The list of players Jarrett Payton played with at the University of Miami is ridiculous, so to ask him to pick the best isn’t really fair.
“You look at the names, Ed Reed is a Hall of Famer. The running backs that were in my running back room -- Frank Gore, Clinton Portis,” Payton said. “And Ed might be the best because of everything he was able to accomplish over time, right? But Sean, I believe in my heart, was going to do something that was totally different. He was going to blast off into another stratosphere if he had gotten the opportunity.”
Sean, of course, is Sean Taylor. Easily one of the best safeties in NFL history, Taylor only had three and a half seasons at the pro level to show what he could do before he was murdered in a home invasion in November of 2007. Sean Taylor’s story is chronicled in the latest episode of “Sports Uncovered.”
Payton, a current sports anchor for WGN-TV and the son of Chicago Bears great Walter Payton, played with Taylor for three years at Miami and had a locker across from Taylor in 2003.
“He had no clue that I was watching him,” Payton said. “Even though I was older, I was just watching how he went about his business. There were two guys in the locker room that you would just look at and they looked like they were chiseled out of rock -- Sean Taylor and Andre Johnson. They didn't have to lift weights because God just built them like that.”
With the Sports Uncovered episode on Sean Taylor getting released, Payton took the time to share three stories about his former college teammate with NBC Sports Chicago.
The Hurricanes weren’t used to losing. But after starting the 2003 season 7-0, Miami got blown out at Virginia Tech before losing to Tennessee 10-6 at home the following week. It was their first loss at the Miami Orange Bowl since September 18, 1999.
“I think after the Tennessee game, everyone was sitting around wanting to watch film and the defensive backs all went in to watch film,” Payton recalled. “And Sean came in. He walked into the meeting and he looks and tells everybody to get out. They were about to watch film and he's like, 'We're not watching this film. We know what to do. We don't need to watch film.’”
Payton was nearby in the running backs room as the situation was unfolding.
“I don't know if he didn't want to hear the coaches going off on him, but I still remember them just all walking out. And I see them walking down the hallway through my meeting room, like where are all these DBs going? We're all watching film right now,” Payton said. “And Sean was like, ‘Nah dude, we don't need to watch that. If we do, we'll watch it on our own time. Let's go, we're out of here, we know what to do.”
Apparently they did. The Hurricanes won their final four games of the season, including a win over Florida State in the Orange Bowl, a game in which Payton was named MVP.
“They just walked out. And the next week, they came to play. They found a way to do it. Sean was a coach on the field,” Payton said.
By his own admission, Payton didn’t necessarily fit into the infamous Miami Hurricanes culture right away.
“I was a kid from South Barrington, Illinois wearing Abercrombie when I first got there to then 3T t-shirts and like baggy throwback jerseys,” Payton said. “Everybody used to make fun of me for my music, like if I had some Dave Matthews on.”
One day, Payton was at his locker listening to Dave Matthews.
“Sean could hear it in my headphones and he was like, 'P, whatchu listening to?' And I was like super nervous like, 'Sean is going to clown me right now.'”
Payton handed Taylor the headphones. At this point, the other players nearby had taken notice and wanted to know what he was listening to as well.
“He put it on and everybody else was asking what he was talking about, like what I was listening to,” Payton said. “He handed back my headphones, everybody laughed, and he was like, 'Who is that?'
I'm like, ‘Dave Matthews.’”
Taylor paused before saying, “Kinda smooth.”
“So I burned him a CD,” Payton said. “Because back then I was the one burning all the CDs because I was the only one who had a burner,” Payton said. “He was understanding. That's when I saw that he didn't care where you came from. He just wanted you to ball as hard as you could. And if you weren't, man, he was going to let you know about it. And you didn't want to let him down.”
When Frank Gore tore his ACL against West Virginia in 2003, Payton was suddenly elevated to the starting job. Then a fifth-year senior, Payton had played behind Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Frank Gore during his Miami career. Now the No. 2 ‘Canes were headed to Florida State to play the No. 5 Seminoles. ESPN’s College GameDay was on-site..
“That 2003 game at Doak Campbell. My first start -- my first college start -- I just got chills thinking about it,” Payton said.
The pressure, especially as Walter’s son, was insane.
“I was getting calls from everyone. I had a house phone in my condo on the beach. I didn't even know the phone number. And I don't know how Warren Sapp and all these old Canes got my number, but they were calling me and telling me what I have to do now,” Payton said. “And man, it's Florida State, my first start and I'm nervous.”
All these years later, Payton remembers Sean Taylor calming him down.
“After Frank got hurt, (Taylor) was one of those guys that came to me and was like, 'Yo, we need you. It's time to step up. This is your opportunity now,'” Payton said. “Sean was like, 'Yo we got you man. Just hold onto the football … That just made me feel so much better about my game and being focused and not worrying about all the other nonsense that was going on, especially at Doak Campbell. It was pretty insane.”
Also insane? Sean Taylor that day. It was Payton’s first start, but he still remembers how Taylor played. The safety had two interceptions and scored a touchdown.
“If you get a chance, just go back and watch that game and you'll watch how he dominated from the safety position,” Payton said. “He was like a running back playing safety.”Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.