Who: Walter’s head football coach at Jackson State
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Breakdown: During his senior year at Columbia High School, Walter narrowed his college choices down to two schools—Kansas State University and Jackson State College. Kansas State was the early frontrunner. First, it was a Division I school with an impressive roster; Second, it produced a large number of NFL players; Third, playing for the Wildcats would take Walter far away from Mississippi. Jackson State, meanwhile, was coached by Hill, a crazy, ornery man who rarely hesitated to kick, punch and humiliate his players.
Walter didn’t want to play for Hill; hated the idea of playing for Hill. But with his older brother Eddie already a Tiger, Walter was swayed. He attended Jackson State—and fell in love with the coach, who became a lifelong friend.
Pearlman’s take: I sat down with Hill inside his smallish apartment in the middle of Nowhere, Mississippi. All I’d heard was one horror story after another—Hill slamming his players with clipboards; Hill kicking his players as they vomited; Hill kicking players off the roster for getting married. In person, however, Hill was an absolute delight. He has a big laugh and a long memory, and was unafraid to tell stories that, looking back, didn’t exactly leave him the hero. He also had a genuine fondness for Walter Payton, and looked at him as a son, not merely another athlete.
From Sweetness: In the weeks leading up to his debut as a college head coach, Hill was, by all accounts, a lunatic. “As soon as he hit the football fi eld for practice, it was clear he was crazy— stone crazy,” said Matthew Norman, a sophomore defensive back. “He was very do or die. He would foam at the mouth, drool from the mouth, growl. Off the fi eld, Bob was a normal man. But the football field was his sacred ground. He was all about blood.” The players bestowed upon Hill the nickname “Thirst”—for bloodthirsty.
The first two weeks of September were brutally hot, with temperatures reaching the mid- nineties with oppressive humidity. Hill denied his players water throughout the ceaseless twice-a-day workouts. Replenishment, he believed, was for the soft, and Jackson State would be as hard as steel.
“Players were falling down, dying from the heat,” recalled Joe Bingham, an offensive guard, “and he’d kick them while screaming, ‘Die! Die! Die!’ He’d say, ‘If you die, I’ll roll you over with the sled.’”
It took Hill mere days to establish himself as a cruel, unforgiving taskmaster. “If someone did something wrong, Bob would tell him he was going to break his plate,” recalled Norman. “Which meant he was going to take your meal card from you, and you could no longer eat on campus.” It also took Hill mere days to develop a further appreciation for his freshman back.
Eddie Payton was the team’s top returning rusher, having totaled 339 yards in 1970. He was fast, quick, tough, resilient. Walter, though, was better.