The world lost Walter Payton on Nov. 1, 1999, and it was a very public and painful mourning by his legions of fans. Payton’s celebrity spanned far beyond his Chicago Bears fans. Everyone, it seemed, loved the smile and sense of humor that Payton displayed at every turn.
That’s why so many people had such a hard time handling Payton’s death at the age of 45, well before his time should have been up. And to make matters harder, some difficult-to-accept stories came out about Payton’s darker side away from football in a controversial, tell-all biography written by Jeff Pearlman in 2011.
Witnessing it all was Walter’s only son, Jarrett Payton, now a successful jack of all trades in his own right. Jarrett, now 32, has reached the age that his father was at when he was in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career. After playing in college at Miami (Fla.), Jarrett’s NFL career was brief (13 games), but he has developed a great perspective on what it meant to be an athlete and also what it means to be the son of a legend.
Shutdown Corner caught up with Jarrett on the anniversary of his father’s death to cover a variety of topics, including his father’s legacy, whether his father would be on Twitter, craft beer, Adrian Peterson and plenty more.
SDC: Fourteen years — can you believe it has been that long?
JP: I would say that before I got married and had a son that time moved so slowly. But now having my own son and stuck in my world, I am watching time kind of fly by. It does, in a way feel like just yesterday. I think every Nov. 1, there are just so many emotions around this time of year.
It was a big time of my life, one of the big moves in my life going to Miami, and having to come and be at home a few days before he passed … it comes back to me. It’s 14 years. I feels like not too long ago.
SDC: You mentioned leaving Miami right after you had settled in down there. How tough was that experience?
JP: For me it was a really difficult time in my life. Even growing up as a kid, I was always aware of who I was and the celebrity of my dad and being here in Chicago. You’re always having your life out there, whether it was on TV or hearing a story about your dad from someone else. That became normal.
But the moment in your life where you’re doing something that is not supposed to be shared with the world, you just wish that you could deal with it privately with your family. But your life was so public. I was never ready for everything that happened leading up to it: him announcing he was sick, which took it to a whole new level, and then going to school.
As a 19-year-old, you have a lot of people looking at everything you do and correlating it back to your dad being sick. There were a bunch of people who saw me out having fun, and they’d say, "What’s he doing? Oh, he’s probably trying to forget what’s going on at home," or, "He looked unhappy. He must be thinking about what’s going on at home."
I was trying to deal with everything that was doing on and also enjoy being a 19-year-old college football player. It weighed on me heavily. That was so hard for me just to be me. But I remember my dad saying, "Just be you. Don’t try to be me. Be better than me. Just be you."
The hard part was, at that time, I asked myself, "Who am I?" I really didn’t know. It was a tough time. But the emotions of coming home … I am glad I came home when I did because my support system was at home. My mom, my sister, my dad, my housekeeper. It just felt good to be home with them.
I had a whole separate family at Miami, my teammates and friends, but I knew I needed to be with my real family. Once I was there, I knew I made the right decision. I was more at ease with everything that was going on.
SDC: Your father would have turned 60 next July. After his career, he was involved with a lot of different activities and sports, including getting involved with the failed St. Louis NFL expansion group in football. Do you think he would have still been involved in the NFL in some fashion if he were with us? How public would he be?
JP: I thought about this the other day. I was trying to figure out, would he have a Twitter account? Would he be on Facebook? The funny thing is, he’s not here and his Facebook page is coming close to a million "likes." It’s crazy. I manage the page. I just imagine how many he’d have if he was here.
I could see him on NFL Network. I could see him pushing even harder for some kind of NFL ownership. But I also see him steering away because he was a true Renaissance man. He was always getting his hands into new stuff. I could see him in all types of different business ventures. I just think the possibilities would be endless for him because of not only his football stardom but also for who he was off the field. He cared about so many people, and I hear more stories about him the man than as the football player. As a man, and now a father, that means the world to me, more than any rushing title.
SDC: I’ll tell you one quick story along those lines. Several of the Bears players did an autograph signing at Marshall Field’s around Christmas time when I was about 10 or 11 years old, and I waited with my parents all day in that line. You could only get one autograph, and I wanted either Jim McMahon or your dad. When I got to the front, they told me I would have Wilber Marshall — not a bad consolation. But I had to walk by your dad to get to Wilber, and I stopped for a second just to look at him. And your dad saw me and just winked at me. I felt like he knew I wanted his autograph. The wink was even better; it meant that much to me. Now, 26 years later, I still remember it like it was yesterday.
JP: He was a special man. I look at him as a visionary. He just knew what he was doing. He understood his celebrity. He was OK with who he was as a person. I think the biggest thing as a person for him was that he knew the impact he was going to make, not just at the time but 15, 20 years later when he did something. It’s like he knew … I want to see this kid in like and give this kid a wink. He knew what that could mean to someone, and he wanted that memory to live on with people when he saw them. Those stories always get passed on, and he knew his legacy would pass on for generations.
