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Football great's legend lives on with hometown statue.

Proclaimed "Walter Payton Day" by Columbia's mayor, May 17 was set aside for residents and fans to remember the life of the city's most famous native son. Several hundred gathered at Columbia High School's Walter Payton Field to join with family and former coaches to pay tribute and to unveil a new statue of the football great.

Payton's professional accomplishments are nearly unequaled. He was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears after graduating from Jackson State. His professional football career stretched from 1975 to 1987. He was MVP in 1977 and 1985, played in nine Pro Bowls, and for several years was the all-time leader in rushing and combined yards. Just as impressive is the fact that Payton only missed one game in his NFL career. Payton passed away in 1999.

The memorial event centered on Payton's contributions to the Columbia community. Alyne Payton, Walter's mother, was recognized for providing the support necessary to make her son a success. Charles Boston, Payton's coach at segregated John J. Jefferson High School, talked about his first time seeing Payton play. "I knew he would be a good player, but I didn't know he would be a great one." When Columbia schools were integrated, Payton played his final year at Columbia High, and Boston became the assistant under head coach Tommy Davis. Davis shared his own memories of Payton's high school career.

Also addressing the gathering was the Memorial Committee's commissioned sculptor. Ben Watts, a life-long resident of Columbia and a 1980 graduate of Millsaps College, has studied at several prestigious art schools. In 2002, he was awarded first place in sculpture at the Gum Tree Festival in Tupelo. His work was named Best in Show at Shreveport's 2001 Red River Revel and first place in sculpture at the 2001 Arts Festival Oklahoma. In 2002, he was invited to the prestigious Phippen Museum Western Art Show in Prescott, Arizona.

In the dedication program, Watts described the Payton project as the most meaningful work he would ever do. Sculpting took four months. While working, Watts sought input from the Payton family. Payton is depicted in full uniform without mouthpiece or face shield to allow an unobstructed view of the face. Knowing the statue was to be placed in the back of one end zone, Watts said Payton's eyes are focused 100 yards down the field to the other goal line "because that's where he was always looking." Football in hand, the bronze figure is posed as if the trip to the goal line had begun.

To close the dedication, Payton's mother Alyne unveiled the life-size bronze, then offered a tearful word of thanks to all those involved. She called it the greatest honor bestowed on the family. At the base of the statue is a plaque citing Payton's accomplishments.

Payton once said, "We are stronger together than we are alone." This quote was added to the monument to sum up Payton's life and the efforts of those who contributed to the success and character of the football legend.
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Title Annotation:Scrapbook
Author:Hanberry, Melissa
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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