Former Jackson State football player Eddie Payton had the nerves of a jewel thief. For five years, from 1977-82, he made his living as an NFL kickoff returner and punt returner with the help of another former JSU Tiger, Lem Barney.
One day after a training camp practice with the Detroit Lions, Barney told Payton that the only way he would make the team was on special teams. Barney taught him how to judge the ball off the kicker’s foot.
On Dec. 17, 1977, Payton returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown for the Lions in a game against the Minnesota Vikings. Being a return man taught Payton that patience and purpose would prepare him for his second career as golf coach at Jackson State — and his hall of fame moment.
Payton was inducted into the Black College Golf Coaches Hall of Fame on Sept. 23, the cap on an incredible career that saw him turn the JSU men’s and women’s golf programs into an HBCU power from 1986 to 2016.
In 1994, he helped start the women’s golf team, which won 14 Southwestern Athletic Conference titles. After taking the 2001 SWAC Championship, the Lady Tigers received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, becoming the first women’s golf program from an HBCU school to accomplish the feat.
Payton is a 21-time SWAC Coach of the Year and eight times was named National Minority Coach of the Year. Payton’s men’s team won 25 SWAC Championships, including 20 straight. The Tigers made NCAA history in 1996 when they became the first HBCU to qualify for an NCAA golf regional.
“It was the greatest experience of these kids’ life,” Payton told the Clarion Ledger. “To compete against the best players in the nation and against some of the top schools, they realized the golf ball does not see any color. The ball is white, and it does not know what color the person is that hits it, as long as it is hit well.”
Payton’s path to a golf hall of fame came after playing in the NFL for the Lions, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings. He also played in the Canadian Football League for a year.
Former NFL player Eddie Payton sits at the memorial to his late brother Walter outside the Walter Payton Recreation & Wellness Center on Oct. 11, 2019, on the Jackson State University campus where both played football (Photo: Sarah Warnock/Clarion Ledger)
Payton explained his rise in golf coaching during a recent question-and-answer-style interview with the Clarion Ledger:
Clarion Ledger: How did you become the golf coach at Jackson State?
Eddie Payton: My entire family was at JSU at the same time. There came a time when I wanted to give back to repay what the university had done for my family, and they needed a golf coach. I went into Dr. Walter Reed’s office and told him I never coached, but I have been around a lot of great coaches. He told me to come back the next day, he gave me $4,000 to coach men’s and women’s golf for the year.
CL: What were some of the challenges you had to overcome in taking over as coach?
EP: When I took over, we did not have a golf course, a player, or a budget, but I had a willingness to learn. I wanted to do something that had never been done before and win a national championship. It took us three years before we won our first SWAC championship.
CL: Who was the first male and female recruits you offered a scholarship to?
EP: Sam Norwood was from California and was recommended by the National Minority Juniors scholarship fund. He became our leader and was like having another coach. He led us to our first SWAC championship and is a doctor now. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The first female was Precious Thompson out of Jackson. Her father was a fireman and one of the best golfers in the state. I built the women’s program around her and a couple of other women golfers, and then later he had Shasta Averyhardt. We signed the gem of the group, my daughter, Erica Payton, who won four SWAC championships.
CL: Did any of your golfers ever play on the professional tour?
EP: We had Tim O’Neal, AJ Montecinos, as the caddy, Michael Brennan, Shasta Averyhardt and Clay Myers are some of the standouts who went on to have professional golf careers.
CL: Did your brother, Walter Payton, play golf?
EP: He played, poorly. He was getting invited to more celebrity golf tournaments than I was at first. He flew me up to Chicago and I stayed with him for a week, we took golf lessons twice a day to the point where he wasn’t embarrassed.
CL: What are you most proud of?
EP: We graduated 95 percent of our student-athletes, with 90 percent of them graduating with honors. I tried to teach my golfers that golf is like life, it is not always going to be good. It is not always going to work the way you want it, but if you don’t give up and keep working you will have a chance to be successful. If you quit and take shortcuts, no one has ever been successful taking shortcuts in life or anything else.