Sixty-six-year-old Walt Braddy has been a die-hard Jackson
(Miss.) State fan since he was a boy growing up in Florence, a
hamlet 15 miles south of Jackson. Braddy moved to Toledo, Ohio,
46 years ago but has kept tabs on the Tigers through one of his
seven brothers, Robert, who played baseball at Jackson State and
since 1972 has coached the team there.
So a couple of weeks ago, after Robert called to say that the
Tigers' golf team had made it into the NCAA tournament, Walt
started making plans, and there he was last week at the
University of Michigan Golf Course in Ann Arbor watching the
Tigers in the Central regional. "I'm so proud," he said. "You
know, this is the first time in history that a team from a black
college has been in the NC two-A golf championship. What makes
me even prouder, we have so many white boys. [Four of the
Tigers' five starters were white.] We finally integrated. When I
grew up down there, things were segregated. It should have been
this way all the time."
This year Jackson State had to settle for making history instead
of the NCAA finals. The Tigers finished 16th out of 21 teams and
only the top 10 advanced to next week's Division I championship
at the Honors Course outside Chattanooga. Jackson State shot 294
the first day--the best four of five scores are counted toward
a team's total in each of the three rounds--and was tied for
eighth, but that would be the Tigers' high point. They finished
48 over par at 900, 29 strokes behind Texas A&M, the winner, and
18 shots behind 10th-place Oklahoma. Nevertheless, the season
was a huge success. Jackson State won more tournaments (eight)
than any Division I team and an eighth straight Southwestern
Athletic Conference championship (by 85 strokes). Five players
won individual tournament titles, while senior Brian Bert and
junior Craig Hocknull are finalists for Academic All-America
Not bad for a program that 10 years ago was on the brink of
extinction. Credit goes to Eddie Payton, the older brother of
Walter and himself a veteran of nine seasons in the NFL. When
Payton took over as coach at Jackson State in 1986, many
historically black colleges did not field a golf team, much less
one that could compete nationally on a Division I level. Payton
began with no budget, no practice facilities and no invitations
to tournaments hosted by the established golf schools. What he
needed most of all was talented players, and he didn't care what
color they were. Mike O'Toole, who enrolled at Jackson State in
1988, was Payton's first white recruit and the first white to
play golf for any of the historically black colleges, though
white scholarship athletes had competed for them in other sports
since the mid-'60s.
Raised in Granite Falls, Minn., a town of 3,500 with only a
handful of blacks, O'Toole was open-minded but concerned about
potential racial problems that he might face--"I never really
knew a black person before going to Jackson," he says. Now an
assistant pro at Coffin Golf Course in Indianapolis, O'Toole
blossomed at Jackson State, winning the National Minority
Championship, which is the biggest tournament of the year for
historically black colleges, in 1990. "Blacks went out of their
way to befriend me," he says. "During the Rodney King riots,
tensions were high on campus. Later I found out that some
football players had trailed me for a few days to make sure
nothing happened to me."
Over the years Jackson State's white golfers have been involved
in a few minor racial incidents, but on the whole their
experience has been a positive one. "It's like being a grain of
salt in a pepper shaker," says Bert. "I wouldn't trade my time
here for anything. It's been the greatest thing I've ever done
in my life. I've learned that we're all just people."
Payton minces no words about the predominance of whites on his
team. "Some people question why we don't have more black kids,"
he says. "If we did, we wouldn't be competitive." Like their
coach, the players don't understand all the fuss. "All the
brothers get accepted to the big white schools to play
basketball," says Mike Brennan, one of three Australians on the
golf team. "Here all the white guys get accepted to play golf.
What's the difference?"
Hocknull, an Aussie from Queensland, sent applications to 30
U.S. coaches. Payton was the only one who offered him a full
ride. Hocknull happily accepted, unaware of the school's racial
makeup, which is 92% black. "My first few days I kept wondering
when the white people were going to show up," says Hocknull.
"After a couple days Coach gave me the lowdown."
The Aussies have fit in well, too well say some. "They get all
the girls," laments Hugh Smith, a black teammate. "We go out,
and I end up sitting alone while they're surrounded. Black women
love that accent."
Smith, who saw limited action this season, was one of two blacks
on the eight-man Jackson State roster. The other was Tim O'Neal,
a co-captain and the team's No. 1 player. A junior from
Savannah, O'Neal is 5'11", muscular and blessed with a powerful,
compact swing similar to Tiger Woods's. Ranked among the top 50
collegians at the start of the season, O'Neal racked up three
wins and a team-best 73.50 stroke average, despite playing
poorly at the regional, where he shot 225 and finished 65th.
During the three years he has attended Jackson State, O'Neal
has won eight collegiate events and two Savannah city
championships. Last summer he was third in the Georgia State
Amateur. The Tigers might play two additional African-Americans
next season. Payton has signed blue-chip recruits Eric
Dandridge, a top-ranked schoolboy in Illinois, and John Roddy,
one of the best prospects from the Washington, D.C., area.
The fact that Payton has been able to build, and sustain, a
program capable of attracting players like O'Neal, Dandridge
and Roddy amazes many in college golf circles. In 10 years
Payton's budget has risen to all of $5,000, excluding
scholarships. The team drives to most events, sometimes 10 hours
each way, in a borrowed van and usually bunks three to a room.
Payton washes the team uniforms. By way of comparison, TCU has a
$50,000 budget, while SMU, according to coach Hank Haney, "can
spend whatever we need."
Payton's kids had no shortage of motivation, though. A year ago
the Tigers won seven tournaments and felt they had earned an
NCAA bid. The selection committee passed them over, saying they
had played against soft competition. The snub was hard to
swallow. This season Jackson State beefed up its schedule and
played with a purpose.
"They deserved to be here as much as anybody. They're a class
act and a team to be reckoned with," said Bill Montigel, the
coach at TCU, which tied for eighth at Ann Arbor and advanced to
the Honors Course.
"Jackson State has a great team and a really strong program,"
said Haney, whose Mustangs placed second. "They had a much
better team than they showed here."
In the final analysis, the Tigers played poorly in the regional
because they lacked not skill or determination but experience.
Jackson State is still very much a work in progress. "The
magnitude of the event caught up with us," Payton says. "We're
just getting our feet wet in these circles. No way is this week
the end of the world. It's just the beginning."
Walt Braddy can't wait to see the ending.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRIAN MASCK [Eddie Payton]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRIAN MASCK O'Neal was the only black Jackson State player in the regional. [Tim O'Neal golfing]