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Monday, December 31
Payton grows up on, off the field

By Bruce Feldman
ESPN The Magazine

PASADENA, Calif. -- He is all grown up now. And maybe that is all that really matters. As Jarrett Payton begins to tell you a story about something, something silly, you see his eyes light up and his mind race with a unique enthusiasm about how quickly life goes by and you quickly understand that he is special.

Three years ago, the Son of Sweetness was one of the four main characters in a season-long documentary called Cane. It chronicled a season with the Miami Hurricanes and focused on a walk-on (Jeff Popovich), a player rehabbing a major knee injury (Najeh Davenport), the team's QB/baseball player (Kenny Kelly) and a freshman running back, whose dad was dying from liver cancer. That was 18-year-old Jarrett Payton, the son of football legend Walter Payton, whose charm and charisma took over the whole movie.

He's with me all the time, no matter what. My dad was my biggest supporter. He was my biggest critic. He was the coolest. How many people can say they grew up with one of the greatest people and one of the greatest athletes ever?
Miami RB Jarrett Payton

You were there the first time he met his roommate, QB Ken Dorsey, and you were there when all his teammates asked what it was like to be Sweetness' son, and you were there when all the world mourned his father's death. You got to see how much it meant to Payton when he returned from the funeral in Illinois and switched jerseys from No. 32 to his dad's No. 34, and then christened the new uniform with a punishing 16-yard TD run that was vintage Sweetness.

"Do you remember how young I looked in that?" he says smiling. "God, I'm getting old now. I've put on like 20 pounds too."

It's been two years since his father passed away, and Jarrett still laughs the same as he did back when he first showed up in Coral Gables. Maybe he is a little different now though. He's done a few dumb things. Like the time he was fishing in Key West last spring and jumped into the water and gashed open his right foot. The wound was stitched with bits of coral lodged inside and an infection developed, forcing Payton to be on crutches for spring ball.

Or like last August, when he was riding in a car that smashed into a concrete barrier alongside I-95, that caused all three passengers -- Payton, Clinton Portis and the driver, former UM lineman Clint Hurtt -- to fly out of the car into traffic.

Of course, accidents happen, but not if Payton can help it. "That why I always want to drive," he says. "I always drive. I always want to be in control. I mean my dad sent me to car racing school when I was 17. But I don't know. For some reason, on that day I didn't feel like driving."

The control issue is huge to Payton. Yes, he knows everyone cares and wants to try and help. He's aware that being a running back whose father was Walter Payton is kind of like being a politician whose dad was Jack Kennedy. But just the same, he wants people to know he can handle his own business.

"The biggest thing I hate is people want to step in and take my dad's place," he says. "A lot of guys, friends, people want to step in and act like they're a dad figure."

He pauses for a few seconds and realizes you probably don't understand. Or maybe you have taken this the wrong way. Oh, maybe we don't understand death, Payton explains, but he does understand life, and what has been taken from the body cannot be taken from what is in the heart.

About a year ago, the lights in his mom Connie's bedroom back in Chicago flickered on mysteriously and then dimmed. A couple of nights before, Payton had this strange dream. He and his little sister were walking through their home and their father was with them, but only they could see him. He just assumed he dreamt the whole thing. That is, until his mom told him about the freakish night with the lights going wild.

"It was a sign," Payton says. "He was trying to say 'I'm here. I'm around.'"

And he is. Payton will gladly show you as he rolls up his right sleeve and begins playfully flexing his biceps. On it, is a tattoo of his father from a picture he downloaded off the web. He called around South Florida until he found a tattoo artist who could do the ink portrait. The drawing took three hours to complete. The artist had no idea about who the rendering was of.

"He's with me all the time, no matter what," Payton says. "My dad was my biggest supporter. He was my biggest critic. He was the coolest. How many people can say they grew up with one of the greatest people and one of the greatest athletes ever?"

This season, the redshirt sophomore has seen little action in the crowded Miami backfield. He has been switched to fullback and has learned to become a better blocker and receiver, something his old man had always stressed to him. Thursday's national title game though could be his shot. Starting fullback Najeh Davenport is out and Payton should see plenty of action working in tandem with freshman Willis McGahee. He knows everyone will be keeping an eye out for No. 34.

Especially from up above.

A different option
Miami is ready for the option. Oh, sure they've probably only seen about a combined 20 option plays run against them this season in games against Syracuse, Temple and Virginia Tech, but everyday they have a specific period of practice just on defending the option. Miami DT Matt Walters is convinced he's ready for Eric Crouch, and even NU's monstrous 360-pound LG Toniu Fonoti. But there is one guy in L.A. Walters would want no part of -- Shaq.

"No way," says Walters, Miami's second-leading tackler. "I saw Bryant (McKinnie) walk up to Shaq and shake hands and he looked pretty tiny next to Shaq. That's one big man."

Draft central
Miami CB Phillip Buchanon was trying not to get caught up in the rumors about whether he's going to bolt for the NFL or any debate about whether this is Miami's best team ever. So we decided to combine the two and ask how many players off the 'Canes top-rated defense will eventually become first-round picks.

"Hmm, I can think of 10 guys, actually closer to 15," predicts Buchanon.

That is probably a bit high, but with some guessing here's what could be down the road: Ed Reed, Mike Rumph, Buchanon, William Joseph, Jerome McDougle, Jon Vilma, D.J. Willliams, Vincent Wilfork, Al Marshall, Sean Taylor and Antrel Rolle.

Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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