Jarrett Payton was 19 years old when his father died. A rare type of liver cancer called Cholangiocarcinoma took Walter Payton’s life at the far-too-young age of 45, and Jarrett was sitting bedside on that November morning in 1999 when it happened.
“I remember that day in November of '99, and it was just an odd day, man,” he told NBC Sports Chicago. “Being at home, and then being there by my dad’s side when he passed, and knowing there was so much commotion outside of my parents’ room about what’s next, and helicopters flying over our house, and all this stuff. We were just trying to grieve. It’s hard when you’ve got like, what’s next, how do we get this out to the media, there’s a lot of stuff that was going on. I’m just sitting there as a 19-year-old kid just trying to figure out, I just lost Dad, what’s next? How do I process all this? My sister’s not even home, she’s at school. She’s got to come home, she’s got to process this. We’re still kids – we’re going to miss Dad.”
Tragic parallels connect Payton’s passing with the death of Kobe Bryant, who was one of nine people killed in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26. Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was also killed. The unspeakably sad situation, unfortunately, reverberated all too well with the Paytons. Jarret, who had a hard time sleeping after hearing the news about Bryant, is a father now, and that has dramatically changed the lens through which he — like many others — views not only the accident, but life itself.
“To be a dad now? It takes it to a whole other level,” he said. “And it makes me, like this morning, get up, call my kids, facetime with them before they go to school. Dad loves you. Call my wife, tell her I love you. It’s the little things. And you can’t go back — and that’s the hardest part. I was sitting there with my dad when he passed. There were so many things that I was going to say to him that I didn’t get a chance to say. I’ve lived a different way now of like, if you have something to say, say it. Especially to your loved ones and people surrounding you. Make sure your team knows you love them, because we all have an expiration date. We all do. We just don’t know when it’s going to be. I know everyone says, it sounds cliche, you’ve got to take advantage of every single second.
“No, you have to take advantage of every second that you have. If you don’t, you’re doing yourself disjustice because if you don’t, then you’re holding on to stuff and you’re not able to give it out to those people. For me, it’s huge to let people know your feelings. Especially men, we want to hold on to everything — nah, man. Tell them that you love them. Let people know how you’re feeling. I’ve seen that that has kind of unlocked me and unleashed me to become a better person and a better man and a better husband and a better father.”
Since the accident, there’s been an outpouring of support for the families affected, the city of Los Angeles, and Lakers fans in general. It’s not dissimilar from how Chicago came together to celebrate the life of the man they called Sweetness – the man they adored with every fiber of their being. The unconditional love shown to the Payton family in the aftermath of their darkest day has never been lost on Jarret.
“To be honest with you, it was the fans,” he added. “The people that were calling, the people leaving flowers in front of our house. We went outside and hugged some of those people and were telling stories. As much as it hurt, talking about him makes it easier for me. It always does. You’ll see it in my social media. I’ll never shy away from posting about my dad. I’ll never shy about posting a video, because when it comes down to it, he’s not here right now. He can’t talk for himself, he can’t post anything, but the fans still want something. So my sister and I have really put it on our backs to say, 'Listen, we’re always going to shine light on what Dad did, and show the world that we’re proud of him.'”