How youth sports and mentorship builds the next generation of confident leaders: Q&A with Jarrett Payton

Orthopedic Sports Medicine

Participation in youth sports can teach children valuable lessons about teamwork, leadership and confidence they can translate into other aspects of their lives as they grow. Former professional football player and radio host, philanthropist and entrepreneur Jarrett Payton has made it his life's mission to support youth athletics and combat bullying among teens.

Mr. Payton, son of Hall of Fame Chicago Bear Walter Payton, founded the Jarrett Payton Foundation which supports programs in schools including his most popular anti-bullying program, PROJECT: NO BULL. Mr. Payton will participate on a panel titled "Empowering Teenagers" at the 2017 Chicago Sports Summit on Oct. 4, hosted by Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush and sponsored by Athletico.


Here, Mr. Payton discusses challenges teens face today and opportunities presented through athletics, and how sports can serve as a unifying agent.


Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing teens today?


Jarrett Payton: I have spent time in about 60 to 70 schools in the Chicagoland area over the past few years, sharing my message with teens and trying to help them understand we have more in common than we have differences between us. The thing students are dealing with today is bullying. It used to be that kids went to school and might get bullied, but then they could go home and get away from that. Social media has changed bullying so now kids can't get away from it.


We're at a whole new level where it's not just kids just name calling; they're beating each other up and posting about it on social media. It's a different world than when I was a teenager, but I can still understand where they are coming from. I understand social media and encourage kids to make better decisions when it comes to that.


Q: What have you learned about teamwork through your experience as an athlete?


JP: The biggest thing I've learned about having people from different walks of life come together for one common goal, whether it's to win a game or a championship, is that it’s a real unifying experience. That got me prepared for life after sports and ready for the real world. Sports can also teach hard work, determination and teamwork.


Q: Over the past year, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem, which plays before all NFL games to protest social injustice and police brutality. Recently, the President of the U.S. weighed in opposed to Mr. Kaepernick's protest and now more athletes, and entire teams, are kneeling during the anthem. How have you seen the role of sports in the lives of young people, as well as this country, change over the past several years?


JP: It's a difficult time right now. Our country is more divided than I've ever seen it before in my life. I feel this divide and it's my goal to bring people together to understand that we might not all think the same or have the same vision or thoughts on social issues, but we have to have an understanding and respect for one another. I was fortunate enough to play in the NFL, to be part of the 1 percent of people who have that opportunity. To see the power these men have to peacefully protest is something that our country needs to discuss and address. But many people don't understand what the protest is really about.


Whether you agree or disagree with Colin Kaepernick, let's not forget why he did it. Last Sunday there were entire teams that didn't take the field during the National Anthem and others that knelt with their arms locked; it's something I've never seen before. That was an historic day for me to cover the Bears and Steelers game, and any time there is an issue behind controversy that truly shocks people's nerves, they don't want to talk about it. But I feel like that's the only way to get to the bottom of it and break down the issue, letting everyone have their say and keep the conversation going.


I feel we can do better as Americans than we have been, and we can understand each other better. The one thing I've figured out from all this is that everyone is so different and have differing views on these situations, so we have to figure out how to have respect for one another.


Q: How do you think being on an athletic team can bridge that gap? Is it possible for young athletes today?


JP: For me and the teams I've been on, I didn't care where someone lived or their religion, when you're a teammate you're a brother to me. I'll do whatever I can to help you regardless of your skin color. Sports helped me because when I went off to school, I was by myself and had to learn how to interact with people. I come from an upbringing where I didn't have to worry about keeping the lights on or where my food was coming from, but that's where some of my teammates were coming from. It gave me an appreciation that we are so different and everyone has a different story. I hope that young kids can open themselves up and let others know who they are.


Q: How do you think sports will foster leadership in the next generation?


JP: Playing sports makes you feel like you're part of something and builds confidence. Most people, especially teens, are hesitant to do things because they are afraid to fail. But when someone has confidence they can put forward their greatness for everyone to see. Playing sports builds leadership and if you have confidence there, hopefully that carries on to your school, family and neighborhood and then you can become a voice in your community.


Q: What can professional athletes and their coaches, as well as high school athletes and coaches, do to support their local community?


JP: Professional athletes have a reach when it comes to who they are and what they do. We always talk about how the values have to start at the top. Nobody is perfect, but if they live right and do the right thing, be role models for the young kids who look up to them, it will push the kids to do well.


For high school coaches, being able to have conversations is important. Keep the lines of communication going. I remember conversations I had with my high school football and soccer coaches. I spent more time with them than I did at home most of the time. These coaches became like parents to me. Coaches need to understand how big of a mentor they can be to young men and women, and help them cultivate their lives. Some of these kids might not have another role model around them, so take every opportunity possible to help them out.


The Chicago Sports Summit (October 4, 7 am – 12 pm) is open to the public. Proceeds support the Chicago Sports Summit Foundation and After School Matters. To purchase tickets, visit


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