Jarrett Payton can now admit that Oct. 27, 2002, was an uncomfortable afternoon for him.
On that Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys’ Emmitt Smith surpassed Payton’s father, Walter, for No. 1 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. Walter had asked Smith to watch over his son, and Jarrett and Smith have shared a special bond since that celebratory day.
Payton admits that on the inside, it wasn’t easy for his younger self to appreciate the moment.
“I’m at a different point now in my life now,” Payton told Yahoo Sports. “When Emmitt broke my dad’s record, I was in college. I was upset. I didn’t want him to break it. I was like, ‘I want my dad to be on top for all of time!’
“But now I am totally different.”
Jarrett was 21 when Smith broke his father’s record. This Nov. 1, it will have been 21 years since Jarrett lost his father to a rare liver disease. He turns 40 this year and has grown in many ways over the past several years, he says, especially as he has started his own family.
Now the idea of preserving his father’s spot in the rushing hierarchy is not something he is clinging onto. In fact, as one incredible NFL veteran — one whom Payton knows extremely well — inches within range of his father’s total, Payton said he’d be able to embrace the moment.
Smith leads the way with 18,355 rush yards, a total that might not be broken for generations. Walter Payton sits at No. 2 with a venerable 16,726.
Still going strong at age 37, Gore is now with the New York Jets, his fourth team in as many years and his third in the AFC East the past three years after spending time with the Miami Dolphins in 2018 and the Buffalo Bills last season.
If Gore musters up the strength after 15-plus years to grind out at least 1,380 more yards, he’d be alone in the No. 2 slot.
And Jarrett would be right there to embrace his former Hurricanes teammate. If that happens, Jarrett might be the only man to have witnessed firsthand his father passing Jim Brown, Smith passing Payton and then Gore passing Payton.
“I’d be proud. I really would,” Jarrett said. “You play football to win games and try to break records and all of that. But along the way, you make great friends and meet incredible people. Relationships that last a lifetime.
“So just to know that a guy I played with — a guy who I saw had a sprinkle of my dad in him — has a chance to pass my dad’s rushing record? I’d be super proud.
“It would be different this time around.”
Could it happen? It would be an uphill climb for certain. But those who have bet against Gore since college have tended to lose far more often than not.
When the Frank Gore legend started at Miami
Jarrett Payton already found himself fighting for a foothold in one of the most talented running back rooms in college football as he entered his redshirt sophomore season. The Miami Hurricanes in 2001 boasted generational depth at running back — with Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, Najeh Davenport and others — that some colleges can’t boast for their entire histories.
But that group was about to get better.
One day that spring, Payton entered the team’s facility to find some of his teammates watching high school film of an incoming freshman.
“It was this old VHS tape that the film department put together of all the incoming freshmen,” Payton said, and what he saw stunned him. It was a 17-year-old Gore clowning his opponents, facing some of South Florida’s best high school talent at Coral Gables High School about a mile up the road from UM.
“It was before Frank even got to campus,” Payton said. “Just watching his highlight film, I knew he was different and special. You could just tell.
“He was this combination of Barry [Sanders] and my dad. I’ve never seen it before or since, and I was seeing it on high school film, just taking over games. His ability to stop and start, his cuts and this deceptive speed — he could get busy inside and he didn’t have to get that shoulder on you, but he absolutely could.
“He had his arsenal of moves — I called it his ‘bag of tricks.’ Once he got out and shook you, he could pop it outside and get to the end zone. I’m going, ‘Man, this guy … he’s a dude.’”
Payton stopped for a moment and laughed.
“... and I knew I was in trouble for playing time,” he said.
All five Miami backs would end up in the NFL. That season, they each rushed for multiple scores for what’s often called the greatest college football team ever assembled. Miami went 12-0 and whipped Nebraska for a national title.
Portis was the bell cow in 2001; his 220 carries were more than the other four combined. McGahee eventually was the highest-drafted off the group.
But Gore is the last one standing in the NFL. None of the others appeared in an NFL game since McGahee in 2013.
Gore was with the San Francisco 49ers that year, having made his fifth Pro Bowl. It was shocking enough that he lasted to that point, many believed, much less that he’s still cranking away now.
Given that Gore had suffered torn ACLs in back-to-back years in 2002 (right knee) and 2003 (left) in his college career, Payton even questioned Gore’s football future.
“I took over for Frank my last year, after he got hurt in the West Virginia game. And my mind has to be on the game, but I am thinking back then, ‘Holy cow, is this the last time Frank plays? Is he done?’”
