During my five-year tenure at Jackson State University and even after I graduated, every so often when I was in Chicago around family members, friends or coworkers they would ask me what college I attended.
“Jackson State. The same school that Walter Payton went to,” I would proudly say. If they dug for more info, it wouldn’t be beyond me to tell them about the many items displayed throughout the Lynch Street campus in honor of one of the greatest athletic talents ever to step on a professional playing field.
Payton played his last game in the NFL in 1987. I was a robust four-year-old at the time. I don’t remember much of anything about watching him perform for the Chicago Bears. As I got older my grandfather, who was the biggest sports fan I have ever known, would rave about how great Payton was.
“Doc (that’s the nickname given to me by my uncle who took Bugs Bunny’s famous greeting and applied it to me) you should have seen Walter Payton,” Pops said. “He would run people over. He would use that stiff arm of his and shove off defenders. He would jump over the pile at the goal line and score touchdowns. You know, he was the first one to do that.”
Payton was a football god in Chicago. He was Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan. I would later learn about Payton off the field. How he would play practical jokes on teammates, his appearance on Soul Train, and the stories shared by former teammates, friends and others who respected Payton as a man as well as a football star after he died.
If I had never watched film clips or viewed pictures of the man, it would have been tough to convince me that Payton wasn’t some mythological figure or some character out of the Bible. That’s what athletes were to me when I was growing up. These men didn’t seem like it they were real humans. They seemed more like superheroes.
Well, Payton, like all of us, is human. Elite level athletes are real. The point guard, third baseman and goalie are fallible. These men and women fight with demons and have moments of weakness just like the father of three or the single mom living paycheck to paycheck.
It came as no surprise to me to learn that Walter Payton was a regular guy as revealed in the book Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton written by Jim Pearlman. The book sheds a light on a great athlete who also engaged in extramarital affairs, was addicted to pain medications and had thoughts of taking his life at one point.
While those tales are definitely intriguing, the ugly side of Payton’s existence will not change the way I feel about him as a football player. And the opinion of Payton won’t change for many others either after reading the book or the Sports Illustrated piece.
I believe we all want to remember our childhood sports idols as pristine . We want to remember all the spectacular in-game moments they provided. The walk-off homers, game-winning touchdowns or last-second buzzer beaters.
The great sportscaster Bob Costas once described the baseball legend as “a fragile hero to whom we had an emotional attachment so strong and lasting that it defied logic.”
Costas could have said that just about any athlete.
It’s why we don’t always want to hear or read about Deion Sanders possibly divorcing, Darryl Strawberry using cocaine or Michael Vick being pinched for dog fighting. It ruins the fantasy. We don’t want to consider them actual people.
Sports are supposed to provide a distraction from the 9.2 percent unemployment rate, wars overseas and the shaky economy. Not intertwine with real world issues. They do, however.
We know every woman Derek Jeter has slept with since 1998. We know how many times Cedric Benson has been arrested. We knew Reggie White’s views on homosexuality. I just found out the owner of the Chicago Cubs is a Tea Party supporter. God help us all, but we know Brett Favre has pictures of his penis on the computer hard drive of Jenn Sterger.
If sports are a reflection of society, then athletes yielding to temptation shouldn’t surprise us. We should expect it. However, their transgressions can’t tarnish our own personal legacies of them if we don’t want them to.
So the next time someone asks me what college I attended, I will say Jackson State. The same school Walter Payton went to.