Today the 1985 Chicago Bears were finally honored at the White House—25 years after their 46-10 romp over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. (The original trip was canceled because of the Challenger explosion.) That Super Bowl was memorable for many reasons—the headbands of Jim McMahon, the spectacle of William "Refrigerator" Perry—but it was also noteworthy for what didn't happen: Walter Payton didn't score a touchdown. In fact, the belief has long been that Payton was miserable after the game. In this excerpt from Sweetness, available on Amazon, author Jeff Pearlman revisits the scene after Super Bowl XX and finds the great Walter Payton in tears.
When the final whistle sounded and the Chicago Bears were officially Super Bowl XX champions, Payton headed directly to the locker room. He entered, tore off his jersey, and slammed his shoulder pads to the floor.
"If you looked at Walter," said Ken Valdiserri, the team's director of media relations, "you would have thought we'd lost."
"For the 10 years I had played with him, Walter claimed it didn't matter how many yards he got, how many touchdowns he scored—it was about winning," said Brian Baschnagel, the veteran receiver who, because of a season-ending knee injury, watched the game from above in the coaches' box. "That was the attitude I took, too. I didn't care how many passes I caught, as long as the Bears won. And I always felt Walter felt the exact same way. But when he reacted the way he did . . . it was the exact opposite of what he had claimed to be as an athlete."
As Chicago's players and coaches reached the locker room, Payton was nowhere to be found. Teammates wanted to congratulate him. Ditka wanted to tell him the Bears couldn't have done it without him. Members of the media, quickly stampeding into the room, wanted to know how it felt to finally fulfill a dream.
Valdiserri and Bill McGrane, the team's marketing director, were the first to reach Payton. His eyes were red, and tears streamed down his cheeks. "He didn't score and he didn't feel as if he'd contributed to the win," said Valdisseri. "I found it to be such an odd and awkward moment, because that's not what he represented throughout his career. I never knew him to bask in his statistics. At least that's not the way he made it seem. I thought it was a complete paradox."
Valdisseri and McGrane begged Payton to come out of the broom closet. "Walter," Valdisseri said, "how is it going to look if you don't talk? Here we just won the first Super Bowl for the Bears, and this should be the highest point of your career. Don't let your disappointment in your own performance bring down the moment."
Payton wasn't having it. "I ain't no damned monkey on a string," he snapped. "I don't have to jump up and smile just because TV wants me to."
He was livid at Ditka for ignoring him and livid at Perry and McMahon for hogging the spotlight and livid at himself for fumbling. The highest point of his career? Ha. It felt like 1975 all over again.
Around the time Valdisseri and McGrane were finishing with Payton, Bud Holmes, Walter's agent, entered the locker room. Ever since they first teamed up before the 1975 draft, Holmes had paid special attention to his client's image. He knew of Payton's goodness and decency, and the last thing he wanted was for a nation of football fans to get the wrong idea.
Holmes stormed into the tiny closet, where he found Payton sitting on a box.
"What the hell is wrong you with?" Holmes screamed.
"You know what's wrong," Payton replied.
"Goddamn boy, one monkey does not stop the show," Holmes said. "The show's gotta go on. Look, Ditka was the one who didn't get you a touchdown. If the press wants to gut him for it, let it be their call. But if you go out there and do anything but brag on him for getting you to a Super Bowl and brag on him for letting you achieve so much, your reputation as a good guy is dead, and you'll be remembered as the selfish shit who moped after a Super Bowl."
"But," Payton countered, "this isn't the way you treat a star."
"Bullshit," Holmes said. "Right now there are hundreds of reporters out there with sharp, sharp pencils waiting for you to blast him. Maybe they even agree with you. But if you blast him now, they'll come back in a few days and blast you even worse. So do me a favor and act like the happiest son of a bitch in the world. If I can find you a straw hat and a cane, you can come out and tap dance in front of everyone to prove it."
Payton asked Holmes for a couple of minutes to gather himself. When he finally emerged from the closet, he was shirtless, with a white towel dangling over his right shoulder. He was stopped by NBC's Bob Costas, who requested a live interview:
COSTAS: Walter, was there ever a time during your long career, when you were performing so brilliantly and your team was at a level beneath that, that you felt this dream would never come true?
PAYTON: Well, you try not to think about it. During the off-season when you see other people playing in the Super Bowl, you wonder and you say to yourself, 'Are you ever gonna get there and see what it feels like?' And it pushes you a little bit harder during that off-season to work to try to get there the following year. This team had their minds made up after losing to San Francisco last year that we were going to win the Super Bowl this year.
COSTAS: Can you describe the feeling for you personally?
PAYTON: Right now it really hasn't sunk in. I don't feel anything. It's one of those things where when you have it in your mind for so long what it would be like, and then after the actual event happens, it tends to take away from it. Right now I'm still a little bumped and bruised from the game. It really hasn't happened yet.
Standing to the side, Holmes was satisfied. Payton, however, remained petulant. Instead of making plans with teammates or family members, he retreated to the empty training room. "He and I left the Super Bowl together in a taxicab, after everyone was gone," said Fred Caito, the veteran trainer. "By the time we left the training room it was quiet and dark. He never even took a shower—just sulked." Upon reaching the hotel, Payton was greeted in the lobby by Lewis Pitzele, a Chicago-based music producer he had known via business dealings. Payton invited him to his room. "He started telling me why he wasn't going out, and then he started crying," said Pitzele. "I was answering the phone for him—ABC and CBS and Good Morning America were all calling the room, trying to book him for the next day. He didn't want to talk to anyone. We eventually went downstairs to the banquet, but he was crushed."
Jeff Pearlman's book is available now. We all encourage you to read it.