I first met Jeff Pearlman when he was a high school senior and I was a sports editor of a chain of weekly newspapers in Westchester, Putnam and Fairfield counties.
At age 23, I wasn’t that much older than he was, but he came to our office seeking advice about a story he had written for his high school newspaper. That led to an internship that wound up igniting a journalistic career that has seen him become a bestselling author.
When I first met Jeff, I knew pretty quickly he was headed down this path mainly because of his intellectual curiosity and aggressiveness as a young reporter. He never stopped asking questions – and still hasn’t.
Those qualities are a big reason Pearlman, who has lived in New Rochelle for eight years, just completed the most insightful and definitive biography of the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, and arguably its best-ever player, “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton.” In the course of working on the three-year project, he interviewed nearly 700 people.
Released three weeks ago, the book has already made the New York Times bestseller list, joining two other books he wrote, “The Bad Guys Won!” (on the 1986 Mets) and “Boys Will Be Boys” (on the Dallas Cowboys).
Pearlman, who also wrote books on Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, said the Payton book is his favorite.
Asked why, he said, “Fascinating subject, ample time to complete it, an editor who was cool enough to leave me alone and let me work. Most important, I love Payton. The details, the conflicts, the highs and lows. He was a great subject.”
Warts and all. Pearlman’s reporting revealed that Payton engaged in extramarital affairs, abused painkillers and became dependent on laughing gas after his playing career ended. But Pearlman said not of those things were what he found most interesting about the former Chicago Bears great, who died in 1999 at age 45 after battling bile duct cancer.
“Probably how depressed he was toward the end of his life, and that he wrote suicide notes to people ... made threats to take his own life,” Pearlman said. “I'd never imagined that from a man who seemed so outwardly jovial.”
Much of the book was written by Pearlman during his regular sessions camped out at a Starbuck’s near his home. He’s detailed many of his experiences there in writing it on Twitter, Facebook and his web site, jeffpearlman.com.
Overall though, the former Sports Illustrated senior writer feels right at home when working there on whatever projected is currently on his plate. He feels the same way about New Rochelle itself.
“I love the diversity and the richness of color,” he said. “I like much about Mahopac (his hometown), but it was a sheltered place. My folks used to take me to the city regularly, so I knew what was out there. But many didn't. New Rochelle — my very street — is an ode to diversity. It's exactly the sort of place I want me kids to love.”
Joe Lombardi’s look at sports of all sorts in Westchester appears Sundays.