Commentary

Embracing the legacy

Walter Payton's name lives on thanks to son Jarrett's efforts

Updated: July 29, 2011, 4:00 PM ET
By Rob Parker | Special to ESPNChicago.com

Jarrett PaytonCourtesy of Jarrett PaytonJarrett Payton, son of NFL great Walter, is focusing now on his post-football aspirations.
Jarrett Payton is done with competitive football.

For most, that might be a bigger deal -- especially when your dad is still widely regarded as one of the best running backs to play in the National Football League. But Jarrett Payton, the late Walter Payton's only son, just completed his own career that took him literally around the world. After playing collegiately at the University of Miami, Payton went from Nashville to Amsterdam to Montreal to Toronto. Last season, he played for the Chicago Slaughter of the Arena Football League.

Now, for the first time since he was about 14 years old, he won't be in pads, sweating and later aching. That's just fine by him.

"I don't miss it," says the 30-year-old Payton, who is married to wife, Trisha. "When I wake up in the morning, I'm pretty content with what I did in my career and places that I got to go and play. Football took me all the way around the world."

[+] EnlargeJarrett Payton
Courtesy of Jarrett PaytonPayton played one season for the Chicago Slaughter, an Indoor Football League team owned by Jim MacMahon and coached by Steve McMichael, two of his late father's former teammates.
The next chapter of Jarrett Payton's life is in full swing. His Jarrett Payton Foundation helps kids cope with bullying and he plans to open the Jarrett Payton Academy, a football camp for fourth- through 12th-grade kids, in 2012. He even has his sights set on brewing his own beer and possibly writing a book.

Most of his time, though, is devoted to helping run his dad's organization -- the Walter & Connie Payton Foundation. The elder Payton retired from the Chicago Bears when Jarrett was 7. Upon his retirement after the 1987 season, Payton had amassed 16,726 rushing yards in a stellar 13-year career. He died in 1999, when he was 45, from a rare liver disease.

His son has done his part to keep his father's legacy alive. One way he does that is through the Walter Payton Achievement Award, which was introduced in 2008. The award is presented during the MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney and is given to a player from each participating school in the annual HBCU game, which is owned and operated by ESPN.

Jarrett still gets stopped in the streets, largely on the strength of being Walter Payton's son. He's proud to know that his old man still inspires. His dad was a small-town kid from Mississippi who played at a little-known historically black college (Jackson State), went on to big-city Chicago and gained legendary status by becoming the game's all-time leading rusher. That's the message to the kids nominated for his award: that it's possible to make it big, even though you might not be from a college football powerhouse.

"For my dad to be one of those guys to truly make it and make it in a big way, it just goes to show that it doesn't really matter where you come from," says Payton, who at 12 years old delivered his dad's induction speech to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "If you can play, people will find you. And if you work hard enough, you can make anything happen."

[+] EnlargeJarrett Payton
Courtesy of Jarrett PaytonThe Jarrett Payton Foundation works with schools to implement anti-bullying messages and programs to increase awareness and encourage safe environments for children.
It's not always easy to be the son of a famous person -- particularly in sports. The expectations are usually unrealistic, and it can be hard for some to find their own identity. But Payton embraces the legacy his father left behind and relishes it. "It's truly an honor," he says. "It's something I carry proudly. It's really hard to follow in your dad's footsteps. But my dad always told me, 'Be better than me.' And I knew what he was saying. It was more off the field than on the field."

Payton believes he's making his dad proud. As host of "The Jarrett Payton Show," an Internet sports-talk radio show, JP, as he's called, has developed his own voice. Want more proof? Check out his social media handles.

Unlike a lot of athletes who tweet innocuous stuff about what they're eating or wearing, Payton uses Twitter (@paytonsun) and Facebook to reach people with something meaningful. "My Twitter is who I am as a person," says Payton, who has 8,000 followers. "So every morning, there's a motivational tweet. There's also a midday inspiration. I grew up being inspired by both my father and mother. So I take it on and bring it to people."

There's also a Facebook page in honor of his father; it has over 670,000 likes. "It's an opportunity to be able to talk to the fans and connect with the fans," says Payton, who took it over three years ago. "It's cool to know that my dad affected so many lives. That's better than scoring any touchdown."

No wonder Payton is comfortable with life after football.

Rob Parker is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com and a frequent contributor to ESPN programs such as ESPN First Take.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE NFL HEADLINES