Tonight should be a scrapbook game for Miami running back Jarrett Payton.
The undefeated Hurricanes travel to Blacksburg, Va., to meet 10th-ranked Virginia Tech with the Big East title and a Bowl Championship Series berth at stake.
And the senior running back figures to be alternately reflective and motivated because Saturday also marks the four-year anniversary of the death of his father, Walter.
"I am sure it is going to pump him up even more," said his mother, Connie, widow of the Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back.
Jarrett Payton, a 6-foot-2-inch, 224-pound tailback, has been thrust into the starting role because of a knee injury to Frank Gore four weeks ago. Payton recorded his first career 100-yard rushing game against Temple on Oct. 17 when he ran for 115 yards and scored twice.
"You just have to wait," Payton said of his belated college success. "That's my life story."
Since his father died on Nov. 1, 1999, Jarrett has had a bevy of surrogates to guide and mentor him - many of them former teammates of Walter.
"He has a huge support system of people. Some of them he doesn't even know," said Connie. "That has been just unbelievable. Matt Suhey, my brother-in-law (Eddie Payton) and (former Bears running back) Thomas Sanders all call him on occasion."
Suhey, a former Bears fullback, has tried his best to clear a path for Jarrett.
"I hope that (Saturday's commemoration of Walter's death) is more of an incentive and motivation for him," said Suhey, who was one of Walter's closest friends. "Walter would have been very proud of Jarrett. He has had some bumps and nicks and has had to be patient at Miami. He certainly has the ability physically."
Former Bears linebacker Otis Wilson has kept an eye on Jarrett, as well as his own son, Quincy Wilson, who is a star running back at West Virginia.
"It was just good to see Jarrett do well and see Quincy do well (when the two schools played)," Wilson said. "I was rooting for Jarrett just as much as I was rooting for Quincy."
Payton waited five years and 57 games for his first 100-yard rushing game. The Hurricanes (7-0, 3-0 Big East) extended the nation's longest home winning streak to 26 games with their victory over Temple. They also won their 39th straight regular-season game and 27th in a row in the Big East. That streak will be tested at Virginia Tech.
"I have been very happy for Jarrett because this is what he has been hoping for," Connie Payton said. "And, as a mom, it is a little scary for me too."
Jarrett starred in football and soccer at St. Viator in Arlington Heights. He played quarterback, tailback and receiver in high school. He passed for 1,088 yards and rushed for another 1,345 as a senior. Now he has earned the respect of his Miami teammates and opponents.
"I know what a quality individual his father was, and I'm sure he's the same type of person," said Temple coach Bobby Wallace, who grew up with Walter in Jackson, Miss. "I'm happy he's getting his chance."
During his college career, Jarrett has played behind James Jackson, Najeh Davenport, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee and Gore. Making his first start Oct. 11 at Florida State, Payton gained 97 yards in the rain.
On a dry field against Temple, he ran five times for 32 yards on Miami's opening drive and scored on an 8-yard run. He carried four straight times on the team's second drive and scored from 14 yards out.
Then came a bit of a scare.
After his fifth touchdown of the season, Payton fell to the ground on the sideline. He said he felt dizzy and lightheaded. Team trainers took his blood pressure and checked his heart rate before treating him for low blood sugar.
Payton returned just before the first half ended and eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the first series of the second half. He sat out the fourth quarter as Miami's backups took over.
Miami coach Larry Coker will need another stellar performance tonight from Payton if his second-ranked Hurricanes are to knock off Virginia Tech, which is reeling from its only loss of the season last week at West Virginia.
"Jarrett is relatively inexperienced, so he will get better and better and better as he plays," Suhey said. "Walter's main focus in life was his kids. He took great pride in his children - both Brittney and Jarrett.
"More than anything else, Walter would be most proud that Jarrett graduated (in May). That was extremely important to Walter. At the end of the day, that is hopefully why (Jarrett) went to school."
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