The Walter Payton described by Jeff Pearlman in his new book, which tarnishes the legend of the Hall of Fame running back, is not the Walter Payton that former teammate Tom Thayer knew.
"Being in the locker room, getting ready to go out there and play a game, Walter was ready to play each and every week," said Thayer, a guard who blocked for Payton for three years, including the Super Bowl season of 1985. "He came to practice each and every day ready to practice."
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Thayer was even more impressed with Payton off the field.
"When I saw him after our careers were over, socially, he was always a gentleman and a professional," he said. "When he walked into a room of the general public, everybody in that room smiled because they were so happy and excited to see Walter Payton, and he reciprocated. He was the ultimate, most gracious superstar to the general public that I've ever seen. And that's the way I remember Walter."
Thayer, an all-state player at Joliet Catholic High School and later an all-American at Notre Dame, admired Payton as a fan long before he became his teammate.
"I had a chance to worship Walter because I grew up here, and when they drafted him in 1975, I was a young kid," Thayer said. "I went through my whole college career admiring him from afar and then became a teammate of his, and I admired him even more after having a chance to play with him than I did before I ever met him. Anytime I was with Walter, in a professional atmosphere in terms of sports or a social atmosphere in terms of outside the business, he was never less than 100 percent professional."
Thayer said revelations in "Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton" about his use of painkillers and his infidelity won't diminish his opinion of the Bears' all-time leading rusher, and he says it won't tarnish his reputation among his millions of fans.
"It'll probably increase the admiration they had for him because, when you look at what Walter was as a professional football player, he was a model of professionalism," Thayer said. "Now, when people get an understanding that there were difficulties in his life that he was facing each and every day and he still performed like a professional, it'll probably increase the respect they had for him. But it's unfortunate that we have to defend him and he can't defend himself.
"It's an unfortunate portrayal of Walter, but it doesn't diminish my respect for him in the least."
Thayer said he never was aware of any off-the-field problems Payton was dealing with as a player or after his playing career ended after the 1987 season.
"I don't remember Walter in the ways that they're talking about him," he said. "I remember Walter as my hero and as just a great stand-up guy. As you find out more about life, everybody goes through awkward trials, but they're not usually publicized. Here, it's so far removed after the fact it's kind of unfair to Walter's family.
"It doesn't benefit anybody, obviously, but the author. I think there's a generation of fans who are familiar with Walter because they lived through his body of work with him. I don't think those people will ever lose any respect for Walter Payton."