Sweetness in Life: Lessons from Walter Payton

My husband handed me his Sports Illustrated magazine last week and asked me to read the article about Walter Payton. All he said was, “It’s sad.”

I don’t know if he meant the details of Walter’s personal life, or the fact that someone decided to write about it, but either way, he was bummed.

Walter Payton is Todd’s favorite football player, possibly his favorite athlete. He holds him in the highest regard and always felt he was untouchable.

As Todd explains it, Walter’s athletic ability was untouchable, even though he wasn’t that big compared to the other players on the field.

He also had incredible sportsmanship, doing whatever it took for the team to win. He took as much pride in blocking as he did in scoring touchdowns, and when he did score, he wasn’t a show off.

Walter was also a practical joker, funny to his friends and the media, and loved by his teammates.

And now we know that Walter had a difficult road. The details in the tell-all book and the Sports Illustrated article may or may not all be true, but even if a few of the stories are true, it is clear he had some struggles.

But isn’t that OK? Don’t we all have struggles? Don’t we all have times of desperation?

Instead of being infallible, we now know that Walter was human. But what did we expect? Did we really believe that his every step, comment and action were perfect?

Do we hold ourselves to this standard? I hope not. That would make for a difficult and anxiety-ridden life. Life is full of light and dark; there is no way around it.

And we all know how much we learn from dark times, the pain and the difficulties.

We also know that once we experience difficulty, we have more compassion for people who are challenged or hurting.

Which is why I am confused when I hear people (commentators and people I know) say that Walter’s career and life are now “tainted.”

Is this true? Does making mistakes make us “tainted?”

It sounds like Walter was lost after his football career was over. Who wouldn’t be? That’s some serious adjustment he had to deal with. He didn’t know who he was anymore and feeling that way can often lead to poor choices.

But does that mean he is no longer a sports hero? Does that mean that everything Todd and everybody else loved about him is no longer real?

I think as a society we are more compassionate than that. Let’s stop holding up our heroes as “perfect” and asking them to be inhuman so we can feel good about them.

That kind of mentality holds us back from reaching our dreams because we somehow think we have to hold ourselves to that perfection to be “successful.”

That’s way too much pressure, and it’s not real.

In my own life, people have asked me if I am embarrassed when my kids act out in public or when they get in trouble – they think since I write/teach/talk about parenting that my kids should somehow be different than theirs.

Sorry, my kids act out and they make mistakes. That’s what kids are supposed to do.

I don’t teach or talk about making kids mistake-proof; I talk about how to respond compassionately when kids make mistakes.

And guess what – adults make mistakes, too.

Which is why I encourage parents to be human with their children – admit when they are wrong, apologize when they are out of line, show their emotions – this gives children permission to be human, too.

If we can own our difficulties and move through them with integrity, our children won’t be as afraid of their difficulties. By watching us they will learn that they can recover and grow from any challenge.

Being human teaches our children compassion and tolerance. Expecting perfection teaches our children to hide, deflect, lie, or numb out to deal with the pressure.

So it’s a disservice to expect perfection from athletes and other stars, too. We hold them up and then rip them down if they make a mistake because they shatter the dream of what we believe they should be.

But that’s just it – it’s a dream, not a reality. We need to be more understanding and gentle with other people and we need to be more understanding and gentle with ourselves.

If we can do that, then maybe we wouldn’t be so judgmental. Maybe we would take more risks because we wouldn’t be so deathly afraid of failure. Maybe we would be fully ourselves instead of pretending to be someone that we are not.

Walter may have felt tremendous pressure to uphold the persona that was placed upon him. So much so that he didn’t know who to be; especially after his football career came to an end.

Allegedly this led to feelings of desperation so strong he numbed himself with drugs and had thoughts of suicide.

I don’t think he’s the only one who has felt this way.

Regardless of what is true and what is not, isn’t Walter Payton still one of the greatest athletes of all time, a man who earned the name Sweetness, a person who entertained us on Sunday and helped us win a Super bowl?

And can we love him for the man that he was, a man who made mistakes and had challenges, a man who might have made different choices had he had more room to be real rather than keep up a façade to please the people?

He was not much different than us. Can we be OK with that?

If we can, it might be easier to live true, reach for our dreams and allow our kids to do the same.

If we can, it might be easier to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes.

If we can, then Walter can be our teacher. A man who lived his dreams, stumbled along the way, but made peace at the end.

Thanks #34.

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