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Celebrating Black History Month - John Earl Payton

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By Emily Banks Wooten
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(Editor’s Note: This is the fifth of a multi-part series celebrating Black History Month by recognizing the service, contributions and achievements of some of Polk County’s finest.)

JohnEarlPaytonJohn Earl Payton (Jan. 21, 1935-Jan. 27, 2018) was born on Jan. 21, 1935 in Livingston to the late Robert and Margaret Payton-Freeman. The oldest of four children, he graduated from Dunbar High School in 1952, where he excelled in football, basketball, track and baseball.

He earned a football scholarship to Prairie View A&M University, where he received his Bachelor of Science Degree in 1956 and his master’s degree in 1964. While at Prairie View, Payton participated in football, basketball and track. He still holds the school’s all-time rushing record of 3,703 yards and is the second leading rusher in Prairie View’s football history, averaging 143 yards a game. A two-time football All-American, he was instrumental in helping his school win the 1953 National Championship by defeating Florida A&M in the Orange Blossom Classic. Payton signed with the Chicago Bears, but an injury during his senior year prevented him from honoring his contract.

Payton’s multi-faceted career as an educator and coach spanned 57 years. In 1956, he teamed with future ABA/NBA basketball standout Zelmo Beatty and led Scott High School in Woodville to two consecutive state basketball titles in the prestigious Praivrie View Interscholastic League. His basketball team went 77-7 over two years and his football team went 15-5 over the two years.

In 1958, he continued his career with a 12-year span as a teacher and coach at Dunbar Junior High school for one year and Charlton-Pollard High School in Beaumont for 11 years. His C-P basketball team won district championships in 1962 and 1964 and the state championship in 1964. As the head track coach, Payton brought home three UIL regional titles and as the offensive coordinator of the football team, the team was a state semi-finalist with a 10-1 record in 1962 and a UIL regional finalist in 1969.

In 1970, Payton moved on to Lamar University to serve as an assistant football and track coach, becoming the first Black coach in the school’s history. He served as the interim head football coach in 1980, academic advisor and professor in the health and kinesiology department and as assistant to the athletic director, Larry Tidwell. Thanks to Tidwell, Payton was recognized as one of Lamar’s Legends in 2010. Payton retired from Lamar University after 43 years of service, where the academic success center is named for him in the football athletic complex.

He extended his love of sports to that of an official, officiating four State Boys’ Basketball Tournaments, the last in 1991, and was given the State’s Distinguished Service Award for Basketball Officials in 1992. He also continued to officiate high school football games. He wrote several articles on coaching techniques including “Coaching the Running Backs,” which was published in the Texas Coach magazine in 2002.

Payton received numerous honors and awards: the Texas Southern University Ex-Letterman Association’s Coach of the Year Award (1963-1964); Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity’s Achievement Award (1971-1972); induction into the Prairie View Sports Hall of Fame (1988); the Ex-Prairie View Interscholastic League Coaches Hall of Honor (1988); Livingston Independent School District Outstanding Graduate Award (1991); induction into the Houston Prairie View Alumni Athletic Purple and Gold Club (1993); induction into the Livingston Dunbar Hall of Fame (1998); honored by the Tyler County Heritage Society (1999); induction into the Southeast Texas Coaches Association Hall of Honor (2000); the Lamar University Cardinal Hall of Honor (2004); the Texas High School Basketball Hall of Fame (2004); the Black Sports Hall of Fame (2005); honored by the Magnolia Baptist Church for “Fifty Years in Education” (2006); presented the Lamar University Merit Award for Distinguished Teaching (2008); honored with the “John Earl Payton Day” by the Livingston Dunbar High School Alumni Association (2011); induction into the Charlton Pollard High School Hall of Fame (2014); and awarded the William “Billy” Nicks Legend Award at Prairie View A&M University (2014). On Aug. 13, 2017, the Lamar University Athletic Department honored him in a special church service during which Mayor Becky Ames proclaimed it “Coach John Payton Day.”

Payton was a faithful member of Magnolia Missionary Baptist Church in Beaumont for over 50 years, where he served in the deacon and trustee ministries, brotherhood ministry, adult choir, men’s choir, the finance committee and as a Sunday School teacher. He was a charter member of the church’s education auxiliary, where the annual scholarship is named the “Deacon John and Deaconess Dolly Payton Education Scholarship.” He was a member of the NAACP and a charter member of the Beaumont Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.


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