FLORHAM PARK, NJ — When running back Roger Craig made his first Pro Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, he got a chance to hang out and learn from Chicago Bears legend Walter Payton. That was in Hawaii after the 1985 season. Craig was so overwhelmed by Payton’s willingness to share career advice that he decided the best way to honor Payton was to pass it along.
Many years later, Craig passed Payton’s wisdom on to a younger cousin, Breece Hall, who is now a freshman with the New York Jets.
“[Payton] Stories shared with us — how to train, how to play every game like it’s the last game, how to have that kind of mentality,” Craig, 61, said in an interview with ESPN last week. “Walter really helped me a lot. I cried like a baby when he died [in 1999]. When my cousin walked by I was like, ‘Oh shoot, I need to talk to him.’ I spoke to him during college. Oh my god, it was cool.”
Hall seemed destined to make it to the NFL. Not only was he given a touch of sweetness, but he was also raised in a running back family.
Call it a full house backfield.
Hall’s stepfather, Jeff Smith, was a Star-I-Back on some big Nebraska teams in the 1980s under Tom Osborne. He also played four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Another cousin, Kenton Keith, was the second-best rusher for the Indianapolis Colts in 2007 and had a cup of coffee with the Jets in 2004.
Then, of course, there’s Craig, a third cousin of Hall’s on his father’s side. Hall is very aware of Craig’s accomplishments in the NFL. At the recent rookie mini camp, he was asked about his former relatives who played soccer. When he came up to Craig, he said with a smile, “You already know Roger Craig, so I don’t need to say too much about him.”
As a child, Hall watched videos on YouTube to study the moves of his favorite running backs. When Craig was on screen, they were like home movies.
There was a lot to like. Craig, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the 49ers, was one of the best double threats of his generation. In 1985, he became the first player in NFL history to produce 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. From 1983 to 1993, he accumulated more than 13,000 yards from scrimmage and was named the 1988 NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
After every Iowa game, Hall received a text message from Craig, always quick with congratulations and wise advice. Sometimes he shared his own experiences. Other times he would echo Payton’s words from all those years ago at the Pro Bowl.
“[Payton] told me, ‘Hit force with force,’ and I shared that with Breece,” Craig said. “My cousin wanted to be inspired and I just shared a lot of stuff with him. He went out and did it. He did his thing. he is the man I’m just excited that he’s my cousin and I’ve had the opportunity to share some things with him.”
Craig, who lives in the San Francisco area, tried to watch every game in the state of Iowa.
“I see him doing 1,000-1,000 yards in the pros — running 1,000 yards and catching 1,000 yards,” Craig said of Hall. “He has the tools and I like his style of play. He lets the ball run, he catches from the backcourt, he blocks. He does everything like me. I really like seeing that. That means he’s a team person whatever it takes to win.”
The former Iowa star was very successful in college, rushing for 3,941 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons. Hall had a rushing touchdown in a staggering 24 straight games during the 2020 and 2021 seasons, the longest streak in FBS history. He’s displayed long speed (nine carries for 50+ yards since 2019, the most among Power 5 schools) and elusive enough to lead all FBS running backs with 92 missed tackles in 2021, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
The Jets rated him so highly (18th on their draft board) that they attempted to finish last in the first round. As he slipped into the second round, they moved up two places (38th to 36th) because they feared another team might get him. They made him their highest-draft running back since Blair Thomas became the No. 2 overall pick in 1990.
“What’s striking about him is that he’s a home run threat,” said general manager Joe Douglas. “He can score from anywhere on the field.”
Hall thought he should have been a first-round pick, but the running back position has been devalued in recent years.
“It was disheartening and kind of frustrating because sometimes I would sit and look at past running back stats going into the first round and I would compare my film to their film,” he said. “I’d say, ‘Oh, there’s not too much of a difference here, I don’t see why I’m not being set to a higher standard.’ But it is what it is. I am blessed to be in this position.”
Hall always held family in his heart. At Wichita Northwest High School in Kansas and later at Iowa State, he wore the number 28, his stepfather’s old number. He won’t be able to wear it with the Jets as the number is retired and was last worn by Curtis Martin of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At the moment he wears the No. 20 in training.
Reminiscing about his childhood, Hall said family reunions on the basketball court became a real competition as his stepfather and older cousins made it difficult for him.
“They were quite older than me, so as a young bull I was just the kid,” he said. “They kind of teased me and blocked my shot and never let me get the ball. That made me hard. I feel like playing with my older cousins and older siblings has made me so much better and has given me a huge advantage.”
Players with family ties to the NFL have performed well for the Jets over the years. Safety Jamal Adams (2017–2019 with Jets) is the son of former New York Giants running back George Adams. Former cornerback Darrelle Revis (2007–2012, 2015–16) is the nephew of former NFL defenseman Sean Gilbert.
The Jets believe Hall can be something special. Craig admitted he’s biased, but he thinks so too.
“My cousin,” he said, “reminds me of myself.”