A new book about Walter Payton about to hit stores next week that has some startling stories about drug use, affairs, and suicidal thoughts, has the sports world buzzing especially here in Chicago.

Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Pearlman spent more than two years working on “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton” and uncovered startling details about the Chicago Bears running back who was so highly regarded that the NFL named its Man of the Year Award after him.

Parts of the book appear in this week’s Sports Illustrated. In one section, Pearlman describes Payton’s drug use:

“The burden of loneliness and his marriage weren’t Payton’s only problems. As a player he had numbed his maladies with pills and liquids, usually supplied by the Bears. Payton popped Darvon robotically during his playing days—says Holmes, “I’d see him walk out of the locker room with jars of painkillers, and he’d eat them like they were a snack”—and also lathered his body with dimethyl sulfoxide, a topical analgesic commonly used to treat horses. Now that he was retired, the self-medicating only intensified. Payton habitually ingested a cocktail of Tylenol and Vicodin. In a particularly embarrassing episode, in 1988, Payton visited a handful of dental offices, complaining of severe tooth pain. He received several prescriptions for morphine and hit up a handful of drugstores to have them filled. When one of the pharmacists noticed the activity, he contacted the police, who arrived at Payton’s house and discussed the situation.”

Once Payton’s career ended, Pearlman describes how Payton battled depression and often discussed suicide with close friends. Pearlman also tells the story that both Payton’s estranged wife and his girlfriend attended his Hall of Fame induction ceremony — “they were like ships passing in the night,” Payton’s assistant said — and made the triumphant weekend one of the worst of Payton’s life.

Payton’s family released a statement through the Walter and Connie Payton Foundation website, http://www.payton34.com/, stating

“Walter, like all of us, wasn’t perfect. 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.”

It’s hard not to question the validity of some of these stories and to feel what the Paytons must be going through as this book is about to be released. Walter Payton is one of the most beloved figures in Chicago sports history and to hear these stories makes me for one sad. The worst part about the release of this book is that there are some really great stories about Payton in this book. They include a story about how Walter delighted a cancer-ridden youngster on a flight and how he would play catch with kids before signing their football. I hope that these stories won’t get lost among the more tantalizing stories of drugs and other misdeeds and make people forget the absolute grace he played the game of football, and the courage he showed during his battle with cancer and at the end of his life.

What the public opinion of Walter Payton will be after this book is yet to be seen, but to me Walter Payton will remain among to greatest figures in Chicago Bears history, if not Chicago sports history as the tale of Sweetness will never sour for me.
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