Lebanon lost what may have been its No. 1 sports fan Wednesday when Lewis [Louis] Payton died at age 62 in Nashville.
Louie, or Big Lou as he was affectionately known, was a fixture on the Cumberland University campus in general and Bulldog sporting events in particular. If he got a ride over to Lebanon High School, he cheered on the Blue Devils as well.
“Louie has been a fixture in Lebanon for years; at the ballparks while I was growing up, at Lebanon High School and at Cumberland,” former Blue Devil and Bulldog baseball player Andy Head wrote in an email. “We loved Louie and learned a ton from him. We pray for his family and thank God we were able to share in his life.”
Louie sold The Lebanon Democrat newspapers on the street when I first started working here in the mid-1980s. I remember riding with a photographer to a game and our first stop was Louie’s house a few blocks from the CU campus to pick him up because he wanted to go.
Cumberland baseball coach Woody Hunt took Louie to Auburn for a 1986 game when two-sport star Bo Jackson played for the Tigers.
“He wanted to go,” Woody said Wednesday evening. “His mom and family trusted Louie with us. The players loved him and he was the highlight of the whole trip.
“He met Bo Jackson. There’s a picture of the two of them and I’ve been trying to find it. He was introduced to Bo and Bo asked him, ‘Are you any kin to Walter Payton [then late in his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears]?’ Louie, just as normal, said, ‘He’s my cousin’.”
Louie’s trips with Woody Hunt generally went smoother than some he took with longtime Democrat photographer Bill Cook. Bill drove him to a Nashville Sounds game one evening before running out of gas near the Highway 109 exit while returning home. Bill left Louie in the car while going for help.
“When I got back to the car, Louie was gone,” Bill recounted Wednesday night. “I guess he found a way to get back. He probably was recognized and somebody stopped and took him back.”
Seven months later, I was with them for a trip to Middle Tennessee State for the girls’ state basketball tournament. A few blocks from MTSU, Bill’s car sputtered and died. Again, it was an empty gas tank.
Karen Dedman, the younger daughter of former Wilson County mayor Robert Dedman, stopped by to help. While Bill was talking to her, Louie vowed to me, “I ain’t never riding with Bill Cook no more.”
“He had good reason to say that,” Bill said with a laugh last night.
And as far as I know, Louie never rode with Bill again.
Louie was as much a part of the Cumberland campus as the Memorial Hall clock tower. I wouldn’t be surprised if during freshman orientation, incoming students were told where the cafeteria, library, classrooms and dorms were – and who Louie was. By the time of the first home football game, it seemed every student, no matter if they had been there four years or a couple of weeks, knew his name.
The quietest Lindsey Donnell Stadium ever got during a football game came when Louie was run over on the sideline and knocked into the side of the bleachers. The stadium was quiet with worry as the only sound was the moaning of Louie while the trainers attended to him.
On the other hand, Louie got the loudest ovation of any of the graduates one year when he received an honorary degree from the university.
“He was strutting that day, boy,” Woody said. “He liked the attention, loved it. I thought it was great of the school to do that. I fact, I have pictures of him in a cap and gown.”
Reaction to Louie’s passing was swift.
“I’ve gotten so many emails from former students and players from all over the country,” said Woody, who added his son, Scott, had posted the news of Louie’s passing on Facebook and received over 400 responses.
“It’s amazing how many people loved him,” Woody said. “Everybody in Lebanon who goes back a long ways has a story about Louie around the ballfield.”
It didn’t seem like a Cumberland ballgame, and really not a Lebanon High game either, without Louie. For years, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Senior Day, Woody said, and was available to do so anytime the Bulldogs played.
“He loved to throw the first pitch of a game,” Woody said. “He holds the record for throwing the first pitch of the game.”
Woody, Immanuel Baptist Church pastor John Hunn and former pastor Donald Owens, a longtime Bulldog baseball fan, will deliver the eulogy for Louie at noon Friday at Ligon & Bobo Funeral Home. Hunn played baseball and basketball for Hunt and was on the Auburn trip, which by the way, the Bulldogs won 4-3.
“He loved John and John loved him,” Woody said. “It’s going to be a sad day, but a good day.
“We’re going to honor him, probably put a patch on the uniform [when the season starts].”
But who’s going to throw out the first pitch?