COLUMBIA, Miss. (WDAM) - Mississippi is a hotbed of football talent – it’s no secret.
Crawford native Jerry Rice is the NFL’s career leader in receptions and receiving yards. Kiln’s Brett Favre is a three-time NFL most valuable player.
Yet, many argue the greatest football player to ever live was born in Columbia.
Walter Payton rushed for 16,726 yards in 13 NFL seasons – second on the all-time charts. The nine-time Pro Bowler, Super Bowl XX Champion and 1977 NFL MVP has his No. 34 jersey retired with the Chicago Bears.
"Once you get anywhere, you can't forget where you came from,” said Payton, when speaking to reporters years ago.
While Payton’s without a doubt the greatest football player to come out of Columbia, he wasn’t the first professional and won’t be the last.
"There were two brothers who went to the NFL before Walter and I,” said Eddie Payton, Walter’s older brother and a five-year NFL vet. “Joe and L.C. Owens played for the Saints. Jimmy McFarland, I watched John Bell play before I did. Once you watch them play, you realize if you go to college you got a chance to play at another level."
At first, Walter was content just playing drums in the John J. Jefferson high school band.
But when he saw his older brother Eddie earn a scholarship to Jackson State, “Sweetness” decided he ought to try this thing called football.
"Coach Charles Boston before I went down there had got him out of the band and made a football player out of him,” said Dr. Tommy Davis, Columbia High’s head coach in 1970.
"He was in the band but, believe it or not, I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the band,” Boston said.
It didn’t take long for Walter to grab the attention of coaches Boston and Davis at Columbia High.
The very first game of Walter’s senior season in 1970, he put on a show.
"Well, he broke one for 94 yards,” Davis recalled. “But as he passed the coaches, he waved. He came off the field and I got him. [I] told him severely and strongly, we don't wave when we're running for a touchdown. And he looked rather hurt. He said coach, ‘I didn't mean nothing by waving, I was just telling you coaches y'all could rest easy. I was gone.’"
The rest is a story told a thousand times over.
A 5-foot-10 kid from South Mississippi becomes arguably the greatest running back of all time.
Where you’re born doesn’t matter much, but the Payton’s are sure proud to be from Columbia.
"Walter became a great athlete because he wanted to,” Eddie said. “Talent? Yes. I never thought we were any more special than anybody else. I think we worked harder and we were in the right place at the right time."
“I wish their sister had been another boy, then I would’ve had three Payton’s [in the NFL],” Boston joked.
“[Pam] was the best athlete in the family,” Eddie said.
Pam Payton didn’t quite make it to the NFL, but eight Columbia natives did. Here’s a list of the Columbians gone pro:
- Herman “Eagle” Day (punter/quarterback) – Drafted by the Washington Redskins in 1956. Played ten years in the Canadian Football League.
- Jackie Smith (tight end) – Played for St. Louis Cardinals (1963-1977) and Dallas Cowboys. Selected to the Pro Bowl five times.
- Jim Dunaway (defensive tackle) – Played for the Buffalo Bills (1963-1971) and Miami Dolphins (1972). Four-time AFL All-Star.
- Joe Owens (defensive end) – John J. Jefferson grad. Played for the San Diego Chargers (1970), New Orleans Saints (1971-1975) and Houston Oilers (1976).
- L.C. Owens – John J. Jefferson grad. Played two seasons with the New Orleans Saints.
- Eddie Payton (running back) – John J. Jefferson grad. Played five seasons in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings.
- Walter Payton (running back) – Columbia grad. Played 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears (1975-1987).
- James “Big Cat” Harvey (offensive guard) – Columbia grad (helped Wildcats win 1982 state championship). Enjoyed a brief NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs (1987-1988).
- Bobby Hamilton (defensive end) – East Marion grad. Played for the New York Jets (1996-1999, 2006), New England Patriots (2000-2003), Oakland Raiders (2004-2005) and Cleveland Browns (2007).
- Logan Cooke (punter) – Columbia Academy grad. Drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2018.
- Johnathan Abram (safety) – East Marion grad. Drafted 27th overall by the Oakland Raiders in 2019.