.


PEARLMAN: Maybe I was naive. In fact, clearly I was naive. But
throughout the process people kept saying to me, "It's great you're
writing a biography of Walter—he's a wonderful subject." Then when
I would say, "Well, I'm trying to write a detailed and honest portrait of
a complex man" they would say, "That's great—he was awfully unique."
So ... I dunno. I just don't think flaws define a man; didn't think people
would be so offended in reading that their hero was a human being.
But there's this thought—which I understand—that once someone dies,
you should never ever think/write/say anything but positives. Which
would eliminate 80% of the great biographies ever written—JFK,
DiMaggo, Ted Williams, Elvis, etc ...

DEVLIN:  Walter Payton isn't here to defend himself,  so it seems
that Mike Ditka is taking the stand to stick up for his former player.
He said that he'd "spit on you". Did that statement hurt you?


PEARLMAN: No, because I consider the source. Mike Ditka wants
to spit on me? It's laughable. Here's a man who has devoted—to his
credit—much of his time to helping retired players who have been
scarred by the game—mentally, physically. Well, Walter Payton was
scarred by the game. Mentally and physically. But we can't know
about that, because ... because ... well, I'm not sure why. Because
it'll make us realize the man was human, I suppose. It's ludicrous. But,
again, consider the source.

DEVLIN: If Ditka confronted you, what you would say to him?

PEARLMAN: If you have the capability, read the book.

DEVLIN: I've read comments on the Internet from irate fans and saw
where you said this has been one of the most trying times of your life. Is
that the case?

PEARLMAN: Certainly the most frustrating. When the John Rocker
profile came out in SI in 1999, I was certainly taken aback. But Rocker
was a three or four-page article. Articles come and go. This book was
nearly three years of work and dedication. And to be judged on a
small excerpt from a sliver of a man's life ... it smarts.

DEVLIN:  If some of the comments bothered you so much, why
did you post one on Facebook? It seems you're just adding fuel
to the fire?

PEARLMAN: I was trying to make light, because that one comment
was soooo over the top. Paul, I knew there'd be backlash ... but, when
I wrote the book, I didn't think about excerpt power ... the overwhelming
tidal wave. it hurts ... hurts a lot.

DEVLIN: Some people might look at your article of John Rocker,
the books on the Mets, Barry Bonds, Rogers Clemens, and now Payton,
and say, 'Pearlman focuses on the flaws and bad behavior and exposes it'.
Is that fair or do you feel again, that's part of their story and what goes
into making a definitive biography?


PEARLMAN:  Well, I can understand the perception. The funny
thing is, that was one of the things that drew me to Walter Payton.
He wasn't a controversial figure; wasn't someone with a crazy or wild or ...
whatever past. But I do believe in reporting, and reporting doggedly.
That doesn't mean being unfair, or going out of your way for dirt.
But it does mean being honest and unbiased.

DEVLIN: Who is responsible for pulling the excerpts from the book
and promoting the way in which they've been promoted? Was it a
strategic decision by your publicist to take the ones with the most
inflammable statements about Payton to create this type of attention?

PEARLMAN: No, Sports Illustrated picked the excerpt. And I fully
understand why they chose what they chose. Payton's life was mysterious,
and here was a look inside. I get it. What I didn't get was the impact it
would have on the book's reputation—even before anyone had a
chance to read it.
DEVLIN:  After the negative reaction, you've told people to "read
the book, read the book". If people read the entire book will they
think about if differently then just after reading the excerpts that were
put out in advance of it?

PEARLMAN: Yes. Without question. The book is about a black
kid growing up in the segregated south; about the power of football
to bridge racial divides; about small college football and a star trying
to gain attention; about chicago in the -20 degree wind; about suffering
through loneliness and isolation and four-win seasons; about survival.
Is it all positive? No. But is anyone's life 100% positive? No.

DEVLIN: What do you think this book will do to your career when
it comes to dealing with athletes and writing stories about them in the future?

PEARLMAN: Honestly, I still have faith people will read the book
—the whole book. and, come day's end, they'll say, "This guy is a reporter."


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