Thomas Fields-Meyer
November 27, 2000 12:00 PM

Just after his father died last year, Jarrett Payton, 19, had a ‘tattoo etched in the center of his back, a red and orange sun surrounding the letters WP—a tribute to the deceased Walter Payton, the legendary pro-football Hall of Famer who succumbed at age 45 to complications from liver disease. “It’s part of his reverence for his father,” says friend Tony Caruso, 19, “but it was causing him pain during the funeral when everybody hugged him.”

Now, 12 months later, time is helping to lessen the emotional pain for Jarrett, a sophomore at the University of Miami, as he struggles to strike a balance between embracing the legacy of his father—the NFL’s all-time leading rusher and one of the sport’s most beloved figures—and becoming his own man. “I hear his voice in my head,” says Jarrett, a talented but inexperienced running back who chose to gain another year of eligibility by “redshirting” for a season—practicing and suiting up for games but not actually playing. “Every day, when I go to practice, it’s like he’s around.”

It is not surprising, perhaps, that he hears Walter’s voice. “Jarrett and “Walter were so much alike,” says his mother, Connie, 46, who still lives in the Chicago suburb of Barrington with daughter Brittney, 15. “They almost knew what each other was thinking and feeling.”

Jarrett was just 18 in February of 1999 when Payton announced at a Chicago press conference that he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that leads to liver failure, and desperately needed an organ transplant. In a memorable scene played out in front of TV cameras, Jarrett hugged his father, who broke down in tears. “Jarrett just stepped into that role,” says Connie. “He wanted to be there for his dad.” But in time, as the older Payton’s health deteriorated and it became clear that a transplant was no longer an option, Jarrett somberly worked to give his mother emotional support.

It was not exactly what Connie Payton would have predicted of Jarrett when he was the rebellious, active terror of the neighborhood. “I remember thinking, ‘Can they expel kids from first grade?’ ” says Connie. Yet by the time he hit St. Viator High School, he had become a confident and well-adjusted young man as well as an athlete in his own right, leading the school’s soccer squad to third place in the state. As a junior he joined the football team. Not wanting to pressure his son, or draw attention to himself, Walter Payton watched from atop the press box. “I wanted him to be in my football life more than he actually was,” says Jarrett, who made the Reebok All American team as a senior. “He didn’t want to push too much.”

Nor did Payton tell his son where to go to college. Though he struggled over whether to move far from his ailing father, Jarrett opted for Miami, where he was awarded a football scholarship. But in his freshman year, he made three trips to visit his father and played in only seven of the team’s 13 games. He was home in Barrington on Nov. 1, 1999, when Payton died. “It wasn’t horrible,” Jarrett says soberly. “He went so peacefully it made it a lot easier for all of us.”

What was harder for Jarrett was resuming his own life. “You saw how hurt he was,” says Miami Coach Butch Davis. Unable to motivate himself on the gridiron, he contemplated dropping out. “My mom said, ‘Your dad would want you to go back,’ ” he says. ” I didn’t care about anything.”

A self-proclaimed “mama’s boy”—he calls Connie every night—Jarrett listened. Upon his return, two teammates threw him a welcome-back party. “We tried to make him feel like it was home here,” says Vernon Carey, 19, an offensive lineman. Over the year the gathering evolved into an off-season monthly tradition, and in time, friends noticed Jarrett’s spirits improving.

Now he plans to return to action next year. “He’s got fabulous ability,” says Coach Davis. He also has a perspective on life that is rare for a 19-year-old. “You really just never know when your time’s going to go,” says Jarrett. “So every day is valuable.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Linda Trischitta in Miami and Champ Clark in Chicago

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