Comment on Walter Payton’s Story & Society’s Quest For Mediocrity

Lashon Hara: A Jewish Law that prohibits the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose. As Joseph Telushkin describes it: “any statement that is true, but that lowers the status about the person about whom it is said.”

My Thoughts on the Walter Payton Article – My Childhood Sports Hero

I’ve had a number of people forward me the link to the Sports Illustrated cover story excerpted from a scathing book written about the dark side of Walter Payton’s personal life, especially after he retired from pro-football.  Some of their emails and comments to me are downright sinister.

Sports Illustrated chose to excerpt a chapter of a new book written by one of it’s authors that talks about Payton’s infidelity, struggles with his marriage, use of pain killers and struggles with mental and emotional health, especially after he retired from an illustrious career that made him one of the revered athletes to ever play American sports.

Since 99% of the population who reads the article will never read another thing about him, this will be his legacy to them. They will chalk it up as “yet another icon who turns out to be a schmuck”. Some will feel sad about it. Others like some who have emailed me today, will feel righteous about it. Others just confused.

Many people know that Payton was my sports hero when I was a kid, and that the NFL Man of the Year award is named after him ( he didn’t ask for it to be). I have over the years quoted several stories about Payton, the legacy he held as an elite athlete and as a teammate. I have told two stories in particular:

STORY #1: When he didn’t score a touchdown in the only Super Bowl he played in and was asked if he was disappointed, he refused to say he was disappointed about it, even though he later admitted he was. He focused instead on the joy of winning and the accomplishments of his team.

Months later in a candid interview, he was asked the question again except this time, he acknowledged his disappointment. Then he went on and said:

“Of course I was disappointed. Every NFL player dreams of scoring in the Super Bowl. But when they ask me that in the locker room minutes after winning the biggest game of our lives, what am I supposed to say? Can you imagine the headlines the next day? “Bears Win Super Bowl. Payton Disappointed.” There was no way I was going to let my personal desire get in the way of being the teammate and leader I want to be. What’s best for the team always comes first.”

Then the interviewer, in a moment of respect and humility for Payton’s thoughtfulness and candor said, “Well there’s always next year. “

To which Payton quickly and succinctly replied, “Tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone!”

The day Payton died in 1999 at the age of 47, that quote was the headline in the Chicago Tribune. I still have it in my office next to where I sit right now. I read that line and think about it more often than anyone can realize. It is one of the guiding principles of my life.

STORY #2: Months before Payton died, he did a Public Service TV ad, encouraging people to become organ donors. People knew that Payton had a rare liver disease and would die without a transplant. His critics ripped into him for being self-serving by making the ad, only showing an interest in the cause because his life depended on it.

None of them knew – because Payton and his family were extremely private – that it was by that point already too late for Payton to get a transplant as he had terminal cancer too. He made the ad because he wanted to try and contribute something while he still could.

That story so impacted me, that it still inspires me and always will.

So my thoughts on the article:

I was far more dismayed by Sports Illustrated deciding to publish that chapter of the book, than I was by what was in it. Quite candidly, I have long sensed  that something must have been off in his life for reasons that I am not going to discuss here. I had no need to know what they were.

Dragging Payton’s personal challenges into the spotlight 12 years after his death, borders on being unconscionable to me. I feel deeply for his family, especially his kids and his widow who clearly have had to suffer enough. There is a principle of Jewish Law called Lashon Hara that I opened this piece with. Anyone who wants to know what Lashon Hara looks and sounds like, just read the article in SI.

Any time I hear about marriage problems like Payton and his wife had, I have enough maturity and life experience to know that “it takes two” – and that none of us is in the inner-lives of another person enough to really know the whole story. My clients pay me to invest the time enough to be able to help them with these issues, and even then we go more on innuendo and interpretation than on reality. My point: None of us will ever know the truth of what went on between Payton and his wife, and none of us should.

To learn that he struggled with life after being in the sports spotlight is only a reinforcement of what is a common story. After a lifetime spent in the intensity of competition, the thrills of victory and the agony of defeat, so many of them struggle to make a peace with life afterwards. In a way this seems to be the cross these superstars bare, and those who resolve it would be an invaluable resource to help those who haven’t. Too many of them wind up unraveling, dying young or destroying the lives of those around them. Whether they be Hollywood stars, musicians, sports stars… the story is all too common, and all too sad.

When they die, if I feel anything, I feel compassion for them for failing to find peace in just being, without being in the spotlight.

Ultimately, what enrages me about this whole issue, is the way that we have developed into a society that must decimate it’s heroes, exposing their imperfections, dragging their incongruities and personal struggles into the public spotlight. No one is allowed to stand as an icon anymore – as a model of something for us to aim towards and aspire to replicate with our own lives.

This is because the “average folk” hate having that kind of standard out there… They envy the rich, the famous, the “successful” and the sense that these people are something that they themselves are not… They tear them down so that hey can  sit back, rub their bellies and think “See you ain’t so much better than me”… all while secretly wishing they were one of them.

They do this as if proving that our heroes are human and have flaws too, somehow justifies their own life of mediocrity. Anyone who read this article and felt somehow righteous and judgmental of him, you are the epitome of mediocrity. You just don’t know it and probably never will.

One reason learning more about Payton’s personal struggles doesn’t upset me, is that I accept certain truths about what it means to be human. I accept them so much in fact that my honesty about this is one of the things my clients tell me makes me so compelling and useful to them.

