Once he began to play football, as a junior, he achieved instant success as a running back, running 65 yards for a touchdown on his first high school carry. At 5 ft 10 in (1. 78 m), he was not especially large, but his speed and strength made him one of the team's featured players. John J. Jefferson High School was integrated with neighboring Columbia High School that year; Payton and his teammates were upset that their head coach, Charles L. Boston, had become an assistant and Payton boycotted some of the spring practices in protest, but returned during the fall season. He then earned statewide honors as a member of Mississippi's all-state team, leading Columbia to an unexpected 8–2 season. His performance helped ease the local tensions surrounding desegregation. Tommy Davis, Columbia's football coach, claimed that he could always count on Payton when the team needed to score. Payton's statistics proved that was no exaggeration: he scored in every game during his junior and senior years. He was named to the all-conference team two years in a row. Payton also led the Little Dixie Conference in scoring his senior year and made the all-state team. In addition to excelling at football, Payton averaged 18 points a game for Columbia's basketball team, leaped three-quarters of an inch short of 23 feet in the long jump, played baseball, and continued to drum in the school band.