Wednesday, June 13, 2007
(Columbia, MS) When we drove into this town today I had to stop and get a quick picture of this statue. Sweetness, as he would become known, played high school football here. And very appropriately the field is named after him.
For those who are not football fans, Walter Payton left Columbia and went on to attend Jackson State University and then went on to have a very illustrious career in the NFL. So illustrious in fact that he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For those into statistics, Payton rushed for almost 17,000 yards in the NFL and scored 110 rushing touchdowns and 15 receiving touchdowns. Those numbers include only regular season play. You can tack on more numbers for post season play.
Actually he only played football his senior season at what is now Payton Field in Columbia. His senior season was the year they integrated the schools and Payton and his friends were not excited about joining forces with an all white school due to racial tensions in southern Mississippi. But he did and the rest is history. After graduating from Jackson State with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications, he was drafted in the 1st round of the NFL as the 4th overall pick. That was quite an amazing feat for a player from Jackson State and even more amazing for a player from Columbia Mississippi - population 6000. Payton retired from the NFL in 1987.
Early in 1999, Payton discovered he had an incurable liver disease. He became a spokesman for organ transplants and refused to allow his name to be moved up on the transplant list because of his celebrity status. And he was offered that option. He simply refused to allow someone else to die so he could live. Walter Payton died on November 1, 1999 at the age of 45.
Although I spent less than two minutes at Payton Field today, I paid my respects not only to one of the greatest football players of all time but to one of the great people in sports of all time. I obviously never knew Walter Payton personally but we were born less than two months apart. So it was a normal thing for me to follow his career during football and after football.
I was reminded again today that you don’t have to be born in special circumstances to achieve greatness. Walter Payton became great not only for his contribution to sports but for his contribution to mankind.
And to think it all started right here in this little town at this little football stadium.