Joins Track Team As Long Jumper
Payton's interest in sports picked up in the ninth grade when he joined Jefferson's track team as a long jumper. He also played drums in the school's band. Although he was drawn to football, he didn't go out for the school team, on which his older brother, Eddie, was the star running back, because he didn't want his mother worrying about both her sons getting hurt. After Eddie graduated, Jefferson's football coach asked Payton, then a sophomore, to try out for the team. After winning a promise from the coach that he could stay in the band, Payton agreed. In his very first high school game, he ran 65 yards for a touchdown. In 1969, all-black Jefferson merged with all-white Columbia High School, and Payton quickly became the unchallenged star of the school's football team, scoring in every game of his junior and senior years. Looking back on Payton's high school football career, Columbia coach Tommy Davis said he could always count on Walter when the team needed to score. Three years in a row, Payton was named to the all-conference team, and in his senior year he led the Little Dixie Conference in scoring and was selected for the all-state team.
After his graduation from Columbia High, Payton joined older brother Eddie at predominantly black Jackson State College where together the siblings were stars in the college football team's backfield. At the end of Payton's freshman year in college, Eddie graduated and moved on to the NFL, leaving Walter alone in the spotlight. Payton proved himself a versatile player, serving as Jackson State's halfback, punter, and place kicker. He ended his sophomore year as the nation's second highest collegiate scorer. That same year he broke college records by amassing the highest number of points—46—in a single game. As a junior, Payton ran for a total of 1,139 yards and led the country in scoring with 160 points.