A true hero

14 Nov
Walter Payton (1953-1999) meeting fans at the Chicago Auto Show.

Walter Payton (1953-1999) meeting fans at the Chicago Auto Show.

This blog post is dedicated to the memory of Robert Dorfman, Z”L.

This week, a lifelong friend of mine lost his father after a prolonged illness. When I spoke to my friend this week I shared a favorite memory, probably when we were nine- or ten-years-old, when his father took us to the Chicago Auto Show. We weren’t interested in the cars. We couldn’t drive, after all. Our focus was to make a beeline for the Buick section for the meet-and-greet with Walter Payton, the legendary running back for the Chicago Bears. He was then in the prime of his career.  Payton shattered numerous records in his Hall of Fame career and helped lead the Bears to a Superbowl victory in 1986. He retired as one of the great legends of sports. A soft-spoken, kind man by nature, he was known by fans as Sweetness. Tragically, Payton died of liver cancer in 1999 at the age of 46.

 

Three years ago, I read a gripping biography about Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman , “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” Through meticulous reporting, Pearlman uncovers shocking truths about Payton. He was a womanizer and fathered a child out of wedlock whom he never met. He was addicted to pain killers, which the author reports is linked to liver disease. He was deeply depressed. He was a reckless driver. Despite all of these things, he maintained a pristine public image as a model husband, father and citizen and generous philanthropist. Pearlman’s book attempts to uncover the enigma of a man who went out of his way to visit sick children in the hospital and neglected his family.

 

When Pearlman’s book was published, it was criticized by those who sought to preserve Payton’s pristine, almost god-like image. I disagree. As a Walter Payton fan, Jeff Pearlman did us a great service by illustrating a star athlete as a flawed human being. Pearlman describes how Payton, late in life, thought he was a candidate for a liver transplant. He actually wasn’t. But his last act of communal service was to encourage people to become organ donors. The number of donors in Illinois multiplied exponentially as a result of Payton’s plea. He redeemed himself and brought great meaning to his life through his actions in his final days. Pearlman’s work on Payton anticipates the mountain of evidence that has emerged in the past year or so pointing to the problems endemic to the game of football itself and the toll it takes on those who play the game and our society, which pays big bucks to watch it. Pearlman shows that Walter Payton’s heroism grew out of his humanity, not the touchdowns he scored.

 

Like Pearlman’s assessment of Walter Payton, the Torah describes the Biblical heroes in human terms. They did great things, to be sure, but they were flawed like you and me. For instance, the Torah highlights Abraham’s great achievements such as discovering monotheism and bringing justice and morality into the world. At the same time, the Torah does not hide Abraham’s human faults. He passes his wife off as his sister not once, but twice, saving his life while risking hers. He throws Hagar and Ishamael out of the house into the desert to die. They are only saved by divine intervention. He fails to protest God’s final test and nearly sacrifices his son Isaac. Isaac is traumatized, perhaps even blinded by the event, and never speaks with Abraham again. He definitely has his human flaws.

 

However, Abraham is still a hero. A clue to his greatness is that he is content with his lot. As Abraham’s days draw to a close we read v’Adonai berach et Avraham bakol, God blessed Abraham with all things, (Gen. 24:1). Later, as Abraham is about to die, we’re told that when he died he was b’seivah tovah zaken v’saveiah—a good ripe age, old and contented (25:8). The text tells us that Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father. The midrash imagines that Abraham reconciled with his sons and the two of them with each other before he died. With this final act of teshuvah, Abraham dies content that there is peace in his family, and his legacy will continue. Abraham lives a full life with many successes and a number of mistakes. Through it all, he recognizes the mistakes and reconciles with his sons, or at least brings about their reconciliation with each other.

 

Abraham’s long life in which he died old and satisfied stands in contrast to football players in our era. The best of the best are paid millions of dollars, but they often are scarred with physical and emotional pain and truncated lives. Others barely last a year or two, maybe three in the NFL, after which they lack direction for the rest of their lives. The narcissistic behavior by some players who assault and rape women reflects on men who are not happy but who are angry, entitled spoiled brats whose bullying of others has been tolerated because they can clobber other players and score touchdowns.

 

As I reflect on Pearlman’s reporting on Walter Payton three years ago, I see it now as a prelude to the mountain of stories in the last year or so linking the multi-billion dollar football industry to a host of problems such as early onset dementia, violent crimes committed by active and former players and severe depression and suicide. This season alone three high school students from around the country died from head injuries sustained while playing. These trends should give us pause to assess our values as a society. What does it mean to earn the status of hero? When we tune into a football game on TV, and the broadcast replays both the pictures and sounds of a devastating tackle, we bear responsibility. The networks are playing to primal desires within us to watch other human beings hurt each other for sport. Our society is paying a price for our indulgence of our modern day gladiators as heroes.

 

For too long our nation has looked askance when former football players have developed a host of physical and mental problems from years of getting their brains bashed in hundreds of times per day. Former NFL players live on average 20 years less than normal male life expectancy in our country. Among the 1985 Chicago Bears who won the Superbowl, Walter Payton died of liver disease, likely spurred by addiction to pain killers; Dave Duerson, All Pro safety, committed suicide at the age of 50; Quarterback Jim McMahon now suffers from dementia and is a lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit against the NFL.

 

The problems go much deeper than former players’ health, unfortunately, as discussed in Steve Almond’s new book “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.” Because of our indulgence of football, school districts struggle for funds while municipalities build lavish stadiums often with significant tax breaks for the owners. Universities that make billions of dollars from football have tolerated star football players raping women. Only now are we starting to wake up to the deep systemic problems in society at large that this violent game has bestowed upon our society.

 

Walter Payton was no Abraham. He certainly was not blessed to live out the fullness of his years. However, at the end of his life he overcame his many human flaws and inspired others to do good. His final act of kindness saved many lives, and for that he is a hero. His legacy should be reexamined to bring safety and common sense into American sports and to remind us all of what truly matters.

 

 

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One Response to “A true hero”

  1. Ellie Levine November 15, 2014 at 10:01 am #

    I never liked football as a youngest I always felt that it was violent,dangerous and i couldn’t understand how people got pleasure watching this and I still am so apposed to the game

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