Seventeen years later, the answer to that last question is still no.
What Jarrett Payton sees in his father and Gore
Payton said that he and Gore were not especially close during their time at Miami. Few others were early on.
A lot of that had to do with Gore’s ultra-quiet and guarded nature. He grew up living in a two-bedroom house with eight other people. His mother, who died in 2007, struggled with drug abuse when Gore was in high school. Gore battled dyslexia and had trouble reading and writing.
“He was always quiet,” Payton said. “But he was always observing what was going on around him. That’s how he learned. He might not say a lot, but he was always taking in information.”
Payton’s experience as the son of a Hall of Fame player, growing up in a tiny Chicago suburb, was a completely different universe. But Payton connected with Gore on other levels. And it was at Miami that Payton realized just how different Gore was.
“This is what’s so cool: We’d be watching film, and he was watching everyone,” Payton said. “Not just himself or the other backs. He watched [linemen block] to help his technique on blitz pickups. He watched guys tackling, just in case there was a turnover and he had to make a play in an emergency.
“And he’d just stick his nose in there against anyone. By his last year [at Miami], I watched him become a student of blitz pickups.”
That, Payton said, is how you can separate a talented player from a great player. He saw it in his father as a child, and Jarrett was watching it again in Gore.
“You have to have a different level of work and dedication,” he said. “There are guys who just love playing the game of football. And then there are guys who love the game.
“Frank is that guy. My dad was that guy. It’s rare to find players who have that level of passion.”
And in recent years, Payton has seen something in Gore he rarely did in college: that smile. They ran into each other at the NFL Honors at Super Bowl 50 in February 2016, the first time they’d seen each other in awhile. Gore initiated “this huge hug,” Payton said, “and we had this incredible conversation. I just remember how much he was smiling.”
It wasn’t always there in the old days as Gore still was battling life’s hardships.
“That smile — you had to really push it out of him when he was at Miami,” Payton said. “It was everything he had been through at that point that made him that way. He ran from the attention and kept to himself. He liked to keep inside himself. It was probably hard to trust people.
“But by the time I saw him at that Super Bowl, I saw a guy who [had] struck that balance in life. It took him time to let that guard down. But I knew when I saw him there that he’d just figured things out. That smile was the clue.”
How Gore can pass Payton for No. 2
Gore is listed as Le’Veon Bell’s backup with the Jets. Even for a team that needs all of the offensive assets it can this season, Gore still has some big hurdles to overcome.
What the Jets have seen in him to this point has been eye-opening.
“He looks the same as he did 12 years ago,” Jets head coach Adam Gase said last week. “I can’t explain it. When I watch him, I flash back to 2008. He looks the same. I don’t know how.
“It doesn’t make sense. He’s going to look like that when he’s 60.”
Gore turned 37 in May. Per Pro Football Reference, only 11 players since the 1970 NFL merger have rushed for more than 100 yards in a season at age 37 or older. Ten of those players were quarterbacks.
Marcus Allen (505 yards in 1997) is the only running back to crack that list. It’s a position where players don’t last well into their 30s. Gore is very much the outlier. So, who is to say he can’t make a run at Walter Payton?
It likely would take two seasons, and maybe three, to total 1,380 rushing yards. And facts are facts: After averaging 4.4 yards a carry and 60.3 yards in his first seven games last season with the Bills, Gore hit a wall. In his final 10 games (including the playoff loss), those numbers slipped to 2.5 and 19.9, respectively.
On top of that, Adrian Peterson — No. 5 on the all-time list — is stalking Gore, creeping just 1,131 yards behind him and in a featured role in Washington.
“Hey, I am not counting [Gore] out, are you?” Payton asks rhetorically. “You can’t. Until he says, ‘Peace, I’m out,’ he’s still got a shot.”
After all, Gore’s consistency and availability have become his career hallmarks. He has missed only 14 of a possible 240 games in 15 seasons, and only two of those games missed have come in the past 10 years. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards nine times, plus four more seasons with more than 700.
For Payton, Gore doesn’t need to reach the No. 2 slot to justify his membership to the all-time rushing fraternity. He’s already there.
“When you look at those names on that list, Frank’s might not be the first name you think of,” Payton said. “But just look at the stats. He’s ahead of how many Hall of Famers? He’s done things they haven’t. So why shouldn’t he be among them?
“You don’t fluke your way up the rushing list. You’ve gotta earn it. To see his name sandwiched between my dad and Barry? That’s just incredible. And if he passes my dad, it’s just one more thing he’s done that no one thought was possible.”
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