Jeff Pearlman on "Sweetness"
Author Jeff Pearlman tackled the daunting task of telling the life story of a Chicago sports icon. His rich and exhaustive biography of Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton has earned him both praise and sharp criticism. He joins us to discuss his book on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.
The following excerpt is from the book, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.
This segment, from the chapter BIRTH OF SWEETNESS, details Walter’s arrival at Bears training camp as a rookie before the 1975 season.
Walter Payton arrived at the team’s new Lake Forest, Illinois– based training camp with bells on. Literally. That’s the sound many of the 1975 Chicago Bears associate with their first impression of the rookie running back from Jackson State— the jingling of bells.
Why did Walter Payton, a relatively humble young man, decide it’d be a good idea to introduce himself to teammates by tying a couple of small brass bells to his shoelaces, thereby broadcasting his attendance during drills with a jolly jingle? “I’m not sure,” said Jerry Tagge, a journeyman quarterback. “Some of the veterans thought it was incredibly cocky. Personally, I found it sort of neat. If he ran for fifty yards, you would just listen to those bells ring—ding a ling, ding a ling, ding a ling. There was a real rhythm to it.”
“I heard those bells and my first thought was, ‘Who is this guy, and who does he think he is?’ ” said Witt Beckman, a rookie receiver out of Miami. “But then he ran, and nobody could touch him.”
Not that Payton’s NFL beginnings were purely sweet music. With his elbow still a mess, his participation in workouts was sporadic. He practiced one session, then missed the next three. He took one handoff , cut left, juked right, and burst fifty yards down the field. He took another handoff , absorbed a hit, and fell to the ground withering in pain. At one point Payton was sent to Illinois Masonic Hospital for further treatment, missing the exhibition opener against San Diego. When Pardee was asked about his young runner, he smiled and uttered the company line. “He’s such a great guy,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “He went out for a pass and the ball hit him in the arm. He couldn’t fight the tears running down his cheek. But he was hurt.”
For the Bears’ new coach, the words tasted like soap. A sensitive elbow? Are you kidding me? Born April 19, 1936, in Exira, Iowa, Pardee was a person who, from a very early age, believed only in hard work and harder work—excuses be damned. He was milking cows on the family’s farm at age five and digging holes for septic tanks at ten. By age fourteen Pardee was jackhammering in the oil fields of Christoval, Texas, a town of roughly five hundred people near San Angelo where his family had relocated. “To live I had to work,” he once said. “Outside of football, the greatest pleasure I got was from working on our farm . . . working the tractor. I guess I’m just hyperactive, but I can’t stand sitting around doing nothing for more than two days.”
Pardee played his college football under Bear Bryant at Texas A& M. He will forever be identified as one of the “Junction Boys”—the thirty- five of one hundred players who survived Bryant’s hellacious preseason training camp in Junction, Texas, when the temperatures reached 110 degrees and water was nowhere to be found. Pardee went on to spend fifteen years as an NFL linebacker with the Rams and Redskins, though his career—and life— came to a halt in 1964, when a mole removed from his right forearm was found to be melanoma. Told he could either die or have the arm amputated, Pardee chose option number three— an experimental eleven- and-a-half hour operation in which his collarbone was broken and his body temperature drastically reduced. “I didn’t think I’d die,” he said. “I probably always had an indestructible attitude. Nothing was ever gonna happen to me. I’m not afraid of dying— it’s not gonna happen.”
If cancer was his greatest life challenge, Pardee’s toughest football hurdle took place in 1974, when he was hired to coach the Florida Blazers of the fledgling World Football League. Though initially elated by the chance to guide a team, Pardee became disillusioned when, midway through the season, the players’ checks began to bounce. “Somehow the owners who stopped paying everyone still had the services of a chartered jet,” recalled Bob Bowser, Pardee’s special assistant with the Blazers and Bears. “The whole situation was laughable.”
