COLUMBIA, MS (WDAM) - Everybody in America knows the name Walter Payton.
An NFL Hall of Famer who not only paved the way for future running backs, but for humanitarians. Payton’s 45 years on this Earth had a seismic impact - particularly in the year 1970.
That was the first year the all-white Columbia High integrated with the all-black John J. Jefferson High School.
In one of the most difficult times in Marion County, Walter and his teammates just played football.
“The first game when we integrated, [Walter] made two real long runs," said Charles Boston, a Columbia assistant coach at the time. "I think one was 95 [yards] and the other one was 65. Well, we whipped ‘em that first game. We won seven straight and I think everybody just got on the bandwagon.”
After seven years as the head coach of John J. Jefferson, Boston joined Columbia as an assistant. Twenty black players from Jefferson teamed up with 16 white players from Columbia to put together an 8-2 season.
“Coach [Boston] doesn’t give himself enough credit for being the catalyst that kind of brought the community together," said John J. Jefferson grad Eddie Payton, a former Jackson State standout and five-year NFL pro. "Because all the black citizens wanted him to be head coach and all the non-black citizens were happy with coach [Tommy] Davis. They tried to get coach to quit and take all the black players to boycott, but he stood up – I don’t know if it was at a town meeting or at a church, told ‘em, ‘These kids deserve the right to play football and enjoy the game.’”
On Friday nights the people of Columbia didn’t see white or black – but saw the gold and blue of the Wildcats football team.
“Once we kicked that football off, Columbia saw not a black kid, not a white kid, I think they saw Wildcats," Boston said. "When Walter ran it, “Sugar Man,” whoever it was - I think they started pulling for the Wildcats.”
“Considering everything that was going on in the world around integration, this city came together to support a team," Eddie said. "Not a black team or white team, a team. Again, it was good to be from Columbia, Mississippi.”