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Payton's brother takes stab at setting record straight

'Standing in Shadow of Sweetness,' tries to burnish legend of Bears Hall of Famer

Fred Mitchell

6:40 PM CDT, September 28, 2012

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Many fans of the late Walter Payton were stunned by the depiction of the Bears Hall of Fame running back as a flawed human being in Jeff Pearlman's controversial book: "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton."

Assertions that Payton abused drugs and was a self-indulgent womanizer with occasional suicidal tendencies sent shock waves through the sports world.

Yet no one felt worse than his older brother, Eddie Payton, who has written his own book, "Walter & Me: Standing in the Shadow of Sweetness," published by Triumph Books to be released next week.

"The thing that struck me so was: Why, 10 years after he passed (was the Pearlman book written) when he couldn't defend himself?" Eddie told me via phone from Jackson, Miss., where he and Walter once starred at Jackson State University.

"I mean, you're trying to make money off the dead, and I found that utterly disgusting. I guess for my own edification, I needed to try to set the record straight. … I don't want to say that I was his wing man, but I was, so I know the good the bad and the ugly. It was no more and no less than what Joe Average does. To attack somebody whose claim to fame was that he did it the way it should be done, and respected the game and the fans who made him what he is … I had a real hard problem with that."

Pearlman, whose book also had many flattering things to say about Walter, hasn't backed down.

"I have confidence in my sources," said Pearlman, who reportedly interviewed 678 people for the book. "I like Eddie; I don't have an ax to grind with Eddie. I am not looking to start a fight."

Yet Eddie has come out fighting figuratively as he vigorously defends the legacy and reputation of his famous brother, who died on Nov. 1, 1999, from complications of bile duct cancer.

"One (point of clarification) was the state of mind before he passed," Payton said, regarding suggestions Walter contemplated suicide before he became terminally ill. "And, No. 2, he was portrayed as a drug abuser and a womanizer. And that just wasn't true. I mean, of all the things that were in there, that wasn't true. … Some of those things that he quoted and made reference to … there were only two people who were there when it happened. And one of them is not here to defend himself."

Eddie Payton played five seasons in the NFL, mostly as a kick returner, with the Browns, Lions, Vikings and Chiefs, once returning a kickoff and a punt for touchdowns in the same game.

Payton, who has a book signing at Ditka's Restaurant on Thursday, was assisted by writers Paul Brown and Craig Wiley.

"I am not a writer," said Payton, who has been Jackson State's golf coach for 27 years. "But someone said that it was something you needed to do for the millions of people that you run into that can tell you their favorite Walter Payton story."

"If you look at our book, you see that all of the proceeds are going for the Walter Payton Scholarship. I mean, I don't need to make money. I have a job. And if this (book) is about Walter, then it should go to the scholarship.

"We have given away about 33 in his name and raised more than $1 million dollars for scholarships. I know Walter would be proud, because that is what we talked about the most to do before he got sick … coming back to Mississippi and doing something to make a difference in young people's lives. I am just carrying on his wishes."

fmitchell@tribune.com

Twitter @kicker34