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One run by his famous father stands out above all others in Jarreft Payton's memory. In a 1987 game, Walter Payton took a hand-off 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. I 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 this."
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.