Payton Never Gives Up
Oct. 26, 2000
By Mark Long
CORAL GABLES, Fla. – It’s 9 o’clock on a school night, and Jarrett Walter Payton’s dorm room is buzzing.
Amid thumping stereos and hallway chatter, Payton is playing a football video game against teammate Vernon Carey. He’s up 14-0 and trying to concentrate, but it’s tough.
The phone rings. It’s one of his friends. The door opens. It’s one of his neighbors. The phone rings again. And again.
With fast food on the way and study plans set for later, Payton continues with his game.
“One more touchdown and it’s over,” he says, invoking a 21-point mercy rule.
It’s a typical night for Payton, one of the most popular students and football players at the University of Miami. He’s relaxed, having fun. He’s enjoying college life.
If only it was this easy all the time.
Almost a year after his father’s death, Payton still spends a lot of time alone, thinking about his dad.
Payton, a sophomore tailback for the No. 4 Hurricanes, wishes his father — Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton — was here to help him through one of the most difficult years of his life.
“My dad would always say, ‘Don’t worry about this, things happen for a reason,”‘ Payton says. “He knew what was happening, he knew what was going on. Now I don’t have him to talk to, especially about football.
“He was the man at what he did. Having someone like that to talk to and not having him anymore it’s like, where do you go from here?”
Walter Payton, the NFL’s leading career rusher, died Nov. 1, 1999 of bile duct cancer. His only son struggled at times to get through the next 12 months.
Payton, 19, is still waiting for the pain of his father’s death to subside. He knows it will take a lot longer than a year, especially with the constant reminders he keeps of his father — the man he also calls his best friend.
He wears No. 34 as a tribute to his father. He has a tattoo on his back with the initials “W.P.” engraved inside a star. His dad’s autobiography, “Never Die Easy,” is prominently displayed next to his desktop computer, which features “Sweetness” wallpaper.
He has a No. 34 Chicago Bears hat sitting in his closet, and his dorm room walls are decorated with various images and newspaper clippings from his dad’s career. Payton’s favorite photo, a black and white head shot of his father in a Bears uniform, stands atop his television.
“The more time that passes, the more he’s been able to come to grips with the reality of the situation,” Miami coach Butch Davis says. “Those feelings are always going to be in his heart, and they’re sometimes going to be painful. He’s had to deal with a lot of emotions, but he’s dealt with them well.
“We’re starting to see glimpses of the same Jarrett Payton who was a prankster and always cutting jokes when he first showed up on campus.”
Payton arrived on campus in the summer of 1999, expecting to redshirt his first year and planning to take a season to work his way into the mix at running back. With his father’s illness, Payton’s thoughts were elsewhere.
Playing only his third year of organized football, Payton ran for 253 yards on 53 carries and scored once. He did it in the midst of a family tragedy.
He went home just days before his father died and was at his bedside when he took his final breath.
“It went on for a long time and I saw him go through so much,” Payton says. “Once it was over, it kind of took this big weight off my shoulders. It was so weird how as soon as it happened, the weight was just lifted.”
Walter Payton disclosed in February 1999 that he had the rare liver disease primary sclerosing cholangitis and needed a transplant. He was subsequently diagnosed with cancer of the bile duct, a vessel that carries digestive fluids from the liver to the small intestine. Doctors said a transplant was no longer possible.
“I didn’t really want to know because when you grow up and your dad does all these great things and everybody sees him like this superhero or Superman, you always feel like Superman can never be hurt or if he is, he’s going to come right back,” Payton says.
“That’s how I saw my dad. I never saw him being sick or being hurt at all. And if he was, it was never something that he couldn’t jump back and recover from.”
Payton was determined to focus entirely on football this fall, but he severely sprained his left ankle just days before the season and was in a cast for nearly two weeks.
The injury set him back so far that he has decided to redshirt this season and vie for the starting job in the spring.
“You really didn’t get to see me my first year. I don’t even know who that was,” he says. “That wasn’t me. That was a little bit of me. I know what I can do. I know because of the man who taught me everything I know. It’s kind of like Star Wars — you’ve got to wait a little bit.”
So much has changed for Payton since his father’s death. So much of it he wishes he could have shared with his father.
Payton has switched his major from business to communications. He wants to be on television, quite possibly after a professional football career. He has the smile and the charm — both traits he shared with his father — to make it happen.
He also has some experience.
He spoke at Walter Payton’s Hall of Fame induction, was the family spokesman the day his father died and has received rave reviews from crowds at several other speaking engagements.
He’s well liked around the dorm, too, where his outgoing personality keeps his room filled and his phone ringing off the hook. And he’s just beginning to recover from the loss of his father.
“There’s a lot of things I’ve got to get situated with me first to be able to do everything that I want to do,” he says.