The NFL is no stranger to recruiting qualified talent from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). However, for many athletes, HBCUs were providing top athletes the opportunities and platforms for greatness that Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) were not. Thankfully, that HBCU access lead to the legendary careers of at least two Chicago Bears, who were profiled in an article today by the team itself. Read below for the full article about Walter Payton of Jackson State University and Richard Dent of Tennessee State University, along with extraordinary photos of their best plays!
Walter 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 University, a Historically Black College/University (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 at Jackson State.
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 credited Jackson State coach Bob Hill with maintaining his humility and hunger as a player and person.
“He kept it real,” Payton wrote. “I don’t care how good you were, you were treated like everybody else. You weren’t put on a pedestal by Bob Hill. It is why I am so happy that I went to a school like Jackson State and met a man such as Bob Hill. Coach Hill’s whole focus helped make me. I don’t know exactly how coach Hill felt about me, but when I was there I always felt like a son. I had that special kind of relationship with him. I always, always knew that he had my best interests in mind when he made decisions.”
Payton was selected by the Bears with the fourth pick in the 1975 draft. He played his entire 13-year NFL career in Chicago, retiring following the 1987 season as the league’s all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards. While that record was eventually eclipsed by Emmitt Smith, Payton is still widely considered the greatest player in Bears history. He was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993, the College Football Hall of Fame in 1996 and the Black College Hall of Fame in 2010.
Sadly, Payton passed away Nov. 1, 1999 at the age of 45 due to bile duct cancer. But he remains an all-time Chicago icon.
Dent also was an HBCU product
Payton isn’t the only Bears Super Bowl XX champion and Pro Football 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 led the NFC with a Bears-record 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. The 6-5, 265-pounder registered 10 or more sacks in five straight seasons from 1984-88 and in eight of 10 years from 1984-93.
Dent was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. His official presenter at the ceremony in Canton was his former defensive coordinator at Tennessee State, Joe Gilliam Sr.
“I’ve been around football all of my life and Richard Dent was relentless and I don’t believe you can teach relentlessness,” Gilliam said in presenting Dent for enshrinement. “Richard honed in like a guided missile.”
During Dent’s speech, he lauded Gilliam and the impact the coach had on him.
“You don’t meet this kind of person too often,” Dent said. “I used to hate this person, but I learned to love him. You know what I mean? I learned to love him because he shaped me and he made things work for me. Coach, thank you. Coach, thank you. Thank you.”