FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — 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. This was in Hawaii after the 1985 season. Craig was so blown away by Payton’s willingness to impart career advice he decided the best way to honor Payton was to pay it forward.
Many years later, Craig would pass along Payton’s wisdom to a younger cousin, Breece Hall, now a rookie running back with the New York Jets.
“[Payton] shared stories with us — how to train, how to run each play like it’s your last play, how to have that kind of mentality,” Craig, 61, said last week in an interview with ESPN. “Walter really helped me out a lot. I cried like a baby when he passed away [in 1999]. When my cousin came around, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, I need to talk to him.’ I talked to him through college. Oh, my God, it was cool.”
Hall seemed destined to reach the NFL. Not only did he receive a touch of Sweetness, but he was raised in a running back family.
Call it a full-house backfield.
Hall’s stepfather, Jeff Smith, was a star I-back on some great Nebraska teams under Tom Osborne in the 1980s. He also played four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Another cousin, Kenton Keith, was the second-leading 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 on Hall’s father’s side. Hall is keenly aware of Craig’s NFL accomplishments. At the recent rookie minicamp, he was asked about his former football-playing relatives. When he got to Craig, he said with a smile, “You guys already know Roger Craig, so I don’t have to say too much about him.”
As a kid, Hall watched videos on YouTube to study the moves of his favorite running backs. When Craig was on the 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 dual threats of his generation. In 1985, he became the first player in NFL history to produce 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. He amassed more than 13,000 yards from scrimmage from 1983 to 1993, winning NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 1988.
After each game at Iowa State, Hall received a text from Craig, always quick with congratulations and sage advice. Sometimes, he shared his own experiences. Other times, he relayed the words of Payton 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’s the man. I’m just excited that he’s my cousin and I had an opportunity to share some stuff with him.”
Craig, who lives in the San Francisco area, tried to watch every Iowa State game.
“I can see him doing 1,000-1,000 in the pros — 1,000 yards running and 1,000 yards catching balls,” Craig said of Hall. “He has the tools and I like his style of play. He runs the ball, he catches out of the backfield, he blocks. He does everything, like me. I really like seeing that. That means he’s being a team guy, doing whatever it takes to win.”
The former Iowa State star was prolific in college, rushing for 3,941 yards and 50 touchdowns over three seasons. Hall had a rushing touchdown in an astounding 24 straight games over the 2020 and 2021 seasons, the longest streak in FBS history. He demonstrated long speed (nine runs of 50-plus yards since 2019, the most among Power 5 schools) and enough elusiveness to lead all FBS running backs with 92 missed tackles in 2021, per ESPN Stats & Information.
The Jets rated him so highly (18th on their draft board) that they tried to trade into the bottom of the first round. When he slipped to the second round, they moved up two spots (38th to 36th) because they were fearful another team was poised to take him. They made him their highest-drafted running back since Blair Thomas went No. 2 overall in 1990.
“The thing that jumps out with him is he’s a home run threat,” general manager Joe Douglas said. “He can score from anywhere on the field.”
Hall thought he should’ve been a first-round pick, but the running back position has been devalued in recent years.
“It was discouraging and kind of frustrating because at times I’d be sitting there, looking at past running back stats who went in the first round, and I compared my film to their film,” he said. “I’d be like, ‘Oh, there’s not too much of a difference here, I don’t understand why I’m not put at a higher standard.’ But it is what it is. I’m blessed to be in this position.”
Hall always kept family close to his heart. At Wichita Northwest High School in Kansas, and later at Iowa State, he wore No. 28, his stepfather’s old number. He won’t be able to wear it with the Jets because the number is retired, last worn by Pro Football Hall of Famer Curtis Martin. For now, he’s wearing No. 20 in practice.
Recalling his childhood, Hall said family gatherings got real competitive on the basketball court, with his stepfather and older cousins making it hard for him.
“They were pretty older than me, so as a young bull, I was just the kid,” he said. “They kind of picked on me and blocked my shot and never let me get the ball. That molded me into being tough. I feel like playing with my older cousins and older sibling made me that much better and gave me that much of an edge.”
Players with familial 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 defensive lineman Sean Gilbert.
The Jets believe Hall can be special. Craig admitted he’s biased, but he thinks so, too.
“My cousin,” he said, “reminds me of myself.”