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Wilbert Montgomery’s Hall of Fame career ever-so-briefly stopped at Jackson State

By Rick Cleveland



Rick Cleveland edits a new book coming out in October for the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in Jackson. (Melanie Thortis)

When Greenville’s Wilbert Montgomery arrived at Jackson State in the summer of 1973, he found the running back position crowded with superstars galore.

Walter Payton was a sophomore. Eddie Payton was a senior. Joe Lowery and Rickey Young, both future NFL backs, also were vying for playing time. Montgomery, as we all know, would go on to NFL stardom himself. The case can be made Jackson State’s stable of running backs rivaled that of any team in America, NFL included.

Montgomery’s stay at Jackson State was short. He transferred to Abilene Christian, nearly 600 miles to the west. Many, this writer included, always believed Montgomery transferred because of all the competition at running back. Now, 46 years later as Montgomery rightfully enters the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, we learn the truth.

“We had a lot of great backs at Jackson State but I wasn’t scared of the competition,” Montgomery said. “I was playing safety anyway. I wanted to play defense, but then Walter got hurt and the coaches moved me from defense to offense. That’s why I transferred.”

Wilbert at Abilene Christian

Turns out, Montgomery couldn’t hide his running skills at Abilene Christian either. His stay on defense at the Texas school was brief. Abilene Christian coaches weren’t stupid. They put Montgomery at running back and gave him the football. As a freshman, he responded by scoring 37 touchdowns and leading the Wildcats to the NAIA national championship.

Before his college career ended, Montgomery rushed for more than 3,000 yards and an all-time collegiate record of 76 touchdowns. Naturally, he has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, along with Walter Payton, who was only briefly his teammate.

Wilbert runs away from Charlie Waters of the Dallas Cowboys

Montgomery and Payton, Pro Bowl teammates in the NFL, remained friends until Payton’s death. “Walter and I talked all the time,” Montgomery said. “He was a great friend. Heck, at one time he was even trying to get me to marry his sister.” Montgomery did not match Payton’s other-worldly NFL statistics. But Montgomery did enjoy a distinguished NFL career that included twice being selected first team All-Pro. He rushed for 6,538 yards over seven seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He rushed for a career-high 1,512 yards in 1979.

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