Jarrett Payton has never run from his bloodline.
In a conversation with the Sun-Times, which has been edited for clarity, the former University of Miami running back and current WGN-TV and CLTV sportscaster opens up about the long shadow of his famous father, former Bears star Walter Payton. A father of two children — 7-year-old son Jaden and 2-year-old daughter Madison — he talks about the challenge of raising the next generation of Paytons:
Here’s always how I looked at it — it’s a gift and a curse. To me, the curse is the comparison. But the gift is so much better, man.
We always talk about it as a family. We say my dad wasn’t just ours. He was everybody else’s, too.
He hung out with Tom Cruise and Goldie Hawn. Burt Reynolds would send leather jackets to my house every Christmas. One time, when Mike Tyson was in jail, he called my house collect. I ran upstairs and told my dad he had to pick up right away.
My dad took me to the White House. It was a surprise. He packed a backpack for me, and we got on a plane. I’m sitting there in the Oval Office, and President George H.W. Bush walked in. We went out and played golf. We spent the night at Camp David. I got to fly on Marine 1. I still have the certificate.
I’m a little bit older than Marcus and Jeffrey Jordan. But I always knew what they were going through. It’s the same thing when I met Dale Earnhardt Jr. There’s a handful of us who played the same sport our dads did — and our dads were legends.
I always tell people I didn’t have a normal life. It was normal to me.
At 38, I look back on a lot of the trips and the events I got to go on with my dad, it’s amazing.
Now I get to do almost the exact same thing — meet cool people, go cool places. I take my son with me. Full circle.
There’s a picture of my dad and I throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field when I was 6. Basically the same thing happened two years ago at Wrigley when my son was 5. The pictures look the same. It’s crazy.
Everybody sees the drive that my dad had in my son. My son has a drive that I didn’t have, a determination I didn’t have. My dad, he had a lot of fears, he had to overcome a lot of stuff. People might not have seen that. My son’s the exact same way. His biggest fear, I think, is failure.
I’ll never forget him sitting in a rocking chair as a baby. I’d play videos of my dad running the football. He’d reach out at the phone.
The last two years, he’s had a better understanding of who his grandpa is. He doesn’t like all the attention. He’s trying to figure it out. For a 7-year-old, it’s tough. But that’s the same thing I dealt with. I feel like I’m the best teacher to help him navigate all that he’s going through.
I put both my kids on social media. I wanted to because I never wanted to hide anything. As a family, we’ve been sheltered in some ways but have been so open about my dad and everything that went on, with him being sick. People can go to Barnes & Noble and read books and find out about my family.
There’s going to be even more eyes on my son because we live in a social-media world. That’s part of the reason why I do what I do. I want him to be ready. Also, in some ways, I want to be able to control things.
I was blessed with the genes. Anything I played or picked up, I could be good at it. As I study all the greats that I love, they all have this drive to be the best. For me, I played because I was good. I didn’t really have the drive to be the best. That’s what separates me from my son or my dad.
Soccer was everything to me, from when I was 4 to my sophomore year of high school. My dad never came to me and said, “I want you to play football.” He was just happy watching me. Whatever I love, he loved.
I’d have parents yelling at me, “You’ll never be like your dad.” I’d stop my dribble and be like, “What are you talking about? I’m playing a totally different sport.” I was 12.
The training I was doing, I think a shot at a national team was definitely in my future.
I played football for the first time my junior year at St. Viator. I’ll never forget it: In the Sun-Times, there was a picture of me with a choker necklace throwing a pass. It became this big deal. There were 7,000 people at my first high school game.
I never ran away from it. I ran toward football. I wanted to try something new. I thought maybe it’d bring my dad and I even closer.
We got closer, but two years later he was gone.
I don’t fear for Jaden playing football. I think the fear is the comparisons.
People think it was given. But they have no idea how hard I had to work. After my rookie year with the Titans, I went home for five days. Then I went to Florida to training camp for NFL Europe. I played 12 games for Amsterdam. I flew home and had less than a week before Titans camp started. My body was shot. I had to grind harder than
ever. I wanted to make my mark.
Everybody thought soccer was going to take me around the world. Football took me around the world.
I scored two NFL touchdowns. Not a lot of people can say that.
The game taught me a lot of things my dad wasn’t able to teach me. My dad was gone.
My wife, when we were dating and I got released from Tennessee, took out a piece of paper and said to write down all the things you want to do. I want to be a businessman, to run my own foundation. A lot of that stuff is now crossed off.
I got into TV after the radio station, The Game, went south. I didn’t want to do it at first. I tell people that sometimes you have to walk through your fears to find out what your passions are.
I didn’t have a therapist to talk to. Putting words to music was probably the only way to get those things out. I’ve recorded 200 rap songs, but none since 2009. I just got too busy being a parent.
I’ve never thought about leaving. The city of Chicago, I don’t think they’d let us leave.
When my dad was sick, there was so much going on. At 18 or 19, you’re searching, you’re becoming a man. Chicago embraced us. Everywhere we went, there was genuine love. It was amazing.
That’s what makes me want to stay in Chicago forever.