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Photo courtesy of Jarrett Payton on Facebook
Photo courtesy of Jarrett Payton on Facebook

Road to Canton: Jarrett Payton reflects on lifelong friendship with Steve McMichael

Story by Larry Mayer

In Part 5 of's 5-part series on Steve McMichael ahead of his Hall of Fame induction Aug. 3, Jarrett Payton details his lifelong relationship with McMichael and what it means to serve as Mongo's official Hall of Fame presenter.

With bulging biceps, a booming voice and a relentless take-no-prisoners mentality, Steve McMichael was an intimidating force on the football field.

So just imagine what it was like for a toddler to encounter the 6-2, 270-pound Bears defensive tackle—as Jarrett Payton did in the mid-1980s. The son of legendary running back Walter Payton recalls being playfully chased by McMichael and other players around the locker room.

"I was afraid of Steve when I was younger because he was so big and he was so loud," Jarrett told "I was still in pull up diapers back then. I would rip up hot chocolate packets and throw them around Halas Hall. Him and some of the guys would be running after me trying to catch me."

Their relationship only grew from there. McMichael kept in close contact with Jarrett after his father tragically passed away due to bile duct cancer in 1999 and served as Jarrett's head coach with the Chicago Slaughter of the Indoor Football League in 2010. McMichael later helped convince Jarrett to become a sportscaster, a job he's held with WGN-TV since 2015.

Jarrett Payton, former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and Steve McMichael during a Chicago Slaughter press conference in 2010. Payton was a Slaughter running back, McMahon owned the team and McMichael coached the team.
Jarrett Payton, former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon and Steve McMichael during a Chicago Slaughter press conference in 2010. Payton was a Slaughter running back, McMahon owned the team and McMichael coached the team.

"My fondest memories really come later in life," Jarrett said, "being a grownup and spending time with him and listening to him talk, being able to be coached by him but also hearing his stories and all his 'Mongo-isms.' And just how for the exterior and how everybody looked at him, the nickname Mongo, to get a chance to really know him and to see what was inside, he was a huge teddy bear."

Jarrett witnessed that softer side of McMichael after suffering a pulled hamstring during a Slaughter game in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The injury ended Jarrett's six-year pro football career, which included stints in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, NFL Europe with the Amsterdam Admirals and the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts.

"I was in the training room and the doctor was telling me, 'I don't think you can go back out there,'" Jarrett said. "I remember saying, 'It's done. It's over. This is it.' I'm sitting on a table and Steve's back there crying; balling his eyes out because he knew that was the end for me and he knew what that moment feels like. I'll never forget seeing him cry because I was used to seeing him smile and make everybody laugh. I'd never seen him cry. That was one of those moments that will stay in my memory forever."

Another one of those moments no doubt will come Aug. 3 when Jarrett serves as McMichael's official presenter at the Hall of Fame's induction ceremony in Canton.

"It's a special honor for me because there are so many people out there that have had an impact on Steve's life, and he could have chosen anybody," Jarrett said. "He felt like there was a strong connection between the two of us. He knew and trusted me with this honor. I'm just floored by that because the man is bigger than life and I think the only thing bigger than his personality is his heart.

"I'm just grateful for the time I've had to spend with him, especially in 2010 when I played for him on the Slaughter. That was a crucial moment in my life because I knew that my football career was almost over and that this was an opportunity for me to choose the path that I wanted to walk in life. I didn't know what I wanted to do and he's a big reason why I'm in the media business. He pushed me to do this. He pushed me to not be afraid and try this thing out and just go for it."

As a 12-year-old in 1993, Jarrett presented his father for induction into the Hall of Fame. Thirty-one years later he was thrilled to receive a call from McMichael's wife, Misty McMichael, asking if he'd like to present Mongo for enshrinement.

"It's just appropriate because Jarrett inducted his father and Steve was like a pseudo father to him when Walter passed," Misty said. "Steve's always looking out for his kids, and he's honoring Walter in the process. I called [Jarrett] and he said he got chills and started crying because that's like his second father. He's very touched by it, and so are we. We just know it's the perfect match."

