Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton (34) runs upfield during an NFL game against the Washington Redskins in Chicago, on Sept. 29, 1985.


Walter Payton would have turned 63 today, so now seems a good time to answer a question I am often asked:

Who is the best all-around football player you have ever covered?

Marcus Dupree was the most gifted. Brett Favre was the most fun to watch. Jerry Rice could catch the ball best and was the most graceful. Ray Guy could kick it the highest and the farthest. Archie Manning was the most beloved.

Rick Cleveland

In Mississippi, we have been blessed to watch, first-hand, so many of the best to ever play the sport. Jackie Slater and Gene Hickerson, both Pro Football Hall of Famers, would be in the first sentence of any discussion about the best offensive linemen in football history. Guy is the best punter. Rice is the best receiver (and Lance Alworth wouldn’t be far behind). Willie Brown and Lem Barney are two of the greatest cornerbacks. Ask some really old-timers and they will tell your Bruiser Kinard was the best to ever play. And we could go on and on…

But, the best all-around football player these eyes have ever seen?

I answered it in the first sentence: Walter Jerry Payton, from Columbia and Jackson State.

He wasn’t the biggest, the fastest, the quickest or the most gifted. But, pound for pound, when you take into account all phases of the game, he was the best. Hard to believe he died a young man at 45 nearly 18 years ago on Nov. 1, 1999. That’s right. Mississippians are graduating from high school now who were not yet born when Walter died.

I was 18 and working at the Hattiesburg American the first time I ever heard his name. A woman named Eva B. Beets, our Columbia correspondent, would call every Friday night to give us a report on the Columbia Wildcats.

“Riiiiiickey,” she would say in the most syrupy of southern accents, “you’re not going to believe what that Payton boy went and did tonight.”

Sometimes, I didn’t.

One night she told me: “He scored six touchdowns tonight and on the last one he ran the last 50 yards baaaaaackwards.”

The backwards touchdown was the last straw for many of the Division I southern college recruiters. Remember, this was right at the cusp of integration. Indeed, Payton was playing on the first integrated team at Columbia. The recruiters didn’t want African American players who would be perceived as flamboyant or “showboats.”

Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton on the Tampa Stadium sideline on Oct. 6, 1985.

Never mind that Payton eventually was that rare NFL star who would score a touchdown and simply hand the ball to the referee. Never mind that he got a chance to do that 125 times in the NFL after doing it 63 times in college. He was a touchdown machine.

He was that because he out-worked everyone else. In the off-season, his workouts were legendary. Teammates would try to keep up with him. They often quit halfway through, leaving a trail of vomit behind them.

He was a punishing runner, a punishing blocker. He hurt people.

I once asked D.D. Lewis, the great Mississippi State and Dallas Cowboys linebacker: “Who was the hardest guy to tackle?”

“Walter Payton,” he answered.


“Walter was like trying to tackle a run-away, 215-pound bowling ball. It hurt,” D.D. said.

And did you know Payton also completed 11 passes in his NFL career? Yes, and eight went for touchdowns.

And did you know he was the Bears’ back-up punter? And did you know he punted and place-kicked for Jackson State. Did you know he kicked 53 extra points and five field goals as a JSU Tiger?

He was, without question, the best pass protector, as a running back, I ever saw. He didn’t just block folks. He punished them. I can only imagine what he would have been like as a strong safety.

Everyone has an opinion on who was the best all-around football player they ever saw. Now, on what is his 63rd birthday, you have mine.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.