Despite every possible reason for his men to pack it in (No money. Games in Orlando’s dilapidated Tangerine Bowl. Putrid facilities. A schedule that changed week to week. Minimal fans.), the Blazers kept playing, reaching the WFL title game before losing to Birmingham. When Jim Finks heard of the unpaid group of journeymen and their feisty coach, he knew who he wanted to replace Abe Gibron on the Chicago sideline. “It was more of a gut feeling than anything else,” Finks said. “We looked for something deeper.” Now, as Pardee arrived in Lake Forest each morning not knowing whether Payton would be on the field or in the trainer’s room, he doubted the rookie’s toughness and commitment.
But not his talent. Throughout his month in camp, Payton was the talk of the Bears. The hype began shortly before his arrival, when O’Connor, the new running backs coach, interrupted a team meeting one day to show a film clip of Payton at Jackson State. “I think it was done to inspire us,” said Berl Simmons, a rookie kicker out of Texas Christian. “Walter must have run over or around all eleven defensive people, and we were just amazed. It was probably unusual for them to show that, but Walter was an unusual player.”
On his first day of working out, Payton hung with the other running backs and receivers, fielding punts from Bob Parsons. When it was their turn, players waited for the balls, stepped to the left, stepped to the right, moved in, moved back— then made the catch. “Not Walter,” said Jim Osborne, the veteran defensive lineman. “Bob kicked these beautiful punts, big spirals high into the sky, and when the ball finally came down Walter would catch them behind his back. I’d never seen anyone do that before.”
In the NFL, great athletes are the norm. Everyone is either incredibly fast or exceptionally strong, so much so that the remarkable can often appear mundane. There was nothing mundane about Payton. “He had a gluteus that I’ve never seen on another person in my life,” said Ken Valdiserri, the Bears’ longtime media relations coordinator. “His ass was chiseled. It was the most unique thing I’ve ever seen. And if you walked into the locker room it was like, ‘How can a guy have an ass like that?’ The curvature and the depth and the definition of it.”
“He was like an acrobat,” said Tom Donchez, a backup running back. Ross Brupbacher, a Bears linebacker, called him, “A muscle.” Don Rives, the ornery linebacker, said tackling Payton “was like tackling a barrel. I hit him as hard as I could in practice and he shed me like I was Little Bo Peep.” Said Doug Plank, the team’s twelfth- round pick from Ohio State: “At first I thought it weird that Walter was always flexing. Then it hit me— he’s not flexing. He’s made of rocks.” Payton walked on his hands, flipped up, and landed in a split. He stood below a regulation basketball hoop, jumped up, and dunked with ease. “The punters were practicing one day, and he decided to give it a try,” said Dave Gallagher, a defensive end. “He walked over, picked up a ball, punted it sixty yards, and walked away. No biggie.”
“Genetically, he seemed to be just like a rubber ball,” said Larry Ely, a linebacker. “When he got tackled, four . . . five . . . six people would have his legs, his neck, his arms, and he’d bounce back like a rubber ball to the huddle. How in the world did his ligaments and muscles take the pounding and bounce right back? You looked at him and wondered how any human being could be blessed with such a body.”
“He took up golf one day with the Bears,” said Bo Rather, a receiver. “He picked up an eight or nine iron and told us, ‘See that light post out there? I’m gonna hit it.’ The post must have been a hundred and twenty yards away, and Walter took the club, swung, and hit that post right down the middle. It was phenomenal. Whatever he did, he would be good at it.”
Despite the mixed reaction to his shoelace bells, Payton was embraced by veterans and fellow rookies. He was assigned to share an apartment with Gary Hrivnak, a third- year defensive end out of Purdue who was surprised to find himself with a black roommate. “I don’t know if they were trying to integrate the team more, but it was an eye- opener,” said Hrivnak. “Walter was very quiet, but in a good way. He wasn’t always talking about himself and everything he could do. He was unaffected by being a high pick and making good money.” Hrivnak remembered Walter plastering a small section of wall with photographs of Connie, his college sweetheart. He also recalled the time he approached the room and heard the thump of soul music blaring from behind the door. “I walk in, and Walter had four or five African-American players inside and they’re all dancing,” Hrivnak said. “Well, he tried to drag this old white guy in the middle and teach me to dance. Everyone laughed— I was the butt of the joke. But it was OK, because Walter was just a nice, funny, lighthearted kid.”
