Suddenly, Payton shows what he's made of

Son of late Bears star comes on strong for Miami

November 01, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Jarrett Payton's football career at the University of Miami has been filled with a lot more despair and disappointment than most, if not all, of those of his teammates.

Despite the team's success during his five years in South Florida, including a national championship in 2001, the son of late NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton had barely been more than a bit player for the Hurricanes.

That has changed in the past month.

Taking over at tailback after Frank Gore went down with a season-ending knee injury against West Virginia, Payton has put up the kinds of numbers that would make his late father proud.

Going into today's game at Virginia Tech, he has rushed for 284 yards on 58 carries in the past three games. His first start resulted in 97 yards on 22 carries against Florida State. He had a career-high 115 yards and two touchdowns last week against Temple.

Payton knew that many thought the Hurricanes were in trouble when Gore was injured.

"I took it upon myself to stay humble and believe in myself and the abilities I have," Payton said recently. "Like my coach always said, `When a guy goes down, I want the next guy to be able to play and not lose a step.' That was the thing I was focusing on.

"Me coming in and not trying to do too much, just trying to contribute. When I felt I was doing that, I thought I was right on track and guys on my team were saying, `Hey we're right where we want to be to make improvements. Right now, you're making plays,' and I took it from there."

Not that it started smoothly. Late in the game in Morgantown, Payton's fumble led to the Mountaineers scoring the go-ahead touchdown. Had it not been for a last-minute drive that resulted in a game-winning field goal for the Hurricanes, Payton's career in Miami might have been remembered for that botched play.

The key for Payton was not thinking about the fumble the next time his number was called.

"It was a big step for me, having amnesia and forgetting about it," said Payton. "That was the one thing that [tight end] Kellen Winslow was stressing to me.

"He was telling me that he didn't want to see my head down. After we came out for the next drive and kicked the winning field goal, he said, `See, you never know. You always have to keep your head up.'"

Asked earlier this week how devastating it would have been for Payton had the Hurricanes lost that game, Miami coach Larry Coker was blunt.

"It would have been extreme disappointment," said Coker. "Anytime you cost your team a football game, those things live on for a long time and it's tough to put those things behind you. And your teammates know those things.

"It was one of those things that would have been certainly tough to overcome."

Given what Payton had endured as a Hurricane, it might have seemed a likely conclusion to an unsatisfying career.

When his father died of bile-duct cancer four years ago, toward the end of what had been a promising freshman season for his son, the emotional trauma it caused led the younger Payton to redshirt in 2000.

He missed spring practice in 2001 after cutting his foot on coral while scuba diving, then was moved to fullback. Last year, he sustained a high-ankle sprain and played behind Willis McGahee.

A conversation with his mother, Connie, helped Payton return for preseason camp with a new-found dedication. It was the kind of work ethic he had last demonstrated as a star high school soccer player outside Chicago.

"One thing my mom told me was to stay focused and stay positive because you never know what's going to happen," recalled Payton. "That was the attitude I had, especially this summer. I came in working really hard. I wasn't expecting anything. I was just expecting to contribute.

"Now I'm sitting in a role that I never thought was going to happen."

Said Coker: "I don't think he could have done it a year ago because I don't think he was as well-prepared as he is now. He did a great job in the weight room. When he had the opportunities before Frank got hurt, you could see glimpses of how well he was prepared."

Opposing coaches have noticed, too.

"I think it's his position now and you just see him taking over and running hard and running tough," Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said earlier this week on the Big East teleconference. "He's a good-sized guy [6 feet 2, 224 pounds] who's running with his size. You can almost see his attitude being different."

Payton knows he will have to continue to perform at a high level. Even with his career-high game against the Owls last week, he didn't lead the team in rushing. Freshman Tyrone Moss rushed for 135 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.

"I really didn't think about the guys behind me," said Payton. "Each of us knows our role. It's about getting better as a team, getting better as a running back corps.

"I knew when I got my chance I was going to have to take it, because I've been waiting too long for this. This is what I've been waiting for a long time and I was going to have to grab it."

Big day for BCS

Today's games could go a long way toward deciding the teams that will play for the national championship. The top four-ranked teams are all playing Top 25 teams.

Matchup Time/TV

No. 1 Oklahoma vs. 3:30 p.m.

No. 14 Okla. State

No. 2 Miami at 7:45 p.m.

No. 10 Virginia Tech ESPN

No. 3 USC vs. 7 p.m.

No. 6 Wash. State

No. 4 Georgia at 3:30 p.m.

No. 23 Florida Chs. 13,9

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