Back when he presented his father, Jarrett delivered his speech live in front of a large crowd. The Hall of Fame now pre-tapes the presenters and plays an edited version of their remarks during the induction ceremony. Jarrett taped his segment a few weeks ago at his suburban Chicago home.

"It's totally different sitting on stage to being in the comfort of your own home in a controlled environment," he said. "I didn't have to worry about a crowd, and this time I got a chance to really get my feelings out."

12-year-old Jarrett Payton inducts his dad, Walter Payton, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in July 31, 1993.
12-year-old Jarrett Payton inducts his dad, Walter Payton, into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in July 31, 1993.
Walter Payton hugs Jarrett after being introduced as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 1993.
Walter Payton hugs Jarrett after being introduced as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 1993.

Jarrett anticipated that he was going to cry during the taping, but he never did.

"I thought there was going to be this moment where I was going to break down," he said. "But I just felt so happy for him and his family. I know what this means to him. I knew what it meant to my dad. He wanted to win a Super Bowl, he wanted to be the NFL's all-time leading rusher and he wanted to be among all the greats [in the Hall of Fame]. That's what drove him, and I feel like that's what drove Steve as well.

"He wanted to be among the greats that played the game because the game meant so much to him. I know that this honor means the world to him and his family, and I was just filled with joy so there was no need to cry."

The parallels between McMichael and Payton are uncanny. Teammates on the famed 1985 Super Bowl XX champion Bears, they were indestructible warriors on the football field who rank 1-2 in consecutive games played in franchise history, McMichael with 191 and Payton with 186. Both also possessed a wickedly funny sense of humor, a fierce devotion to their craft and a sincere appreciation for their fans.

"It's funny because my dad was one of those guys who really got along with everyone and Steve is the same," Jarrett said. "I think the respect they both had for each other was a big part of their friendship. Their attention to detail, how they prepared for games, how they played the game, I think that's what brought them together—but it was also their ability to make everyone around them feel special. They always gave people time and always made sure that every autograph was signed."

Walter Payton jokingly interviews Steve McMichael Jan 8. 1986.
Walter Payton jokingly interviews Steve McMichael Jan 8. 1986.

Unfortunately, the two Bears legends are also inextricably linked due to both contracting incurable debilitating diseases. Payton was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis in 1998 and passed away a year later, while McMichael revealed in 2021 that he is suffering from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).

"I look at the correlation between both lives and what Steve's battling right now and how he's battled to stay alive," Jarrett said. "There's something to say about my dad and Steve and the guys that played on that '85 team and how tough they were. I saw my dad battle trying to stay alive and I'm watching Steve do the exact same thing."

McMichael played 13 seasons with the Bears from 1981-93. He ranks second in team history with 92.5 sacks, helped the team win six NFC Central Division titles and was an instrumental part of the 1985 Super Bowl XX championship defense that many consider to be the best in NFL history. He joined the Bears after being waived by the Patriots following one season in New England and ultimately blossomed into a Hall of Famer in coordinator Buddy Ryan's revolutionary "46" defense.

"Anytime that people gave up on him, he found a way to prove them wrong," Jarrett said. "Being able to use his strength and quickness—which to me were two of his greatest attributes—he was able to find his niche, and he played his role perfectly; to help what to me is the greatest football team that ever played and the greatest defense to ever step on the field. What he did on the football field speaks for itself; just look at his numbers.

"Off the field, he's a great friend. When you need someone in your corner, to have your back, Steve has always been there for me. It's knowing that he's there for you, that you can trust him and he will do anything for you.

"That's probably his greatest quality, that you can trust him. You need guys like that on your football team and you need people like that in your life, that are going to push you but also you know that they have your back as well. That's who Steve McMichael is as a person and also who he was as a football player."

In honor of Steve McMichael being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2024, take a look at photos of the former Bears defensive tackle over the years.

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