Remembering Walter Payton
Walter Payton's older brother, Eddie, reflects on the good ol' days.
Walter Payton is "Sweetness." That one word is about the best way to describe the 13 years he spent lining up in the backfield for the Chicago Bears.
From 1975 through 1987, he accumulated more than 16,000 yards and 110 touchdowns, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1993, with his young son Jarrett by his side. One of the greatest running backs of all time -- known for his rigorous workouts and ability to hurdle tacklers -- the late Walter Payton also made an impact off the gridiron. He formed the Halas Payton Foundation in 1988 to help inner-city kids in the Chicago area. Later, the Walter Payton Foundation was created to help young people in the state of Illinois.
Although he was not the star athlete his younger brother was, Eddie Payton played in the NFL as well (for Detroit, Kansas City and Minnesota). He played his college ball at Jackson State, where Walter would go on to make a national name for himself. But the elder Payton has made a name for himself at Jackson State. In addition to football, Eddie is also an accomplished golfer, and has been his alma mater's men's and women's golf coach for almost three decades. Under Eddie, the Jackson State men have won 23 golf conference championships, including 18 in a row from 1989 through 2006.
Talking about his brother isn't new territory for Eddie; last year he released "Walter and Me: Standing in the Shadow of Sweetness," a biography about Walter's life. "It's a true story about an American football hero written by the person that knew him best," Eddie wrote. As we commemorate Black History Month, we go down memory lane with Eddie Payton, remembering "Sweetness."
Q: What was it like growing up with Walter?
A: The way we were brought up, we were about as normal as brothers could be in that time in the rural South. We shared a room, and we played football. In our hometown, that's what you did. You played sandlot football until you were old enough to go out for the high school team.
Q: Did you have a rivalry on the football field?
A: I'm two years older, so there was no real rivalry between us. At any given time during our childhood, I was just better than he was. I finally went off to play football at Jackson State, and Walter came into his own then.
Q: How did Walter end up at Jackson State?
A: Walter signed with Kansas after his senior year. He played in the Mississippi All-Star game, and then he came to Jackson to catch a plane to Kansas. There was like a three-hour layover so he came to campus to watch us practice. We went back to my dorm room and got to talking, and it turned out, he didn't want to go to Kansas. It was so far away, and he wanted to stay close to home. I told him to stay right here. "You can go [to Jackson State] and we can be roommates," I said. Then I went and talked to the coach, the coach told the president, the president called the athletic director, and the rest is history.
Q: So you being there made it easier for him?
A: Up until I went to college, we had shared the same room our whole lives. Having a family member in college really meant something to him. Also, at that time our sister was at Mississippi Valley on a music scholarship. She was in the band. She transferred to Jackson State. So then our mother didn't have to decide where to go on the weekend. She could just come up to Jackson and see all three of us.
Q: Were you the first in your family to go to college?
A: I was the first Payton to graduate from college. My mother felt so strongly about college that she wouldn't let me take an offer from the Atlanta Braves to play professional baseball. She felt like if I didn't go to college, then my brother and sister wouldn't feel the need to go to college either. Looking back, I wouldn't change anything my mother did because she never made a bad decision.
Q: When did you start playing golf?
A: I started caddying when I was 10 years old. My mother ran the cafeteria on the weekends at the local country club and took me with her. I caddied from the time I was 10 until the day after I graduated high school and signed the scholarship with Jackson State. It was called Columbia Country Club, and three years ago, I got my first chance to play there.
Q: When were black people first allowed to play there?
A: About three years ago & I learned a lot about golf from being a caddy, and then I started teaching myself to play when I was 16 by digging two holes in the ground, but I never played my first regulation round until I was 18. I had to drive 42 miles to Hattiesburg to go to a club that would allow me to play.
Q: As your football career took off, did you always golf?
A: Yes. One thing about the NFL, it put me in a different arena. I was around great golfers and pro-ams, and a lot of them saw potential in me and would give me [playing] tips. I would write them all down and then work on them later.
Q: And here you've been coach at Jackson State for almost three decades ...
A: We've had some great players. Our secret to success is real simple: We recruit good students who happen to be good golfers. The same amount of discipline it takes to be a great student is what it takes to be a great golfer. We're real proud of that. We have a 95 percent graduation rate. We have doctors and lawyers all over the place that came out of our golf program.
Q: At what point did you know Walter was as good as he was?
A: I was away at school, so I missed a lot of him playing in high school, but I did see him in his senior year when Jackson State's head coach went to scout him. He was like a man playing with boys. That was the first year of integration, so he went over to the white school, and they put him and 15 other black boys on the field and they won the conference. They had never won it before. But you could clearly see that he was better than anybody else on the field at the time.
Q: Is he the best you've seen?
A: He's the most complete player I've seen at that position. There was Gale Sayers. You give the ball to him, and then you have to catch him. There was Jim Brown. You gave it to him, and he would just beat you down until you didn't want to tackle him. Earl Campbell did the same thing. Tony Dorsett did it with speed. Eric Dickerson was just a freak of nature, 6-foot-4, 215 pounds and fast. But if you take all the things that made these great running backs great and put them into one, you'd have Walter.
Chris Wilder is the former editor-in-chief of The Source Sports. He has also been an editorial producer at mlb.com.
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