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Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, a former Columbia Wildcat, on the Tampa Stadium sideline on Oct. 6, 1985. Credit: Tom DiPace, AP

Walter Payton, the greatest football player these eyes have ever seen, has been selected for the National High School Hall of Fame.

That completes the circle for Payton, the Columbia native and former Jackson State great. Already, he had been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame. Both of those inductions occurred before Payton died of a rare liver disease and bile duct cancer in November of 1999 at the age of 44.

Late is better than never where the high school hall of fame and Payton are concerned.

Last November, the good folks at the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA), knowing I had reported on Payton during his high school days, asked if I would write a nomination letter for him to the High School Hall of Fame’s screening committee..

It was the easiest letter I have ever had the pleasure of writing. It follows:

Rick Cleveland

To the NFHS Hall of Fame Screening Committee:

It has come to my attention that the late, great Walter Payton, the best football player these eyes have ever seen, has never been nominated for the NFHS Hall of Fame.

In my opinion, nobody deserves induction into this prestigious Hall of Fame more than Walter, whom I had the great fortune to “cover” as a sports journalist beginning in his high school days at Columbia High School, through his College Football Hall of Fame career at Jackson State and then throughout his Pro Football Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears.

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. 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.

He was not only an amazing high school football player but he came along in Mississippi at a time of great change in the state. Columbia High integrated during Walter’s high school years. He was part of the first integrated football team at Columbia and his teammates, both Black and white, are on record as saying that Walter was greatly responsible for the peaceful, uneventful coming together of the two races where they had never come together before.

Walter Payton proved to be a leader – not only on the football field and in other sports venues – but also in the classroom. (He was also in the Columbia High School band.) He and his teammates showed everyone who watched – and plenty did because of his obviously uncommon skills – that the two races could work and play together and be all the better for it. 

No statistics are available from that time, but I can tell you from my own reporting that Walter often scored multiple touchdowns in a single game – in fact, six in the last game he played as a Columbia Wildcat. He also could throw, catch, kick, block and tackle with the best of them.

He went on, of course, to lead the nation in scoring at Jackson State and become the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer during his time there. He retired as the NFL”s all-time leading rusher, a record since eclipsed by Emmitt Smith.

The same character traits that enabled Walter to become a student leader at Columbia High School were evident during both his college and professional careers – to the point that the NFL annually awards the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award to a player who best exemplifies Payton’s on-the-field excellence and his tireless off-the-field volunteer and charity work.

Again, Walter Payton is already a headliner in the college and professional football halls of fame. It seems all together fitting and proper he should be similarly honored at the level where he first displayed his incredible skills, both on the field and off.

***

Payton will be inducted during the National Federation of High School Activities summer meeting July 1 in San Antonio. He will be one of 12 new Hall of Famers, who also include another former NFL star, Thurman Thomas, and PGA golfer Notah Begay.

Payton, it should be remembered, was much more than a football star at Columbia. Besides playing in the band and being a student leader, he averaged 18 points per game in basketball, also played baseball and won the long jump in the MHSAA’s state track championships. There wasn’t much Walter Payton couldn’t do and do well.


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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.