It hasn’t been your traditional journey through the ranks of football for Jake Payne, but his is a story of perseverance and love for football. From humble beginnings playing at Division III Shenandoah to now making plays on a national stage for the St. Louis BattleHawks of the new XFL.
I got the opportunity to speak with “The Payne Train” this last week before his match-up against the New York Guardians, a game which will be featured on national television…something new to Payne and plenty of XFL players.
A standout in college playing at DIII Shenandoah University, Payne certainly racked up the accolades. He was a team co-captain and first-team Old Dominion Athletic Conference his final two years, led the ODAC in sacks as a senior as well as winning the Lou Wacker Defensive Player of the Year. With such an impressive collegiate career, I asked if professional football was something Payne always wanted and envisioned for himself.
Payne said his sophomore year him and a friend were watching the NFL combine and said to his friend “Dude, I think we can do that! You know we were actually thinking we can play at the next level. That was the first time I really thought about it.”
Payne went on to say that the first time Draft Diamonds did a profile on him his junior season gave him more aspirations of professional football, garnering enough attention to have the Redskins come in for a junior day. That’s when Payne knew he was on the radar, “After that I was like yeah, let’s do this, see where I can really take this.”
After his tenure at Shenandoah, Payne caught the eye of several teams attending both the New York Jets’ rookie mini-camp and the Philadelphia Eagles’ mini-camps. Unfortunately, he didn’t stick on a roster but knew he had the talent, and the drive, to play professional football.
In December 2016 those dreams seemed to come to fruition in the form of a non-guaranteed 2 year contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. Montreal had gotten Payne’s film from Bill Dekraker of the Jets, who was impressed by Payne in camp. This came on the heels of accepting an offer from the Washington Valor of the Arena Football League just an hour prior, which Payne turned down for the chance to play in Montreal.
Payne explained, “I had called the D-Line coach for the Valor, as they had offered me back in November, then an hour later Montreal called and offered me a contract. So I called the Valor back and said hey I know I signed with you guys an hour ago but I’m going to play up in Montreal.” He said the D-Line coach for the Valor understood completely as the CFL was a better chance to really get film out there but told Payne “Look, if anything happens with them, give me a call right away.”
Unfortunately for Payne, things did not go his way and 2 weeks before the Alouettes rookie mini-camp was to begin, the GM for Montreal called him and informed him they were letting him go to bring in someone else. But he that wouldn’t deter him and he knew he has a backup plan. “So the second I got off the phone with the Montreal GM, I called the D-Line Coach for the Valor and they had me up there in a hotel that night and the next day I was practicing for the team.”
That next day of practice was actually the last day of preseason camp for Washington so they wanted to get him as many looks as possible and see if he was football ready. “I did probably 20 1-on-1’s back to back without much rest because I think they wanted to see my motor but also see what I could really do.” Payne impressed enough to have the team tell him they would keep him around.
Over the next 2 years Payne would prove himself to be a force on the defensive line bringing the team a player who can both rush the passer and be an impact in the run game. Payne enjoyed success in the AFL, winning the 2018 AFL championship game with the Valor. When I asked how it felt to win a championship, his answer was simple, “Yeah, it was awesome!”
In 2019, another stepping stone in his journey to the NFL would present itself as he was selected in the Alliance of American Football’s player allocation process by the Birmingham Iron. After that all Jake had to do was impress the team enough to earn a contract. He did, signing as a defensive end as part of the team’s first group of signings.
On the AAF’s Birmingham Iron, Payne had a chance to be around and play with some big name NFL veterans like Trent Richardson, Nick Novak and Quinton Patton.
When I asked how it was playing with NFL experienced players and what he gained from that, he said “We would all talk but I more liked talking to the O-Line. You know we had a guy Kitt O’Brien, he played 4 years in the NFL prior to the AAF and I would go against him every day and we had some really good battles…you know being able to compete with him and winning against him at times would be a big confidence boost for me, because I was like damn he actually played in the NFL.”
The AAF, although collapsing mid-pseason, gave plenty of players the film they needed to get in front of the NFL’s eyes. Even with the season folding before completion, Payne and the Iron were having a playoff bound season and able to accumulate some of the necessary film to get to the next level. Payne showed off his ability to be able to play the 3-4 DE in the Iron’s defense, having a good season in limited time, but once again proving he can play at a high level.
Although the AAF met an early demise, a new opportunity presented itself in the form of the revived XFL. The XFL had a 5 phase draft, where the fifth phase was a 30-round open portion of the draft in which the remaining players of the 1,000 player draft pool could be selected in any order. It was in this fifth round that Jake Payne was selected by the St. Louis BattleHawks.
From there Payne worked his way past the 71 player preseason roster and was ultimately selected to the final roster of 52 players, proving his skills and that he belongs on a professional football roster.
In St. Louis, Payne gets the opportunity the play under an NFL savvy coach in Jaye Hayes. Hayes is serving as both the defensive coordinator and defensive line coach for the BattleHawks after serving in the NFL 19 years with Tampa Bay, Green Bay and 13 of those years with Cincinnati where he coached players like Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. Hayes was brought in by his brother, Jonathan Hayes, who is the head coach and general manager of St. Louis.
I asked Jake how it feels to be playing for such an experienced coach who certainly has a focus on the defensive line. “Yeah, it’s just awesome…he’s got a ton of NFL experience and it’s really awesome because I’m just trying to learn as much as I possibly can from him.”
When asked of his role on the defensive line is Hayes’ scheme (Since Payne has played everything from traditional DE to more of an interior lineman in a 3-4) he said, “Its’ pretty much the same as in Birmingham, a 3-4 but in certain packages, like nickel, I go down to defensive end.” Payne has the versatility needed to be a movable piece on the defensive line, being able to get to the quarterback as well as stuff the run successfully.
In Week 1 of the XFL season Payne’s St. Louis BattleHawks took on the Dallas Renegades to kick off the inaugural season in a game broadcast on national television, something new to Payne. In his return to live football action, Jake Payne racked up 3 tackles including a huge sack on Dallas’ Phillip Nelson showing the world he’s here to play.
I asked Jake following that match-up how it feels just to be back playing football, let alone knowing your game will be on national television. “It feels good man, just getting back out on the field.” Of course in true “football guy” fashion, he says it’s just good to be out there getting pads on pads again, “In the second or third quarter I had just a tackle on the RB. That was the first tackle I’ve had since the AAF…I was like man it felt good.”
After talking with him, I can confidently say Payne loves football and he will do whatever it takes to make it to the NFL. A humble guy with a work ethic like no other, I know Payne won’t quit on his goal. When asked what keeps him coming back? “I set out a goal to become the best football player I could be and I just wanted to see how far I could take it.”
When it comes time for the NFL to begin bringing in players after this XFL season, I fully expect Payne to get a call and be in an NFL camp at this pace. A true “football guy” who’s had one heck of a journey, I think rooting for Jake Payne to get to the NFL is something we can all get behind.
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