I understand implicitly that every person’s shit stinks, including my own. I understand that every one has skeletons in their closet. I understand that if we looked deep enough into anyone’s life that we will find their flaws.

I just don’t choose to do put my attention there unless there is some legitimate reason to.

I never get lost in judging a  person based on the lowest moments in their lives. I am far more concerned with who they grew into and became afterwards.

Jon Edwards cheating on his wife while she had cancer is as shitty a story as I’ve ever heard. Had it stopped there and he had a moment of blatant self-truth, realized how far off base he must be in his life and changed himself, I could actually earn respect for him. Had he cancelled his campaign for President before publicity forced him to, given up everything else to address what clearly are massive flaws in his character, he might have become someone to be modeled.

I think anyone who wants to use Tiger Woods as an icon of golf and wants to model their game after him, would be wise. Just as I think anyone who wants to use Payton as the model of how to be an athlete and a teammate and team leader would be wise.

I think anyone who wants to use Tiger as an icon of marriage, may or may not be wise. It depends who he grows into from the mistakes he’s made. One thing is for certain that if the decades go by and he grows into an extraordinary husband and father, we will never know about it. There’s no money to be made in that story, just as another book being published about Walter Payton and all his accolades and contributions wouldn’t make money either.

Sadly for Walter Payton, it is too late for him to change his story.

As for his story with me and the icon he was for me, very little changes. He was my childhood sports hero. He taught me three things at an age and time when hearing this made a massive impression on me:

He taught me to “never say die, never give up.”

He taught me make the most out of what you are given to work with, and to never make excuses for failing (another Payton story too long to go into here).

And he taught me tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone.

Not me, not you, not anyone.

So while many people  will use these revelation to justify their own mediocrity, for me, this only further inspires  me to refuse to settle for it.

Jeff Leiken
San Francisco, CA
September 29, 2011

4 Responses to "Comment on Walter Payton’s Story & Society’s Quest For Mediocrity"

  1. Jeff,


    I couldn’t agree more. This story (the except you quote from) is designed as “Menancholy” – gloomy; sad; dispirited; low-spirited; downhearted; unhappy; disconsolate; heavy, doleful; dismal; calamitous … once thought to be associated with the secretion of “black bile.”

    To me this is what these “retrospectives” on folks who were once allowed to be thought of a heroes represents, the spewing of black bile by they authors of these pieces.

    I said similar things when a book about “Joltin’ Joe” … “The Yankee Clipper” … Joe DiMaggio came out – just someone’s black bile at not being “Sweetness” IMO.

    In 1969, the year of MLB Centennial, eighteen years after his retirement from the game, Joe DiMaggio was voted by polling to be “baseball’s greatest living player” – that’s just awesome … this was the era of other greats like Mickey Mantle, Willy Mays and the like who were also still living at the time.

    Here’s something DiMaggio is quoted as saying to Sporting News in 1951 regarding his retirement:

    “I feel like I have reached the stage where I can no longer produce for my club, my manager, and my teammates. I had a poor year, but even if I had hit .350, this would have been my last year. I was full of aches and pains and it had become a chore for me to play. When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game, and so, I’ve played my last game.”

    Reminds me of what you wrote about Walter Payton saying after the SuperBowl Game. I just love this line: “When baseball is no longer fun, it’s no longer a game, and so, I’ve played my last game.” he just got it. To my mind he was a gentleman to the end … an icon, someone to emulate … regardless of the “truths” someone wrote or will write about him.

    Here’s the “excuse” that the writers and journalists will offer when challenged on the slime they produce: “We have a right to know the truth.” Like what the write is the truth … the way “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” comes out in a courtroom … RIGHT??!!!????!!!?????

    It’s just bullshit! There are two or three reason to write this slanderous stuff:

    A) MONEY, MONEY, MONEY (like you said above … it sells)

    B) To become famous yourself on the back of someone else’s pain, suffering and simply humanity

    C) To reduce those who have risen higher than oneself to reduce the height of the mountain to be climbed to claim one’s own greatness

    Mediocrats all!!!

    As a friend of mine once told me, “No one could endure others exposing the skeletons in their closet.” … we all have them, in one way or another … it’s called being human … and ultimately it serves it’s purpose, to keep us humble in the face of the audacious wonder of the Cosmos.

    REMEBER – myth used to be the vehicle to keep us humble in the face of the Cosmos, and lead us directly to the center of ourselves … yet, today we choose to tear down the myths that surround, or could be surrounding, us … and that leads us directly to the center of our personal and collective Hells instead.

    Without wonder there is only melancholy …


  2. This is a great read…and one of the reason’s why I love ready what Jeffrey Leiken writes!

  3. Tribal mentality will not allow one to rise above the tribal mentality. Therefore, the tribe will always keep pulling one down that wants to rise above the tribe. Tribes self-perpetuate and remain mediocre at best.

    I live in the not-for-profit world. There is a quote from an author whose name escapes me that articulates on not-for-profit management – this author stated, “a not-for-profit board tends to be made up of intelligent, successful individuals that come together to be mediocre at best.”

    We need to be careful who we prop up to be our heroes. Once we prop them up to hero status – for our own reasons – no one should be able to pull them down for us.

    To quote Albert Einstein, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

    I can’t say it any better!


  4. Thank you for a great article. We share a hero in Payton. Thank you for bringing honesty and clarity to his whole person. That in the end is very important.

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