NFL: Will Walter Payton Still Be a Role Model?

Derek CrouseContributor IIIOctober 4, 2011

When awards are named after you, it's so much to live up to
When awards are named after you, it's so much to live up toRonald Martinez/Getty Images

As kids, we looked towards people to gain influence from. From athletes, movie stars, political leaders or even our parents (which usually doesn’t happen until later in life), we have to realize that faults are just as evident as the positive aspects we gravitate to and try to emulate.

In the age of information that we live in today, gossip, rumors and the stripping down of a person’s façade is commonplace. We realize that more and more role models do not fit the cookie-cutter image that parents wish for.

With the release of the book Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Sports Illustrated’s Jeff Pearlman, another hero of years past has been exposed to what was going on behind the scenes during and after his illustrious career. The man who was Walter Payton was viewed on the practice and playing field with an almost god-like stature.

His practice regimen was legendary with the way he pushed his body to the limit. Whether that was running the dunes in northwest Indiana, pursuing ballet, or just going the extra mile in the weight room, he always strove for greatness.

When an athlete puts so much weight on his shoulders, the pressure has to affect him somewhat throughout his lifetime. Taking painkillers more than the average man is nothing surprising about an NFL player. This is a sport where the average lineman only lives until his mid-50s, and playing with pain is something all of them live with.

The extent of the drug use by Payton is what is so surprising. He ate Tylenol and Vicodin like candy, which easily could have led to his organ failure. He even was an avid user of nitrous oxide and used it years after his career was over.

Payton’s mental health was also a wreck. One of the excerpts from the book reads,

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.” 

It was heartbreaking to know the man I knew as unstoppable was very human.

People have a tipping point,and their environment can bring out both the best and worst in themselves. What we have to realize is while we want our heroes to be Teflon with no flaws, no man or woman on this planet can live up to those expectations.

Just look at the escapades of Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Many will be quick to judge as to whether Walter Payton’s legacy will be tarnished.

If you can compartmentalize what he did on the field to what he did off the field, you can still aspire to have a little bit of “Sweetness” in yourself.