Jackson State opens building named for Payton

Updated: February 17, 2006, 7:14 AM ET
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. -- Walter Payton's mother nearly cried when she first entered the new recreation center bearing her late son's name.

"It's so beautiful and wonderful that they would honor him like this," Alyne Payton said. "I thought it would happen, but I never expected anything like this. That's what's so breathtaking about it."

The $12.3 million Walter Payton Recreation and Wellness Center opened Thursday at Jackson State as the centerpiece of a $25 million complex named after the school's most famous alumnus.

The native of Columbia, Miss., starred at Jackson State in the early 1970s and played 13 years with the Chicago Bears, retiring after the 1987 season with 16,726 yards rushing. The Hall of Fame running back died of cancer in 1999 at age 45.

"[The center] is a tribute to a life that meant so much to this community and this university," said Eddie Payton, Walter's older brother and the golf coach at Jackson State.

Payton's high school coach, Charles Boston, joined family members and university and political leaders who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the building located at 34 Walter Payton Drive. Some of the estimated 200 attendees came wearing retro Jackson State football jerseys with Payton's No. 34.

A gold bust of Payton greets visitors as they enter the center. School officials said a walk of fame is planned for the main hallway to honor the career of the player nicknamed "Sweetness."

"We, the Payton family, are very humbled and very appreciative of Walter to be honored in this way," said his sister, Pamela Payton-Curry. "Just as this is a memorial to Walter Payton, the man, it is a memorial to that active spirit and greatly improved world he helped bring about."

The building houses three basketball courts, three racquetball courts, three aerobics studios, a squash court, plus dozens of exercise bikes and weight benches. School officials said Jackson State is the first historically black college or university to open such a center.

"We went through many challenges to get this facility built," Jackson State President Ronald Mason said. "The fact that we stuck with it, worked with the family, we kept the spirit of Walter in mind, is really a legacy to what he stood for, not only as a football player but as a human being."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press