It’s no secret that small towns in Texas have produced an impressive share of American sports legends. LaDainian Tomlinson of Rosebud, Bobby Morrow of San Benito and Nolan Ryan of Alvin all come to mind. They are small-town heroes whose ability and work ethic took them to the NFL, the Olympics or one of the other “bigs.” Sometimes heroes spring from places that you’d be hard-pressed to even find on a map.
In 1980, Troup, just southeast of Tyler, was on its way becoming another Alvin, Rosebud or San Benito. A 16-year-old boxer named Byron Payton was on a 40-bout winning streak and was a contender for the upcoming national Golden Gloves title in the light middleweight division. He had already earned championships in the Junior Olympics and the Texas State Golden Gloves, and the United States boxing team took notice. Officials named Payton to the squad they were taking to Warsaw, Poland, for a two-week tour, during which they would square off against a strong group of Polish fighters. The televised bouts would be part of the U.S. team’s preparation for the upcoming Olympic trials.
Payton was one of the youngest on the team, and he was excited. He wanted to compete in the Olympics and then try his luck at professional football. The boxing and football combination had worked for others. Ed “Too Tall” Jones had helped lead the Dallas Cowboys to a Super Bowl in 1977 and then turned to professional boxing in 1978, returning to the Cowboys in early 1980. Payton’s invitation to join the top amateurs to represent the U.S. in Poland was an important first step. But despite his success and lofty goals, Payton was humble.
“He never talked about it himself,” said Troup Principal Randy Martin to the newspapers of the day. “He just worked and trained and dedicated himself to being the best he could be.”
“It was something that was inside of him,” says Payton’s older brother, Jimmy. “Nobody knew it was there until he learned to box. He had the skills to do whatever he wanted. He was ambidextrous and had an awesome jab. He could work you over in close, knock you out or outpoint you.”
On March 13, 1980, Payton, 13 of his teammates and eight team officials boarded a late flight from New York to Warsaw. As their plane approached the Warsaw airport early the next day, the landing gear malfunctioned, so pilots aborted the first approach and circled.
During the second approach, the pilots attempted a special landing procedure and one of the engines broke apart, severing the rudder and elevator control apparatus. The airplane plunged nose-first and crashed into a 19th-century fortress a half-mile from the airport. The entire U.S. boxing contingent plus 65 Polish citizens and crewmembers were killed instantly.
Back in Troup, Payton’s friends and family were slow to believe the news, but a call confirming his death was made to his local boxing coach, E.A. Vascocu.
Vascocu had trained Payton for years, and he was crushed by the news. “He was about the best fighter I ever coached,” Vascocu said. “I loved the kid.”
Payton’s classmates and teachers wept in dismay, and his brother Jimmy broke down at work. “I couldn’t believe it,” Jimmy says almost 35 years after the crash. “I heard it on the radio and I was shocked. I went to my supervisor and told him I had to go, but I didn’t even make it out the door.”
Whether Byron Payton might have been the next Jack Johnson or George Foreman will never be known. A world-class boxer at 16, his legend ended before it had even begun to unfold, and the town that had been witnessing it firsthand was dealt a devastating blow.
Residents of Troup turned out in force for Payton’s funeral, and the community subsequently built a gymnasium to memorialize him. In 1984, a statue depicting a young boxer was erected at the Olympic training facilities in Colorado Springs, Colorado, commemorating the lives of the fighters and officials whose futures had been so abruptly dashed in Poland. The memorial is inscribed with the words “Down but not out … Lost but not forgotten” and features a list of the Americans lost in the crash.
The Byron Payton Gymnasium in Troup is still open, and the annual Byron Payton Memorial Boxing Tournament is still held there every year in November. The hosts of the tournament, Vascocu’s grandson, Shawn, and his wife, Candice, operate the Troup Boxing Club. The club’s latest contender is a female fighter named Megan Ybarra, a teenager with aspirations to compete on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
E.R. Bills is a writer from Aledo.