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Walter Payton bio riles old friends: Mike Ditka's spitting mad

September 30, 2011 | 11:08 am

Walterpayton_pearlman Mike Ditka is the latest to speak out against "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton." The controversial biography of the Chicago Bears running back, which was previewed this week in Sports Illustrated, will be published Oct. 4. It has come under fire for what its author, Jeff Pearlman says about the football star: He had affairs, abused painkillers, threatened suicide and fathered a child out of wedlock. 

"I'd spit on him. I have no respect for him," Mike Ditka said of author Pearlman. Former Chicago Bears coach Ditka thinks the book, which comes more than a decade after Payton died of cancer at age 45, is ill-timed at best. "If you're going to wait 12 years after somebody's passed, come on," Ditka said. "This is the sign of a gutless individual who would do this. Totally gutless who would hide behind that, and that's what he's done."

Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who was a teammate of Payton's, agrees. "It's unfortunate somebody wrote a book and throws that kind of light on somebody who's not here to defend himself," he said. "I think it's a shame."

Payton's family has responded more moderately. "Walter, like all of us, wasn't perfect," they wrote in a statement signed by his widow, Connie, and family. "The challenges he faced were well known to those of us who loved and lived with him. He was a great father to Jarrett and Brittney and held a special place in the football world and the Chicago community. Recent disclosures -- some true, some untrue -- do not change this. I'm saddened that anyone would attempt to profit from these stories, many told by people with little credibility."

Those people were the sources Pearlman tapped for his book -- he says he conducted 678 interviews during the decade he spent working on the book. "[T]he goal was never to demonize an icon (whose poster once hung on my bedroom wall, and who I still greatly admire), but to understand him," Pearlman wrote in the Chicago Tribune. Pearlman continued, "I discovered a human being whose ultimate uniqueness was not in his transcendent moves on the football field, but in trying to balance -- and, often, cope with -- the multiple personalities that develop via celebrity."

How well Pearlman understands Payton can be previewed in the excerpt of "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton," online now at Sports Illustrated.

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-- Carolyn Kellogg

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