The NFL Films series A Football Life continues Thursday night with an installment on Walter Payton, and after getting an advance screener of the documentary, I can report that it’s a great look at a great player.
Payton has been in the news a lot lately because of Jeff Pearlman’s new biography, which includes passages that portray Payton abusing painkillers after his career ended. But Pearlman, who is interviewed in Walter Payton: A Football Life, says he admires Payton and wants his biography to give people a greater understanding of Payton.
The NFL Films documentary, which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. Eastern on NFL Network, is less a “warts and all” look at Payton and more a hagiography. And considering the backlash against the Pearlman biography, a hagiography is probably what most fans want. Payton is portrayed as a small-town Mississippi guy who willed his way into the NFL, thanks in large part to his famously rigorous hill workouts, which are prominently featured. LaDainian Tomlinson refers to Payton as his role model and says he specifically built a house in San Diego with a hill in the backyard because he wanted to emulate Payton’s workouts, and Payton’s son Jarrett talks about how his dad put him through the paces of the hill workout and taught him to have a sense of accomplishment after finishing it.
“There’s nothing like when you get to the top of that hill, and you can look down and say, ‘Man, I just made it all the way up here,'” Jarrett Payton says.
We do see some of the darker moments of Payton’s career, including his disappointment that he didn’t score a touchdown in the Bears’ Super Bowl XX victory. Coach Mike Ditka calls his decision to give goal-line carries to William “Refrigerator” Perry at the expense of getting Payton a touchdown, “my biggest regret.”
But regrets are only a minor part of Walter Payton: A Football Life. It’s mostly a celebration of Payton’s brilliant career, complemented by awesome NFL Films highlights of some of the most impressive running you’ll ever see on a football field. For Payton fans, it’s not to be missed.