CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. | Keith Payne never imagined when he arrived at Virginia that it would take him five years to become part of the offense.
The Herndon native was, after all, the state Group AAA player of the year the previous season, had won a state championship and had dreams of winning the Heisman Trophy.
Instead of stardom, Payne was redshirted as a freshman and played sparingly the next two seasons. He finally gave up the game altogether last year when, at the end of preseason camp, then-coach Al Groh told him he wasn’t in the team’s plans at tailback.
Payne, nicknamed the ‘Payne Train’ in high school when fans chanted the moniker as he ran over and around defenders, still isn’t sure how his career got derailed.
“I guess it could have been me,” he said. “Immaturity, I guess. I honestly can’t sit here and say I know the reason why. I’d be told one thing, that I was playing great in practice and showing all the things he wanted to see, and then the game comes and you don’t play.”
That all changed last December when Groh was fired, and Mike London took over.
Payne went to see him, hoping to return to the team.
“He said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to give you anything. I would love to have you back, I would love to have you compete, but I’m not going to hand you anything,’” Payne recalled.
“I said, ‘All I want is a fair chance.’ I respect him so much because if he just listened to what everybody else had to say about me, he’d have probably thrown me under the bus.”
His return came with conditions, foremost among them that Payne stay at Virginia during winter break taking classes — at his parents’ expense — to demonstrate a renewed commitment to academics. Payne admitts he had let his grades slip after walking away from football.
“We kind of drew up a contract that had some of those stipulations in it,” London said.
Payne’s reward? A place on the team, starting with a role on special teams.
Then the games began, and Payne quickly earned a larger role.
At 6-foot-3 and about 255 pounds — “I think it’s still a secret,” running backs coach Mike Faragalli said — Payne was supposed to play in short yardage spots only, “but at some point, there comes a time when you see him carrying the pile, you just leave him in there.”