Between 2003 and 2009, I wrote four books. That means, on four different occasions, I've gone through the your-book-is-out-so-pimp-it-to-the-max drill of AM local news television interviews ("So Jim, why write a book about the '87 Mets?"); call-in sports talk radio shows ("You couldn't carry Lupica's jock, you ass clown."); 3,000-circ daily Midwestern newspaper reviews ("Pearlman's problem is he doesn't write good."); and ceaseless calls from former high school classmates ("Holy crap, Pearl! They were talking about you this morning on The 700 Club.").
Never, however, had I experienced anything like the last week. When my new biography, Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter, came out Tuesday I took an insanely deep sigh of relief. Not because, after nearly three years of work, a project I devoted my life to finally saw the light of day. No, I was just thrilled the ludicrousness had ended.
At least I hope it's ended.
The whole ordeal began last Wednesday, when Sports Illustrated ran an excerpt from Sweetness on its cover. The seven-page piece detailed a troubling period from Payton's post-NFL life—the depression; the marital issues; the pain killers; the suicide threats. I suppose I should have anticipated some sort of backlash. After all, Payton is a (rightfully) beloved Chicago icon, right up there with Ernie Banks and Michael Jordan. What followed, however, was uncharted territory … considering the book hadn't even been released.
Here's a quick breakdown:
• Wednesday: My Facebook Sweetness page—landing ground of a whopping 240 followers—immediately becomes the hottest place on the Internet to simultaneously abuse and misspell. One particularly enlightened reader (who has yet to read the book) insists "You will bern in hell four what You dunn." I note that the book is actually 460 pages, not seven. "Fuck you, whore," someone (who also has yet to read the book) writes. I think he is unmoved.
• Thursday: In an interview with NBC Chicago, Mike Ditka—who has yet to read the book—says he'd spit on me, and that my project was motivated by one thing-money. He then rushes off to film his new Coors Light commercial. Later on Samantha (no last name ever provided) from TMZ calls. She tells me she wants to write about my book (which she has yet to read), and asks whether I have a "scoop" for her.
"Not really," I say.
"Well," she counters, "we really wanna write something. Is there anything at all?"
I tell her I've got nothing juicy to offer, and she insists she's equally interested in Sweetness's positive side. I know TMZ. I've read TMZ. Hence, I spend the ensuing 15 minutes telling her wonderful stories about Walter Payton's goodness … Walter Payton's kindness … Walter Payton's decency. I can almost hear Samantha twirling her hair while dreaming of Justin Bieber. When I finally finish, an exasperated Samantha says, "That's all great—but is there anything we can break?"
"Sorry," I tell her. "Nope."
• Friday: Another call from Samantha, this time in the morning. She still has yet to read the book. "Why didn't you give a copy to Bud Holmes [Payton's longtime agent]?" she asks. The perkiness is gone—Samantha is all bulldog. "What?" I ask. "Bud Holmes says you promised you'd let him see the book before it was printed, and you haven't."
"OK," I reply—knowing this is utter bullshit (I would never allow a subject to see a book, pre-completion).
"Goodbye." I hang up.
• Saturday: My friend sends an e-mail: "Have you seen TMZ?" he says. "You're in it." I turn on the ol' laptop and there's the headline: WALTER PAYTON'S AGENT: SWEETNESS WAS NOT HOOKED ON DRUGS. The article, lacking Samantha's byline (or, for that matter, anyone's byline), includes this dandy: "Holmes says he is considering legal action if, when he reads the full book, he feels he was misquoted." I call Holmes later in the day. He is one of my all-time favorite interviewees; as unique and decent a man as I've met in some time. We've had many long, enjoyable conversations.
"Uh, Bud," I say, "did you threaten to sue me?"
"Aw, that's garbage," he says. "She was just making trouble."
The story's final paragraph includes "Pearlman had no comment." It fails to mention that I was never asked the question.
• Sunday: I finally get around to reading Ken Valdiserri's guest commentary in the Chicago Sun-Times; the one where the former Bears' media relations director (who has yet to read the book) writes, "this was a self-serving, profit-mongering effort to sensationalize meaningless details of a complex person who shared many alleged traits of a number of enigmatic superstar athletes, actors, artists, entertainers, political figures and heroes of our time. Pearlman's yearn to understand Payton has value to him and him only in how book sales convert to his bank account." I flip to the transcript of my lengthy sit-down interview with Valdiserri; the one where he told me about, well, never mind.
Since I'm on a roll, I check out David Haugh's Tribune column; the one where he joins the circus and criticizes a book he, ahem, has yet to read. His position: How could I not make the connection between Walter Payton's erratic behavior and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I tried explaining to Haugh that, because Payton's body had been cremated, there was no evidence for or against CTE, and any guess would have been pure speculation. "How are other salacious details revealed in excerpts deemed relevant but a possible contributor to why Payton's life was spinning out of control omitted entirely?" he writes. I spend the next hour wondering whether excessive newspaper ink is also tied to CTE.
• Monday: Two amazing things happen. First, Samantha from TMZ calls again. She's feeling friendly, identifies herself and says, "We'd really like to tell your side of the story." Click.
Second, in a column titled "PAYTON DESERVES BETTER THAN THIS," a writer for the Lake Forester named Chuck Wenk calls my book, "a hatchet job" and notes that I never met Payton face to face. While Wenk admits that some of my "drivel" might be legitimate, I "added a whole lot of junk that, believe me, is probably less than half true."
Since the opening chapter of my book details a one-on-one meeting I once had with Payton, I take a stab that Wenk hasn't (gasp!) actually read the book. Hence, I give him a call. "I'm not mad," I tell him, "but I don't understand how you can bash something you haven't read."
Wenk, friendly as can be, says, "You have your opinion, I have mine."
He's right—I do have mine. But, even here on Deadspin, it's probably best not shared.
I wish I could say this has all just rolled off my shoulders; that the lazy and mean-spirited reaction to a book that remains largely unread is viewed in the Pearlman household as a byproduct of our complicated times. But the truth is, when an author devotes three years to a project; when he promises men like Ken Valdiserri and Mike Ditka a definitive biography—then is torched for delivering, lo and behold, a definitive biography—the nastiness stings.
Jeff Pearlman's book is available now. We all encourage you to read it.