“Sweetness” also threw eight touchdown passes and led the NFL in kickoff returns as a rookie in 1975 with a 31.7-yard average. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993 in his first year of eligibility.
The only player that Wyche ranked ahead of Payton was Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice, who attended Mississippi Valley State.
Payton was an all-state running back at Columbia High School in Mississippi. But he wasn’t recruited by any SEC schools.
It wasn’t because Payton lacked the ability to excel at the major college level. Or that he didn’t possess the grades required to qualify for enrollment. It was simply because of the color of his skin. Even as recently as the early 1970s, SEC schools only offered scholarships to a limited number of Black students.
With few other opportunities, Payton headed to Jackson State, an HBCU in Jackson, Miss., where he joined his older brother, Eddie, on the football team.
The future Bears star enjoyed an outstanding college career, rushing for 3,600 yards and a school-record 63 touchdowns. He was named Black College Player of the Year in each of his final two seasons.
As a sophomore in 1972, Payton set a SWAC single-game scoring record with 46 points, rushing for seven touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions in a 72-0 drubbing of Lane College. He also set a school record with 279 rushing yards in the game. Payton rushed for a school-record 24 TDs as a junior in 1973 and ran for 19 touchdowns as a senior in 1974. He graduated in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in communications.
In his autobiography, “Never Die Easy,” Payton discussed the impact that attending Jackson State had on his life.
“I’ve always said that the best thing that happened to me was going to a school like Jackson State,” Payton wrote. “I am really glad that it worked out that way, that schools such as Alabama or Mississippi State or Louisiana State didn’t recruit me. Obviously, I do not support the reason why those schools wouldn’t recruit me; the idea that they didn’t want black kids to attend or play at their schools was reprehensible. They turned their back on so many great kids and great players. They really denied people opportunities they deserved. But I needed a school like Jackson State to keep my feet planted.”
Payton isn’t the only Bears Super Bowl XX champion and Hall of Famer who was drafted by the team from an HBCU.
Defensive end Richard Dent was a two-time All-American at Tennessee State from 1979-82, setting sack records for a career with 39.5 and a single game with 4.5 in 1982. He also recorded 158 tackles and six fumble recoveries during his college career.
Selected by the Bears in the eighth round of the 1983 draft, Dent played 12 of his 15 NFL seasons in Chicago and remains the Bears’ all-time leader with 124.5 sacks. He set a Bears record with a career-high 17.5 sacks in 1984 before recording a league-leading 17 sacks in 1985 in helping the Bears win their first NFL title in 22 years. Dent was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
Current players on the Bears roster from HBCUs include running back Tarik Cohen (North Carolina A&T) and offensive lineman Lachavious Simmons (Tennessee State).
Inaugural HBCU Legacy Bowl set for this weekend
Wyche compiled his list of the 10 greatest HBCU players in advance of the inaugural 2022 HBCU Legacy Bowl, a college football all-star game scheduled to kick off at 3 p.m. (CT) Saturday at Yulman Stadium on the Tulane University campus in New Orleans. It will be televised live on NFL Network.
The contest was founded by the Black College Football Hall of Fame last March and will feature the top draft-eligible players from HBCU schools.
HBCU football programs primarily compete in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) in NCAA Division II, and the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC) of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).