This is the second in a series of posts highlighting the best NFL players produced by HBCUs at each position. For most positions, we will only consider players who began their college careers after 1970.
Folks may argue whether or not Walter Payton is the best NFL running back ever. The man he stole the league’s all-time rushing record from, Jim Brown, played just nine NFL seasons. The man who took the title from him, Emmitt Smith played 14 seasons and won three championships. Barry Sanders may have had more spectacular runs. But when it comes to backs produced by HBCUs, Walter Payton stands head and shoulders above his peers.
Payton’s collegiate career came at a time where African-Americans were few and far between in the Southeastern Conference. Most teams only had a handful of Black players, if any. Throw in the fact that the 5’10 running back only played two years of high school football, and him landing at Jackson State makes plenty of sense.
Despite his light recruitment, it didn’t take long for Sweetness to make his presence felt around the SWAC and nationwide. Playing with future pros like Robert Brazile, Jackie Slater and his older brother Eddie, Payton re-wrote the history books, breaking the NCAA’s scoring record by rushing for 65 touchdowns in his four seasons. He finished with over 3,500 yards in his career, running for over 6 yards per carry. He also finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Award.
Payton was drafted no. 4 overall by the Chicago Bears and continued to defy the odds his entire pro career. He was a 9-time Pro-Bowl participant, 9-time All-Pro Selection, broke Jim Brown’s career rushing record and capped off his career with a Super Bowl following the 1985 season.
Runner Up: LeRoy Kelly-Morgan State
It’s never easy replacing a legend, and in the NFL there is no bigger legend than Jim Brown. When the Cleveland Browns drafted the Morgan State runner in the eight round of the 1964 NFL Draft they probably figured he’d eventually be Brown’s successor, but no one could have realized it would have come so soon. One season removed from the Brown’s 1964 NFL Title, Brown abruptly retired, leaving Kelly as the featured back. Kelly made the transition from the CIAA to NFL look easy, making the first of six Pro-Bowl appearances, leading the league in rushing yards in both ’67 and ’68 and leading touchdowns from 66-68.
Kelly was one of the first great all-around backs of the NFL. He finished his career with over 12,000 yards, including 7, 274 rushing yards. He also retired with 90 touchdowns and was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1994.
Notable: Willie Galimore-FAMU
In the pantheon of NFL running backs, Galimore’s numbers don’t look that impressive. He recorded 2,985 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns in 7 NFL seasons, never gaining 1,000 yards. But this NFL films video featuring Galimore tells everything you need to know about legendary coach Jake Gaither’s star back.