October 05, 2011
Noted author Jeff Pearlman caused quite a bit of controversy when his new book about Walter Payton, "Sweetness," was excerpted in Sports Illustrated. The part of the book SI decided to focus on had more to do with Payton's struggles with depression and painkillers toward the end of his life. In a recent interview with Yahoo! Sports' own Dan Wetzel, Pearlman tried to re-emphasize the focus on Payton's entire story. To further that goal, Pearlman agreed to let Shutdown Corner run another excerpt from the book. This part focuses much more on Payton's college days, and the roots of the running style that would eventually make him perhaps the NFL's greatest all-time player.
Many thanks to Jeff Pearlman, and also to our Yahoo! Blogs compadre Jay Busbee for setting this up.
In the fall of 1971, a freshman halfback out of Columbia, Mississippi made his debut for the Jackson State College Tigers. Walter Payton's first game, a sloppy 13-12 win over Prairie View, was a disaster—he received the opening kickoff, fumbled it and never touched the ball again. His head coach, the tyrannical Bob Hill, wasn't happy …
The aftermath of the Prairie View loss was not pretty. If Jackson State's players thought they had it hard in the lead-up to the opener, they learned quickly that Hill's devotion to punishment knew few boundaries. The Tigers had two long weeks before their second game, a trip to Frankfort, Kentucky, to play lightly regarded Kentucky State, and Hill was determined to weed out the weak links. He looked over his roster and knew the talent was legitimate—along with the Payton siblings, ten others, including senior flanker Jerome Barkum and freshman linebacker Robert Brazile, would go on to play in the NFL. But under [former head coach] U.L. McPherson the work ethic had been underwhelming; the accountability nonexistent. Losses were greeted with dismissive shrugs, and players could often be found partying later in the evening. "No longer," said Hill. "I wouldn't accept that."
The coach had three favorite methods of punishment. First, there were the rocks. Hill would chew out a player, pick up a small rock, scream, "See this rock? Go find it!" then chuck it over a fence into a pack of weeds. Whether it took two minutes or two hours, the guilty party had to return with the exact rock. Second, there were the down-ups. "He'd stand there like a military drill instructor, screaming 'Down! Up! Down! Up!' " said Douglas Baker, a sophomore center. "You'd jump onto your stomach, jump up, run in place, then jump back down over and over again." The worst, however, was rolling. Were Hill really angry, he'd order players to line up on a goal line, lie down, and roll a hundred yards to the opposite goal line. "It doesn't sound especially bad, but it was torture," said Porter Taylor, a reserve quarterback. "You'd vomit, and it'd make you sick that evening and well into the next morning. There was nothing I wanted to hear less than, 'Roll the field.' "
Several Tigers quit instead of dealing with the coach's brutality. They were either upperclassmen who had grown comfortable with McPherson or naive freshmen unaware that they had signed up for the Green Berets. Earnest Wiley, a highly recruited defensive end from Mississippi, left the team after a month, when Hill ordered him not to marry his girlfriend. "I decided my life was more important than football," Wiley said. "So I got married and quit."
"Some guy passed out on the field, and throw-up was coming out of his mouth," recalled Lafayette Nelson, a tight end who transferred to Lane College. "Bob Hill screamed for someone to get him off the field, and they picked him up and towed him off. I knew I needed to get out of there."
Although Walter Payton didn't fully escape disciplinary action in the wake of his poor debut at Prairie View, Hill thought it wiser to develop the kid than break him down. "I always told my players the same thing," he said. "'There ain't no such thing as treating y'all alike. I'm gonna be fair with all of y' all—but not alike.'" Walter had received solid tutoring in high school under his coaches, Charles Boston and Tommy Davis(notes), but he was still green. Jackson State's offense utilized the quick pitch, which baffled Walter to no end. Jackson State's offense counted on a back reading his blockers. Again, Walter had no idea. "He had competitive speed," said Eddie Payton, his older brother and also a Tigers tailback. "But not blinding speed. And when he arrived, he had no real grasp how to use it."
Beginning that week, and lasting throughout their time together, Hill took Walter under his wing with the vision of creating a team-carrying superstar.
"The first thing he needed to learn was how to block," said Hill. "Walter never really had to do it before." At nights, when most of the other players were watching TV or studying, Hill dragged Payton to Jackson State's gymnasium, where he hung a tackling dummy from a steel beam. "He'd pound that thing over and over until he was sore and the dummy was even sorer," Hill said. "If you were going to play in my backfield, you had to be able to do more than just misdirect an oncoming tackler. You had to destroy him."
Hill's second priority was changing the way Walter ran. Though larger and stronger than his older brother, Walter tended to take handoffs and immediately break for the outside. This worked in high school, when he was faster than the majority of cornerbacks and safeties. But here, in college, it infuriated Hill. He wanted his ball carriers to emulate Alan Ameche, the legendary Colts fullback who had impressed him during his brief stay with Baltimore in 1956. "I put Walter at the top of the I-formation behind a fullback, but he wouldn't go up in the hole," Hill said. "He hated contact."
Hill had an idea. He stopped a practice and called for Willie Swinning, the team's trainer. With Walter within earshot, Hill handed Swinning a satchel and bellowed, "Bring this to the brick pile over there and fill it with three or four bricks!" When no one was looking, Swinning placed four footballs— not bricks—into the bag.
Hill positioned himself near the out-of-bounds line and resumed practice. He called for a drill involving a handoff. Sylvester Collins, the quarterback, gave the ball to Payton, who—as always—started to drift outside. Hill charged forward, wildly swinging the bag toward Payton's head. "Back inside!" Hill screamed. "Get your ass back inside!" The play was called again. And again. And again. "It took him a couple of times with me swinging that bag of bricks," said Hill, "but he finally started charging into the hole. That's how he began running inside."
Back in Columbia, Boston had advised Walter to run with raised knees— to lift them as high as possible in a chopping motion. Hill, the old Jackson State workhorse back, hated the style. Great running backs, he told Payton, run with long strides and extended legs. They make it as hard as possible for opposing defenders to drag them down. "If you're running with your knees high, they're gonna be close to your body," he said. "And if your knees are close to your body, a tackler can grab everything at once.
"If you want to be explosive, the best thing to do is run with long strides. The longer your strides, the faster you go. We're gonna open holes for you, but if you have short, choppy steps somebody will grab you around the legs and trip you up. I want you to stick your legs out, and if someone tries grabbing them, keep extending . . . keep pumping. I know you're from the country. You know when the cows come out to the pasture and eat all the green corn? Then you come out to get them and if you're running they start [pooping] over everything and the [poop] is flying everywhere? Well, that's how I want you to run. I want to see [poop] flying."
As a boy, Walter Payton had never milked a cow, chased a cow, or watched a cow eat green corn. Nonetheless, he grasped what his coach was saying—run hard.
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