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Payne a late bloomer with Cavaliers
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.”
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.”
He carried 16 times for 114 yards and four touchdowns against Richmond. Payne credits his line for his success; his coaches say it’s more than that.
“An arm tackle’s not bringing him down. It doesn’t matter who tries,” Faragalli said. “They’re going to have to get two and three people on him to get him down, and that’s a great thing, especially when you’re as determined and play with the passion that Keith does.”
His five TDs rank second in the Atlantic Coast Conference to the six scored by Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt.
Payne said the season away from football made him appreciate the game more. His high school coach, Joe Thompson, drove home how much Payne would miss football when his former star told him he’d decided to quit.
“He wanted his future to be in football, so I asked him how his future was going to be in football if he wasn’t playing football,” Thompson said. He said Payne played defense for the only times in his career in the state tournament, and was integral in shutting down Evan Royster, now at Penn State, and Percy Harvin, now with the Minnesota Vikings, in victories.
“I think (quitting) was just the result of four years of frustration,” Thompson said.
Payne’s parents let him make the decision, but weren’t exactly thrilled.
“That’s what he dreamed of, playing football in the NFL,” Payne’s mother, Kim, said. “That’s been his dream, and when it happened, it was hard for me at first, but that was his decision. And I told him, ‘You can still have that dream, if you get another chance.’”
She was there, with her husband, Keith Sr., when that chance came against Richmond.
“It was nice to see that again,” Keith Sr. said. “It reminded me of his old self.”
“I’m trying to pay them back for putting them through all the stress that they’ve been through,” he said. “And coach London. He trusted me from the beginning, even when I was going through all the problems I was having, but he never looked down on me. I’m kind of playing for all the people that actually believed in me, instead of for the ones that didn’t.”
In the process, he’s become the Payne Train again.
By Tom Fitton
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