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Walter Payton: Another side of 'Sweetness' depicted in biography

September 28, 2011 |  1:34 pm

Walter Payton has been viewed as the ultimate role model, beloved for his actions both on and off the football field. He was known as "Sweetness," after all. But that image might take a hit with the release of a new biography.

In "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton," author Jeff Pearlman reveals an alleged side of the late football legend that was kept hidden from the public -- including dependency on painkillers, extramarital affairs and a lot of other irresponsible behavior. An excerpt from the book appears in the current issue of Sports Illustrated.

Pearlman tells SI he wanted to give a complete picture of Payton, the good and the bad. He interviewed 678 people over the course of 2 1/2 years and came up with a biography he describes as "not positive, not negative -- definitive."

The excerpt starts with a sweet tale of Payton comforting a young boy in need of a kidney and liver transplant. But some darker moments follow:

On one particularly dark day in the mid-'90s, Payton wrote a friend a letter saying that Payton needed to get his life in order and was afraid of doing "something" he'd regret. In the note Payton admitted that he regularly contemplated suicide. Thinking about "the people I put into this ... situation," he wrote, "maybe it would be better if I just disappear." Payton said he imagined picking up his gun, murdering those around him, then turning the weapon on himself. "Every day something like this comes into my head," he wrote. He was distraught over these persistent thoughts about wanting to "hurt so many others" and not thinking "it is wrong." Payton ended the letter by admitting that he needed help but that he had nowhere to turn.

Pearlman also says Payton's marriage "was a union solely in name."

Walter's extramarital dalliances were becoming common knowledge throughout Chicago. He confided in those with whom he was close that when his children graduated from high school, he would divorce Connie [who declined to speak at length to the author] once and for all. "He didn't want the children to go through the rigors of a celebrity divorce," says Kimm Tucker, the executive director of Payton's charitable foundation. "He knew what the spotlight felt like when it was negative, and he hated the idea of Jarrett and Brittney experiencing any of that." Says his longtime friend Ron Atlas, "Walter knew that if he left Connie, all the work he'd done to his image would go by the wayside."

Still, after all he learned during the writing of the book, Pearlman tells SI that Payton's lasting legacy is: "He was so good to the fans. That's why he's iconic. He treated people with dignity."


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Photo: Walter Payton in action against the Dallas Cowboys. Credit: Bill Haber / Associated Press