May 2, 2018

Billy Payne knows life’s treasures are family and friends

     What do you get when you mix three iconic sports symbols into one event? 
     First, think of the raucous pride on Saturdays in Sanford Stadium, as the Bulldogs churn up the turf “between the hedges.”
     Balance that with the hushed reverence of the Masters, as golfing greats putt on the fabled greens of the Augusta National. 
     Now, hang the five Olympic rings over that mental picture. 
     But wait. 
     Imagine this legendary lineup of speakers: Georgia’s winningest football coach ever, Vince Dooley; Jack Nicklaus, owner of six Masters green jackets; Kirby Smart, UGA’s coaching sensation; Jim Nantz, CBS sports commentator with a honey-glazed voice; former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young; and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, just to name a few.
     The only word that comes close to describing this four-hour assemblage is “magic.”  And what was the common denominator to create this magical aura?  The answer is Billy Payne and his late father, Porter, for whom the jaw-dropping $30 million UGA indoor athletic facility has been named. 
     The naming rights came from friends, who opened their wallets to honor their friend.  But Billy, being Billy, insisted the signage must include another Bulldog, his father, Porter. 
     Monday night, among the legion of well-wishers were two of Porter Payne’s teammates from the 1940s: Bill Bradshaw and 96-year-old Charley Trippi.  Many of Billy’s teammates were there, too, as were members of the Augusta National, where Billy served as chairman for 11 years.  The rest of us were there to add our support and applause.  Such is the affection for the Payne family. 
     If you are around Billy much, you’ll learn he dated just one co-ed while in Athens.  Next month, he and the former Martha Beard of Moultrie will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.  And if you ask him about his career, he might mention his college football stardom or his vision and leadership to bring the Centennial Olympics to Georgia or his chairmanship of the most famous golf club in the world. That’s a maybe.  But for certain, you’ll hear about his family, especially his and Martha’s 11 grandchildren.
     As students, Billy and I met at the University of Georgia.
     Just after returning from Tokyo—with the winning Olympic bid—Billy and I watched Georgia beat Alabama.  Walking out of Sanford Stadium, I knew the moment was right to ask: “Billy, would you come to Jesup and tell the Olympic story at our chamber of commerce banquet?” He was too happy to say no.
     A few years later, I got a call from Billy: “Don’t you want to run the torch?”  I had been so busy chairing the Athens 96 committee that I hadn’t thought about it, but Billy had.  When the world arrived in Atlanta, Billy invited Pam and me to serve as presidential ambassadors.  In our royal blue blazers, we watched Muhammed Ali light the opening-ceremony torch.  And when a pipe bomb exploded in our mailbox—during the Olympics—Billy was the first to call to check on us.
     I wasn’t surprised when Billy was asked to lead the Augusta National.  He’s a natural to make everything he touches—including the near-perfect Masters—better. Soon after his appointment, I said, “We’ve been friends for a long time, but you can relax.  I won’t ever ask to play the course.”  He laughed and said, “Well, you’ll probably be the only one who won’t.”
     Billy Payne has packed his 70 years with incredible accomplishments, but he always gives credit to those who inspire him. During the magical evening, he paid tribute to five of his heroes: former Mayor Andrew Young, who helped promote Atlanta around the globe; banker Hugh McColl; Coach Vince Dooley; his father, Porter; and his wife, Martha.
     Blessed beyond measure, Billy Payne is humble, knowing life’s true treasures are family and friends.