JOLIET — Jarrett Payton, professional athlete and son of football legend Walter Payton, gave a little history lesson Thursday at Joliet Township High School.
“For some of you young kids out there who might not know who my dad was, my dad was the greatest player to ever play the game of football,” he said.
Hundreds of freshmen erupted in cheers and applause in the West Campus auditorium. It was an inspiring sight, given that Walter Payton retired in 1987, before any of these students was born. The Chicago Bears running back was inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame in 1993, also before any of these freshmen was born.
The students were very young when Walter Payton died in November 1999.
Nevertheless, Jarrett’s history lesson stuck, and the freshman crowd gave him round after round of applause Thursday.
They laughed at his jokes; they listened to a song, played on YouTube, that the younger Payton wrote for his father and family; and, at the end of the presentation, a couple of students even got to dance with him on stage.
Payton came to Joliet West on Thursday to discuss another kind of history — the life stories of these freshmen.
His message to them was simple: These four years are big years. Enjoy this time, study hard and build friendships.
Payton listed his own football accomplishments — particularly at the University of Miami and for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. However, he emphasized his own high school days at St. Viator in Arlington Heights.
“I’ve played in national championships, I’ve played for the World Bowl Championship, I’ve played in Tennessee. But the one thing that I think about the most is high school,” he said. “I think about my last game in high school. We lost against Marmion Academy in the first round of the playoffs my senior year.”
Specifically, he compared his college years to high school: “We beat Nebraska (in the 2001 national championship). And then we lost to Ohio State the next year in the Fiesta Bowl. But I still think about high school. I still have the same friends from high school. This is the time when you really, really start to shape yourself and you get to know who you are as a person.”
“Don’t take it for granted, because it goes by so fast,” he said.
Freshman Jordan Siebers said, “He knew what he was talking about. He wanted us to be successful. He didn’t want us to be put down by what other people think of us.”
Freshman Ismarie Deeter’s favorite part of the speech was Payton’s tribute to his father as the greatest football player ever. He also credited his father for not pushing him to play football. Jarrett played soccer till his junior year in high school, when he switched to football.
“My dad understood; he loved anything that I loved,” he said.
Jarrett also emphasized the importance of academics.
“It doesn’t matter what your last name is. It doesn’t matter who you are. It really doesn’t matter how much money you have. The biggest thing that it comes to, when you’re at this age right now, is your education,” he said.
Payton declined to comment on the controversial new book written about his father. “Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton,” by Jeff Pearlman, alleges that Walter Payton had extramarital affairs and told friends he wanted to kill himself.
After the presentation, Payton commended the Joliet West audience. He recalled the moment when he filmed the crowd screaming and cheering. He was here to motivate them, but their energy caught him as well.
“To be able to be around kids — they inspire me,” he said.