Payton Finds His Place Miami tailback Jarrett Payton has stepped out of some pretty big shadows to shine

November 03, 2003

One run by his famous father stands out above all others in
Jarrett Payton's memory. In a 1987 game, Walter Payton took a
handoff and bounced off one Kansas City Chief, then another and
another. His powerful legs kept churning as tacklers failed to
bring him down. "It wasn't one of his longest runs, probably 17
or 18 yards, but I remember it because of the way he just refused
to be stopped," Jarrett says. "Every time you thought he was
going down, he found a way to stay on his feet. He used to tell
me that was the key--if you find a way to keep going, sooner or
later a little daylight will open up."

The elder Payton would be proud to see that his son has followed
his advice. During his five years as a running back at Miami,
Jarrett has faced obstacles as daunting as any gauntlet of
tacklers his father encountered, but with typical Payton
persistence he has kept going. When daylight finally appeared--on
Oct. 2 starter Frank Gore went down for the season with a torn
left ACL--Payton crashed through it. He has rushed for 212 yards
in his last two games, including 115 and two touchdowns against
Temple on Oct. 18 in his first career start. With the No. 1
tailback job finally his, Payton has the chance to fulfill the
expectations that accompanied his arrival at Miami in 1999 and
help the undefeated Hurricanes, who face Virginia Tech in a Big
East showdown on Saturday, win the national title.

Payton's other hope is to further honor the memory of his father,
who rushed for 16,726 yards with the Chicago Bears, second
alltime in the NFL (to Emmitt Smith's 17,354). Walter Payton was
45 when he died of bile-duct cancer in November 1999, during
Jarrett's freshman year. It was the darkest in a series of events
that knocked Jarrett's career off track. "My dad was my best
friend, the one I leaned on when things were tough," he says. "I
know these last few years would have been different if he'd been
around for me to talk to. I know I would have made my mark before

Jarrett had the misfortune of being stuck in a backfield full of
NFL-caliber talent. While tailbacks Clinton Portis and Willis
McGahee ran their way into the draft, Payton watched, usually
from the sideline or the training table. After redshirting as a
sophomore, he missed all of spring practice in 2001 after
suffering a 22-stitch gash in his left foot while scuba diving in
the Florida Keys. When he returned, the Hurricanes moved him from
tailback to fullback, where Najeh Davenport, also NFL-bound, was
the starter.

Before the '01 season Payton was thrown from the BMW convertible
his father had given him when the driver, teammate Clint Hurtt,
crashed the car into a highway retaining wall. No one was
seriously injured, but Payton was left with back pain that wiped
out any chance he might have had of beating out McGahee last
year. When Gore went down, there was finally no one in line ahead
of Payton. "It's a shame it had to happen the way it did, with
Frank getting hurt, but Jarrett deserves this chance," says Miami
running backs coach Don Soldinger. "He's worked harder for it
this year than he ever has before."

Payton acknowledges that in the past his focus sometimes wavered,
and not just because of the loss of his father. With his
easygoing manner and seemingly constant good humor, he's one of
the most popular Hurricanes, and he's at home in the bright
lights of South Beach. "C'mon, this is Miami," he says, breaking
into a wide smile. "There's something to do every night of the
week if you want it. But before this season [Soldinger] came to
me and said, 'Do me a favor. Put everything you have into
football this season. Push everything else aside and just see
what happens.' That's what I've tried to do."

JP, as his friends call him, doesn't have as colorful a nickname
as his father, who was known as Sweetness, but at 6'2" and 224
pounds he's bigger and faster than his dad was. Because he got a
late start in football--he excelled at soccer in high school
before switching sports as a junior--he still hasn't developed to
his full potential. That means Payton could be better as a pro
than he is in college, though he's running out of time to impress
pro scouts. "The NFL is obviously the goal," he says, "but right
now it's just about making every run count so we can get to where
we want to be as a team. I'm going to just keep pounding away and
see what kind of opportunities open up."

Somewhere, Sweetness smiles. --Phil Taylor

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER SWEET REFLECTION Jarrett wears his dad's number and shows thesame fortitude. COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN (INSET) [See caption above]

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