The legacy of late great Columbia native Walter Payton grew a little larger on Friday. After being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996, Payton has now been inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame for the feats he accomplished as a teenager in his hometown of Columbia.
Payton was nominated for the honor last November via a letter from Mississippi Today sports writer Rick Cleveland, who had the privilege of covering "Sweetness" during his days on the gridiron at Columbia High School and Jackson State University. Simply put, Cleveland called it "the easiest letter I have ever had the pleasure of writing."
"Walter surely deserves induction into the National High School Hall of Fame every bit as much as he does the college and professional football halls of fame," Cleveland wrote. "When any sports writer worth his laptop, pad and pencil begins to write about the greatest football players of all time, Walter Payton is in the first sentence."
Payton's legacy began taking form long before he became an NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion with the Chicago Bears. Despite not playing football until his junior year of high school, Payton made quite the name for himself with the exceptional talents he displayed, with his very first carry being a 65-yard touchdown. Midway through his junior season, he transferred to Columbia High School as a member of the school's first integrated class in 1970. During one of the most challenging times in the community's history, Payton and his teammates just played football — and they played it exceptionally well.
“The first game when we integrated, (Walter) made two real long runs," recalled Charles Boston, who was an assistant coach for the Wildcats at the time. "I think one was 95 (yards) and the other one was 65. Well, we whipped them that first game. We won seven straight, and I think everybody just got on the bandwagon.”
Payton led the conference in scoring and rushing as a senior, was named the conference’s best running back and was selected to the all-state team. He also averaged 18 points per game in basketball, played baseball and won the long jump event at the state track and field meet. His talents weren't limited to sports, however, as he was also a gifted piano player and played drums in the band through his four years of high school.
Upon graduating from Columbia High, Payton became a two-time All-American at Jackson State and led the nation in scoring in 1973. Through 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears (1975-87), he rewrote the NFL record books with 16,726 rushing yards and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame for his outstanding career in 1993.
Eddie Payton, Walter's older brother and fellow Columbia sports icon, who attended Friday's banquet on his behalf, sharing that what seemingly goes most underappreciated about Walter's legacy is that he was an even better person and role model off the field. The NFL reiterates that thought each year with the presentation of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
"I tell people all the time that people know him as a great, record-setting football player and a mainstay on the Chicago Bears, but he basically was a better person — a much better person — than he was a football player," Payton said. "He took time to be with kids especially, he never turned down an autograph and he never turned down a picture. He took a lot of pride in who he was and what people appreciated him for doing."
Payton passed away in 1999 at the age of 45, but his legacy lives on through all the memories he created and the impact he continues to have on the game of football.