Walter Payton is honored to be chosen for the College Football Hall of Fame. He's also angry.
Despite setting numerous school and NCAA records at Jackson State, Payton wasn't eligible for the hall until this year. The historically black school was Division I-AA, and hall candidates previously had to be All-Americans on a "major" or Division I-A team."Not everybody is fortunate enough to go to a major university," said Payton, who will be inducted Saturday as part of the hall's first class of players from schools in Division I-AA, II and III schools, as well as those in the NAIA.
"Unfortunately for me, and this is why my anger or a little hostility is coming up now, when I graduated from high school, integration had just started," he said. "So there were not a lot of major white universities taking black athletes. If they had their quota, then they had no more spots available."
That left most black athletes little choice but to attend a smaller school. The future NFL great chose Jackson State, where he flourished, running for 3,563 yards and 66 touchdowns in his four-year career.
He once scored 46 points in a game, and led the nation in scoring in 1973 with 160 points. When he left Jackson State, Payton had set nine school records, was a two-time All-American and held the NCAA record for points with 464.
But playing at a "small school" meant Payton didn't get the recognition players at better-known universities did. When Archie Griffin won the Heisman Trophy in 1974 for the second time, Payton finished fourth.
"I'm not saying this to be critical, I'm saying this because I've been there," he said. "Just because you went to a bigger school doesn't mean you're a better ball player."
Payton is proof of that. The Chicago Bears' first-round draft pick in 1975 is the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards. He was named to the Pro Bowl nine times in his 13-year career, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. He was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time team in 1994.
In 1987, the Division I-AA MVP trophy was named for Payton.
"The old saying is, if you could play, they will find you. And that's what I stand by," he said. "The work habits I developed at Jackson State were what served me in my pro career - hard work and determination, and never settling for second best. And always having fun at what you do."
Payton said he is encouraged by the strides made in college athletics in the last 25 years. Black players are no longer a fad at major universities, and recruits are judged on their ability, not their skin color.
Payton points to his brother Eddie, the golf coach at Jackson State, as an example. Though Jackson State is a historically black college, Eddie Payton has recruited several white players.
But for all the progress that's been made, smaller schools and those who play there are still struggling to escape the shadow of larger universities. The hall induction might be the first step, Payton said.
"It's an honor to be included with such great athletes," he said. "I applaud the (selection committee) on making that bold step because it's got to start somewhere. But I'm kind of unsettled that it's taken so long."