In the year 1975, a significant racial divide still existed in professional sports. White teammates hung with white teammates and black teammates hung with black teammates. There was a lingering mistrust and a pronounced lack of understanding. Locker room card games were split among racial lines. The tension over music was palpable— country and rock vs. R& B. To many of the black Bears, their white teammates seemed stiff and judgmental. How could they possibly trust the Southerners from schools like Alabama and Auburn and Ole Miss— the ones who seemed perpetually uncomfortable in their presence? A good number of the white Bears, meanwhile, didn’t like what they perceived to be the never- ending crowing and strutting of the blacks. They found the players to be lazy, selfish, and heartless. All skill, no drive. “When I got there we had a bunch of niggers,” said Rives, a white linebacker from 1973 to 1978. “Great ability, but no work ethic. They were selfish twits, and they wanted to blame everyone but themselves.”
Just as he had done at Columbia High School five years earlier, Payton somehow bridged the gap. Entering camp, Chicago’s top two returning running backs were Ken Grandberry, an unremarkable grinder who had led the team with 475 rushing yards in 1974, and Carl Garrett, the cocky former Pro Bowler. “Walter was different,” said Rives. “His biggest attribute was the fire in his gut, where he honestly believed nobody could stop him. I loved that.”
Payton didn’t merely impress teammates—he wowed them. Steve Marcantonio, the team’s fifteenth- round draft choice out of the University of Miami, had never heard of Payton until they arrived together at camp. One day all the players were required to partake in varied physical tests— bench press, curls, push- ups, sprints. “I was a six- foot- six, two- hundred- and-one pound possession receiver going against all these great athletes,” said Marcantonio. “I didn’t stand much of a chance.” The final activity was dips, where a person stands between two parallel bars and lifts himself up and down as many times as possible. “Back in college I used to finish every workout with three sets of twenty dips, so I finally felt there was something I could excel in,” said Marcantonio. “We go through most of the testing, and sure enough near the end I’ve smoked everybody. The second- best guy did thirty- seven, and now it’s me and Walter lined up next to each other. We’re the final two.”
Marcantonio put on his game face, took a deep breath, and completed fifty-six straight dips—easily a personal record. “Everyone was so impressed,” he said. “I felt great.” When Marcantonio finished, Payton— who had never before lifted weights or attempted a dip— approached the bars. “He was just this blur, up and down, up and down, up and down,” said Marcantonio. “He gets to sixty-five and he looks over at me with this expression on his face like, ‘Is this enough?’ I just shrugged. He was too much.”
Members of the Bears were blown away by their new star’s physicality. Payton’s legs looked like black pipes. His back was immense. He dead-lifted 625 pounds without a sweat. His hands, seemingly regular at quick glance, were thick and dense like slices of cheesecake. “You shook hands,” said Jerry B. Jenkins, the coauthor of one of Payton’s autobiographies, “and his wrapped all the way around yours.” Mark Nordquist, a veteran offensive lineman who had recently been traded to the Bears by the Eagles, spent the summer of 1975 working harder than ever. He lifted weights four or five times per week, and reported to Lake Forest with an extra thirty pounds of rock- solid muscle encasing his body.
When it came time for the Bears to grade the players on the military press, Nordquist silenced the room by warming up with a handful of 250-pound lifts. “Then I put the pin at the bottom of the weight set to three hundred and ten pounds,” he said, “and the room got even quieter, because nobody ever did that.” After taking several deep breaths, Nordquist grunted loudly, pushed and lifted the weight. “I staggered away, breathing hard,” he said. “Walter walks up, sits on the stool, and grabs the bar. I’m pointing at him, laughing, ‘Watch this idiot rookie!’ Well, Payton takes the bar and lifts it really fast— one, two, three times. Three times! He’s five foot ten, two hundred and five pounds, I’m six foot four, two- sixty- five. The guys in the weight room screamed, ‘There’s a new sheriff in town! There’s a new sheriff !’ ”
Watch a trailer for the book in the video below.
Listen to the "Sweetness" mix by clicking on the Audio Attachment below.