Few things have touched my life more than football and the Marine Corps. That’s not a statement meant to be profound or noble or dramatic. It’s just a fact. I have loved football since I was old enough to sit in front of a black-and-white TV and watch USC play Notre Dame, Alabama play Tennessee or the Saints play anybody. I played on the playground, in the yard, in the church parking lot. It didn’t matter. Collected football cards and helmets. Had one of those electric football games. Got a football signed by three Ole Miss football players. But, being small, even as a kid, I knew my football future was a very finite thing. But when I – unexpectedly – found myself at the doors of a new high school entering the ninth grade (but that’s another story), I saw a chance and I took it. I was still too small, and I was not very good, nor was I exceptionally fast (I got better). And my high school, Lowndes County Mississippi’s New Hope High, had a very good team.
But I made it onto that team, and for the next four years, I found a lot of what had been missing in my life up to that point: a sense of belonging, discipline, pride and what it means to not quit. In fact, Coach Butch Jones and Coach Randy Sullivan instilled in all of us an ethos that quitting was a far worse mark on your character than failing, or not making the team. And that football team, truth be told, was the first time in my life I’d not quit at something – an accomplishment that came in handy a few years later while sweating under the enormous strain at Marine Corps Officer Candidate School. I can remember thinking, while being physically thrashed by the USMC drill instructors, “Well, this isn’t as hard as football practice.”
And one of the football icons of the time was a fellow Mississippian: Walter Payton. I have never – and I don’t say this lightly – seen a better football player. Ever. And I played against Marcus Dupree (and at least two other former opponents made it to the NFL). And, of course, “Sweetness” transcended football – he was a kind, generous, almost mythical paragon of decentness, even to this day. I taught my own son to “play like Walter,” to “never die easy,” and was proud when he wore #34. When my son decided to do a school project on Payton’s life, I was genuinely moved, and we read Walter’s autobiography “Never Die Easy” together. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried the moment I found out Walter had died. He remains my favorite NFL player of all time (with no disrespect whatever to Archie Manning).
So, like many, I was a little disturbed when I heard the news about a new bio on Payton by Jeff Pearlman. The reviews said it was harsh; that it pulled Payton down into the mire; that it smeared a good (and dead) man’s name. I haven’t read it yet – but I will. And I’ll read it for what it is – a complex story of a complex man. As a journalist, I understand that the story strives to paint a complete picture of Walter, not deify him – yet not to tear him down. Apparently, I’m in the minority on that view, because Pearlman posted this piece on CNN today. I read it with great interest. If you don’t read anything else about Walter Payton – or the bio – read this.