On a stifling hot day in August 2012, BR-119 Stetson held football practice for the first time in a long time. Now, we’re not talking about “a long time” in terms of months. We’re talking about “a long time” in terms of … well … since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the United States.
It was the Hatters’ first football practice since 1956. In the distant past, Stetson students were a part of the first organized football game ever in the state of Florida- way back in the 1890s. The Hatters took wins over illustrious programs like Auburn, Florida State, Miami and even the Florida Gatorsover the next sixty years before they mothballed the program due to lack of interest.
Nearly another sixty years went by before they picked it back up. Out on the field that first day back, dripping sweat along with about 120 other eager underclassmen, was Fayetteville, Georgia native Donald Payne. Each hoped to make an impression on the coaching staff so they might be able to dress out in the fall of 2013 — one year later. That’s when the real games actually would begin.
In high school, Payne didn’t get any attention from the SEC and ACC schools near his Georgia home. In fact, even the non-BCS Division I programs and FCS powerhouses pretty much ignored him. His only real offers were from a few HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and a new program called Stetson. If he chose the Hatters, he would live in a town you’ve likely never heard of–a town called DeLand, Florida–and endure an entire year of practice before he ever took the field against another school.
It would be a true test of perseverance.
“Here we all were, on a college campus a long way from home,” Payne told HERO Sports. “We have no mentors, no upperclassmen to look up to, none of us have ever been there before. Just about nobody is walking around campus. And here we are, 120 random people who don’t know each other, literally from all over the USA. And that first few days, the coaches wanted to see who was really going to last.
I can tell you, I really do love this sport—but I have never been worked that hard. I remember thinking … this is hell right here. It has to be.”
Fast forward to now, three years later, as the Stetson Hatters prepare to kick off the 2015 season with Payne in their heart. Only about 30 of those original 120 players are still on the roster—and the best of them, Payne, went from all-unknown to All-American more quickly than he himself can pop a running back.
That’s what happens when you lead the nation with a staggering 185 tackles as a sophomore, and also chip in 19 tackles for loss, 4 INTs, 6 sacks and 12 passes defended. He has three career touchdowns—and he doesn’t play offense. Think of an FCS version of Troy Polamalu, with potential to be way more than the FCS version by the time he’s done.
The player appropriately known as Payne Train is gaining steam. He is an absolute terror on defense. Though he’s best suited in the strong safety mold, he truly can play just about every position north of defensive tackle. He can sack like a D-end, pick off a pass like a polished cornerback, and dish out fumble-inducing hits like a linebacker. He’s just the kind of cerebral “quarterback of the defense” every coach begs Santa for every Christmas. The Stetson staff figured this out so quickly in 2013 that they literally set up the entire defense to funnel plays to Payne.
This is a kid Georgia and Georgia Tech paid almost no attention to—and for the record, neither did Georgia State or Georgia Southern. He was just a late developer at a small 1A high school–Landmark Christian– who grew into a 6-foot-0, 220 pound monster at DB.
“I definitely think he’s one of those kids who fell through the cracks at the bigger levels,” Stetson head coach Roger Hughes told HERO Sports. “The kids we tend to recruit develop a bunch during their senior years. If you develop earlier than that, you tend to get scholarship offers from bigger schools.
“It didn’t take long after a few practices that we knew we had somebody special with Donald.”
Payne is already a legend at Stetson, where he may suit up for two more seasons—though he is slated to graduate next spring and of course if the situation is right, he could even think about a pro career (it is believed no player from the earlier Stetson teams ever played in the NFL). His legendary status at Stetson took flight off-campus last fall when he posted 30 tackles in a single game against Campbell, and clinched the 28-24 victory when he knocked down the Camels’ potential game-winning touchdown pass at the goal line.
“My first reaction when I heard he got 30 tackles was ‘no way, somebody’s padding the stats,’” Hughes said. “When we’re on the sidelines, we’re so busy we don’t have time to think about things like that, but after a while you do notice that you’re hearing his name on the loudspeakers a lot.
“He just has a great knack for attacking a blocker at his weakest position. And let’s not kid ourselves, he takes some chances and sometimes he breaks coverage to do it. I’d like to get mad, but a lot of times he makes the right decision.”
His 30-tackle game was no fluke or trick of the stat keeper. Check out his stats from the final six games last season:
As you can see, Payne’s NFL dream becomes more and more vivid every game. In fact, NFLDraftScout.com rates him the No. 16 strong safety prospect in the 2017 draft. One has to think that rating could improve drastically if he plays two more seasons like he did as a sophomore. Especially if he can nab some awards like the Buck Buchanan Trophy—given to the FCS’ best defensive player–which he was a finalist for last season.
“If that ever happens, it would be a dream come true,” Payne said. “I remember coming from high school, my goal was just to get to a good college and make an impact by the time I was a junior, and make all-conference before I was done. But I made all-conference as a freshman so I’ve made other goals since then.”
If he does make it to the league, he’ll follow in the footsteps of his uncle Ezra Johnson–a first round pick out of Morris Brown who went on to play 15 years in the league.
“I know my defensive coordinator (Brian Young) has talked to me about me having a great chance to be the first one from Stetson to go to the NFL, but that it’s not going to be easy because I’m coming from a small school. Coach Hughes and Coach Young have harped on me that they want the best for me, and they believe I can make an NFL roster. They’ve told me that I want to be able to jump off the page with my playmaking stats.”
There’s another thing Payne will do this year—he’ll be on every possible snap with the kickoff and punt teams, to show NFL scouts he can make the tackle in the open field and that he has a knack for finding the ball during the tornadic experience otherwise known as special teams. That could help him hang on at the pro level until he has anchored himself on the depth chart as a safety.
All in all, the kid who wondered if he’d done the right thing by choosing Stetson in 2012 is now sitting amongst a college family doing everything in its power to help him ascend even higher than he already has.
“When I first was going through recruiting, I had friends going to Auburn, and I had like just a few FCS offers,” Payne said. “And I remember thinking ‘Stetson, who are they? I’m not trying to go there. I feel like I’m at a better level than that.’ But when it came down to the wire it was the right choice.
“I chose Stetson and it was the best decision I ever made in my life.”
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