Culture At Large

Walter Payton and the persistence of hero worship

Todd Hertz

Here in Chicago, we have rules - things you just don’t do. Among them: You don’t put ketchup on a hot dog. You don’t call it Cloud Gate; it’s “the Bean.” And you don’t badmouth the beloved Walter Payton.

In this football town, the larger-than-life Super Bowl XX Bears are viewed with an admiration that bleeds into reverence. While all the ’85 Bears sit on pedestals, none sits higher than Payton, the sweet-moving Hall of Fame running back who died at only 45. So imagine the reaction last month when Sports Illustrated published an excerpt of a then-unreleased biography revealing number 34’s darker side: philandering, selfishness, addiction to painkillers, suicidal thoughts and more.

The words of the book’s author, Jeff Pearlman, best capture the scene: “As soon as Chicagoans began hearing about the excerpt, they snapped. Word quickly leaked that I had written a Kitty Kelley-esque rip job of Chicago’s favorite son. …Mike Ditka said he’d spit on me. I received some of the most vile, vicious threats I’d ever read.”

Since the release of the book, it’s become clear that while the SI excerpt  capitalized on the book’s most shocking revelations, "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton" is nothing to fear for fans of Payton. It’s not a toxic, “gotcha” tell-all, but a well-researched, fair, honest and comprehensive history. Still, I believe the instant fan resistance exposes something that lingers in us all: a desperate hope for a flawless hero. A desire that led one Chicago reporter to offer this warning: “If you do read ['Sweetness'], you have to be able to accept a harsh reality: Walter Payton wasn't perfect.”

It seems elementary to recognize that superb athletic prowess does not equal moral strength. “In the info-glut age, how can anyone be surprised that the most gifted among us have just as many human failings as we spectators and observers?” wrote media observer Dave Fairbank. “To assume [a hero’s] personal qualities match their talents is to assume you won't get jolted across the room this time when you slide the screwdriver into the electrical outlet.” Still, time and again, we as a culture are shocked when the illusion we build around a hero - actor, politician, artist, athlete, author, etc. - is shattered. As Pearlman has said, “perhaps all fans want is to believe their heroes are only heroes, and nothing else matters."

Why is that?

Fairbank suggests that it’s a matter of stake-holding. We make myths out of men because we benefit from the mythmaking. “They want the image to remain clean and pure because they benefit from the culture of hero worship,” he writes. “Or they don't want real life compromising their diversions and fantasies.”

So why do we need these fantasies? What do we lose if our hero is not perfect?

Maybe we lose, as Fairbank said, our diversion from our own hard lives. We regret that real life rips away at the thing we built as a safe mental vacation.

Maybe we lose the illusion that we can be more. Sometimes, I can sense a deep-down whispering that goes like this: “If Walter Payton - talented, famous, charming and rich - wasn’t happy, wasn’t perfect, wasn’t better, then there is no hope for me.”

As a Christian, I believe we are hard-wired to long for God. And so maybe this draw to a perfect flawless hero was installed simply to pull us to Christ. But when we mistakenly try to fill that hole with broken humans or institutions, we come up empty.

Interestingly, Christians are not immune to this struggle of reconciling our heroes and their flaws - despite a Holy Scripture full of flawed, broken faith heroes. I have had many conversations with Christians rocked upon discovering Mother Teresa had doubts or that Martin Luther King, Jr. had mistresses or that their pastor has an angry streak. Often, we get angry at that figure for not being what we thought or desired. Or we stick our heads in the sand, ignoring the person's complexity.

But I suggest that we also look inside to why we wanted them to be something more. And maybe apply thoughts from Pearlman about the Payton controversy: "I don't think there's anything wrong with knowing that a person was flawed. Maybe the [shallow] depiction of Walter Payton as a terrific, happy-go-lucky family man is the way to go. But … is it real?”

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