This mother came up to me and my mother at the Chicago Bears MOMS Football Safety Clinic the other day and said that her 9-year-old son was doing a book report, and he told her that he wanted to do it on Walter Payton. They were so moved by it because [she and her husband] both loved my dad, and now their son wanted to look up to him. Nine years old. I heard that story and just was like, "Man …"
SDC: Speaking of books, it has been about two years since the Jeff Pearlman book came out. What did you think about when you first saw it, and have your thoughts changed on what he wrote?
JP: I haven’t read the book. It’s just hard because it’s someone else’s story about and their point of view of someone you knew so well. For me, I still feel the same way that I felt when the book came out. I had no hard feelings towards Jeff. I haven’t spoken with him. But I still don’t have hard feelings.
He was doing a job, and that’s what he does. Being a family man now, I understand you have to do what you have to do to do a job. I can’t get mad at someone for doing that.
I am not going to read the book. Some people have read it and asked me what I felt, and I tell them that everyone has a right to voice their opinion. It’s for the audience, the people who read it, to digest it and for them to take what they want from it.
It’s never changed the way I felt about my dad. And I don’t think it has changed the way that most people have felt about my dad.
The biggest thing for me at that time was, I am living in a social-media age. We are truly entrenched in it. When the book came out, it was a weird feeling because I am so out there and I hear people so much, and for me to sit back and not say anything about it, that was not really like me.
I really think my dad would have been glad with the way I handled it. I find myself asking that a lot: Would my dad have been happy with the way I handled certain things? Or what would he think about the things I am doing in my life? Would he be proud of how his name is being used? I fight with that on a daily basis. I just always wanted to make him happy.
I just think that, as a family, we handled it in such a way that he would have been pleased. We took the high road and focused on what we could control. People see what’s real. I know that.
SDC: You mentioned marriage and fatherhood, and you’re involved in a ton of stuff now. Can you tell us about what you're doing in your life?
JP: The biggest thing is that about 19 months ago we launched Jarrett Payton Wheat Ale, which is my craft beer brewed here locally on the south side. That has been going well, and we’re being distributed in Illinois, northwest Indiana, working on Wisconsin, and we have it in over 130 stores in Florida, too.
My dad was in the craft brewery business in the late 1990s, and I have decided to get into it too. It has been almost two years, and it’s growing. It’s funny because the beer and my son were born right around the same time, so I have been able to watch them both grow at the same time.
My foundation also is getting crazy big. We do an anti-bullying campaign and we also do football camps, the Jarrett Payton Leadership Academy. This year we’re looking to do leadership conferences for kids and athletes who are making the transition from high school to college, teaching them how to use everything they have learned in their lives to use it successfully going forward.
I am also going around the country speaking now, doing speaking engagements. I am talking to huge corporations, high schools, youth groups. It’s crazy. It started as a Facebook and Twitter thing to now, I am basically full time speaking, which is what I always wanted to do.
I also work on my dad’s business, anything having to do with his name and likeness. I handle his estate. I work primarily with my family and Matt Suhey to explore different opportunities with that every day, too.
SDC: Would your dad like today’s NFL? Would there be a player or two in today’s game you think he particularly would like to watch?
JP: Talking to a lot of the vets, they all talk about how the game has changed. He would be one of those guys who said, [using an old-man voice] ‘Back in the day when I played …’ [Laughs.] I can just hear him saying that!
But he respected the game so much. He would understand the evolution of the game so well, I think. He was a historian of the game, more than most people realize. I didn’t know that until he sat down with Joe Paterno when [Penn State was] recruiting me back in the day. He and Joe sat down and talked for about 2½ hours, and I am talking about football from the 1930s and ’40s. I have no idea how my dad knew all that stuff.
I think he would enjoy watching the game and how it has evolved, and that’s why I think he definitely would be involved in the game, maybe the ownership thing, if there was an opportunity.
If there was a guy he’d love to watch, it would be Adrian Peterson for sure.
SDC: That was the first guy who came to my mind.
JP: Yeah, no question. It’s the way he plays and just how physical he is. The comparisons are there — him not really having a lot around him, it’s a lot like what my dad went through. He’d have great seasons but not really have anything to show for it in the end until he won a championship. But you see how hard he works, my dad would definitely appreciate that.
I also think he would see Ray Rice and like him. Ray is one of these all-around guys, and that’s what my dad patterned his game on: being an all-around back.
But the guy he might be most intrigued by is not even in the NFL. It would be Kain Colter from Northwestern.
SDC: Wow. What makes you say that?
JP: I think he would be so intrigued by Kain because of his ability to truly do everything. He’d be able to step in and play receiver, he can play quarterback, he can do just about everything you ask of him. That’s why in my heart of hearts — I know there are a lot of football players out there — he’d love the guy.
Take my dad … he did whatever he had to do. In  when he came in at quarterback against the Packers at home, that had not been seen before.
SDC: He was doing the “Wildcat” before it was called that.
JP: Listening to the CBS coverage, they had no idea what to call it. [Laughs.] The commentators were just amazed. But it showed how versatile he was and how he was willing to do whatever it took.
But people now are so obsessed with NFL football, and I have a feeling my dad would still be too. I still think he’d love watching the game.
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