Hit by a Pitch

Bedside Walter Payton

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As I’ve mentioned before, in an effort to fall asleep, like, ever, I read Sports Illustrated in bed for a while almost every night. Sports Illustrated is entertaining in a non-stressful way (unlike, as I’ve also mentioned before, shit like Infinite Jest, which freaks me right out) and helps me wind down so I can go from being awake to being asleep. My falling-asleep skills are not what they used to be. Back in the day, I could fall asleep anywhere and I could sleep all day. That was awesome.

Last week’s SI features an excerpt from Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman. (Note: That is not an affiliate link. I’ll make no money as a result of anything you do on the internet.) I haven’t finished the excerpt yet, but I can tell you two things for sure. First, I really want to read the book (more on this in a minute). Second, I think going to bed at night makes me feel a little bit and to a much lesser extent like Walter Payton felt after he retired from the NFL.

According to Pearlman, during Payton’s NFL career, the Chicago Bears took care of everything he ever needed. If he wanted a newspaper, a coffee table book featuring pictures of kittens lying in the sun, a hotel reservation, a big fat gigantic stuffed pizza — anything at all — they got it for him. So all his needs were met and he had an awesome career being an awesome running back for an awesome NFL team (not to mention his fantastic performance in The Super Bowl Shuffle, also known as the greatest song of all time).

Then he retired and all of a sudden, well, I’ll let Pearlman tell you what happened:

Now, thanks to that pampering, upon his retirement in the winter of 1988 as the NFL’s alltime leading rusher, Payton found himself burdened by a realization that had struck thousands of ex-athletes before him: I am bored out of my mind.

Dude, if you replace “pampering” and “retirement” with “daily life” and “going to bed,” I totally know what he means.

All day long, I’m busy as hell doing shit like getting my kid ready to go places, going to work, going to the gym, feeding animals, cleaning up after dinner, doing laundry, hanging out with my kid, hanging out with my significant other, talking shit on the internet, and the 900 other things I do every day (which, full disclosure, is no more exciting or demanding than anything an average person does every day but I am a complainy wuss when I’m tired). Then I get in bed and I don’t fall asleep and: I am bored out of my mind. And kind of lonely (Ben falls asleep in two seconds). When I’m bored I usually start thinking about all kinds of crazy shit, which is energizing rather than relaxing. This is probably an ADHD thing.

After he retired from the NFL, Walter Payton tried to fill the void by doing all kinds of crazy shit. He ate at Bob Evans (okay, that’s not really crazy) and had various relations with various women and covered his body with horse analgesic and took helicopter lessons and bought a 50s-themed nightclub in Schaumburg of all places (where he accidentally shot an employee in the leg one day) and raced cars and (I shit you not) “tried to break a speedboat record with Chuck Norris.”

That’s kind of what it’s like inside my head when I’m trying to go to sleep.

Back to the issue of me wanting to read the book — There are quite a few people, Mike Ditka included, who are unhappy that this book was written. I’ve heard several people say shit like, “Do we need to besmirch the memory of Walter Payton by digging up and publicizing all this shit about him?” (although unfortunately they haven’t used the word “besmirch”). I guess they think we’re just supposed to ignore and forget about things people do that might be seen as failures.

I don’t agree. First of all, I’m not going to judge Walter Payton. I mean, it’s not my favorite thing in the world when athletes cheat on their wives, but that’s not my battle to fight and I don’t judge him for it (and I wonder whether at least some wives of at least some famous athletes impliedly or expressly consent to cheating, but that’s an issue for a day when I’m actually functional). I don’t judge him for using and possibly abusing drugs and, if anything, I think it’s important that we know about things like this so we can try to prevent the same thing from happening to, in particular, more retired NFL players.

Even if it’s unflattering, I believe the truth is incapable of being bad. Many people, myself included, view Walter Payton as a hero. The truth is that Walter Payton was flawed. But you know, so what? We’re all flawed. That’s just part of being human and there’s value in recognizing and learning from it. And it doesn’t make me like Walter Payton any less.

This, by the way, is absolutely perfect.

Written by Tracy

October 10th, 2011 at 10:02 pm