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Talent Has No Color

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It was a frustrating afternoon for Jackson State golfer Tim O’Neal. He was having one of his best days striking the ball from tee to green. Just one thing was missing.

“I couldn’t putt it in the ocean,” the 37-year-old former PGA and Nationwide Tour golfer says of his frustrating performance at a tournament at SMU roughly 15 years ago. “I walked over to Coach Payton and said, ‘Coach I cannot make a putt.’ He thought a moment then offered: ‘Hit it closer to the pin.’”

The instance illustrates Eddie Payton’s practical blend of coaching skill, task mastering and sense of humor. Since 1986, the former NFL punt and kick returner has been forging men’s and women’s championship golf teams at Jackson State University, the Historically Black College in Jackson, Miss.

“They’d only won one Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) championship in the history of the program,” says Payton, 59, of the period preceding his tenure as JSU golf coach. Since then, his men’s teams have amassed a staggering 22 SWAC championships in the last 23 years. The women’s team, birthed from the changes wrought by Title IX, has claimed 14 conference titles since its inception in 1990-91. But that wasn’t enough for Payton.

“When I first started we were an all-black team,” says Payton, who accepted a football scholarship to Jackson State in 1969. “My plan was to create a program that could compete for the national championship.”

But Payton couldn’t get all the pieces together. “We couldn’t get invited to the type of events that would give us the exposure so people would know how good we were. We were playing all conference events, eight or nine events every year against the same people.”

Fortuitously, in 1987, Jackson State was invited to play in an integrated tournament hosted by University of New Orleans golf coach Bob Brown. The UNO mentor put things bluntly to Payton: “If you’re going to move up, you’re going to have to integrate.” It was an odd reversal of the classic discrimination against blacks. Payton, though, heeded Brown’s advice and began experiencing recruiting success in the unlikeliest of places.

“We found out that white kids in the southern states weren’t interested in going to an all-black college,” remembers Payton, an eight-time National Minority Coach of the Year award winner, “but the kids from overseas wanted to get over here for better quality golf and a free education. It didn’t really matter to them what color the school’s makeup was.”

Enter Craig Hocknull, direct from the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory. Hocknull, a renowned golf trick-shot artist today, would initiate the first wave of Aussie golfers to descend upon the Jackson State campus in 1993, a Down Under lineage that runs through Curtis Stanton of the current Tigers squad. The women’s team includes Canadian Amy Breakwell.

“Getting Australians here changed the makeup of our program,” says Payton. “When we sent our recruiting information, it was easier for an international kid to come over, knowing that some of his countrymen were already here and that, basically, Mississippi wasn’t still burning.”

In 1996, Hocknull partnered with the most celebrated team ever to address a golf ball at Jackson State, joining O’Neal, A.J. Montecinos, Mike Brennan, Chris Register, Simon Buckle, Brian Bert and Hugh Smith as the first golf team from a Historically Black College to be invited to the NCAA Regionals. Astoundingly, the Tigers did it with an appalling lack of available practice facilities: No on-campus golf course. No video cameras to film golf swings. No corps of instructors.

“Our driving range was behind the athletic center. It was only about 180 yards long and we had to cut the grass ourselves,” recalls Montecinos of that notable 1995-96 team. An area golf club, Bay Pointe, “took good care of us,” but the facility was still 35 minutes away from the school. “We hardly ever practiced, but we had the tenacity and the will and the heart to get it done.”

Including the Rocky-like ’96 team’s milestone, Jackson State’s men’s and women’s teams have each logged 14 NCAA Regionals appearances.

Payton’s interest in golf first stirred when his mother, Alyne, worked weekends in the cafeteria at the local country club.

“Being the oldest of three, it was cheaper for her to take me to the golf course to work as a caddy than to pay a babysitter,” says Payton. “The club pro kind of adopted me, and I caddied there from the time I was 10 or 11 until the day before I graduated high school.”

But it wasn’t golf — and not even football — that first attracted scouts to the young Eddie Payton, a four-sport star at John J. Jefferson High School in Columbia, Miss., in the mid-to-late 1960s. So brilliant was Payton’s athletic star that his younger brother, Walter, later a legendary Hall of Fame running back with the NFL’s Chicago Bears, shied away from competing with him on the football field until Eddie had graduated from Jefferson. Rather, it was as a hot-hitting shortstop for the semi-pro Negro League Columbia Jets in 1964 that 13-year-old Eddie first began to turn heads. A year later, he was with the Laurel (Miss.) Black Cats, another semi-pro outfit.

“He bashed the fastball,” says Charles Boston, 77, Payton’s high school football coach who also played on the Laurel team. “They looked like they went 500 feet when he hit ’em.”

With the Black Cats, Payton experienced the rare thrill of batting against the immortal Satchel Paige, then barnstorming through the area. Payton was so young, though, the event was lost on him.

“I really didn’t know until later the gravity of what I had done,” he recalls of the epic occasion. “I was like ‘Who’s that old guy?’ ‘That’s Satchel Paige.’ ‘Who’s that?’”

That lack of knowledge can be forgiven, since Payton was 14 at the time.
By his senior year he was one of the best high school baseball prospects in Mississippi, attracting an offer from the Atlanta Braves. “They wouldn’t guarantee to my mother that, if I didn’t make it, they would pay for my college education. It was really important to her that I go to college.” So in 1969, Payton was off to Jackson State to play football. Meanwhile, after Eddie left, Walter came into his own at Columbia High — which had integrated with all-black Jefferson High for Walter’s senior year — before also choosing Jackson State University and the opportunity to team up with his brother in the same backfield. “We had a ball,” says Eddie, three years ahead of Walter, of their one JSU campaign (1972) together, a season in which the elder Payton led the SWAC in rushing and scoring.

Eddie went on to a five-year NFL career as a punt and kick returner for Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City and Minnesota, and is enshrined in five sports halls of fame, an achievement of which he is justifiably proud.

Boston, the man who coached both Paytons in high school, reminisces about the two brothers.

“They were both quick as a cat,” says Boston. “Walter was larger and I believe faster. Eddie was always full of confidence and might have been a hair quicker. Their agility was so good. I would have hated to pick between the two of them. I really wish I could have had both at the same time.”

Boston pauses, reflecting. “We didn’t have golf in this area; it wasn’t for black folk,” comments the man whom Eddie Payton calls a second father.

“Somewhere along the way, Eddie picked it up. I understand he’s pretty good.”