“If you would have told me six months ago that I’d be getting ready to play in a playoff game as a special teams player, and playing well, I would’ve thought you were joking,” Payne said.
JACKSONVILLE — Nestled inside his locker in the bowels of EverBank Field — the home of the division champion Jacksonville Jaguars — ex-Stetson star Donald Payne has an earbud in one ear, his phone in his hand and a grin on his face.
The former Pioneer League legend, just one year removed from a third straight Defensive Player of the Year award, is trading jokes with 2016 second-round pick Myles Jack, who sits just one locker over.
“I didn’t know a lot of this stuff coming in, I was a safety (at Stetson),” Payne said of his transition from small school safety to NFL linebacker. “I didn’t know anything about a 3-technique or a 5-technique, things like that.”
Jack, who Payne has grown close to since joining the Jags in September, was quick to interject.
“Yeah, you were just ‘see ball, get ball,’ ” he laughed.
Payne replied: “Yeah, that was me,” he said. “I’ve had to learn a few things.”
Payne may have graduated from Stetson with a 3.6 GPA last spring, but, like any rookie in the NFL, his first year in the NFL has been like going back to school. The 5-foot-11, 228-pounder had to learn a new position, put on 20 pounds, adjust to two new cities and make the most of limited opportunities, all in the past six months.
All of this while dealing with the uncertain future of an undrafted free agent.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Payne said. “If you would have told me six months ago that I’d be getting ready to play in a playoff game as a special teams player, and playing well, I would’ve thought you were joking.”
Things didn’t start well for Payne, who entered the 2017 NFL Draft with a sparkling college resume. He went undrafted despite a laundry list of accolades: three-time PFL Defensive Player of the Year, two-time FCS All-American, a staggering 538 tackles and an even more staggering 65.5 tackles for loss.
“I was kind of disheartened,” said Payne, who has with the third most tackles in Division I history (FBS/FCS). “I thought I had a pretty good resume. I had a draft party at my house, so it was unfortunate. I wasn’t that surprised, though. I remember at my Pro Day (in March) at Bethune-Cookman, I had scouts telling me I was great at Stetson, but they didn’t know if I could play with the big boys.”
Payne’s disappointment was short-lived. Just a few hours after the draft ended, the Baltimore Ravens signed the former Hatter to a UDFA (unrestricted free agent) contract, and told him they planned to move him from safety to linebacker, and try him out on special teams.
Luckily, Stetson head coach Roger Hughes saw this coming two years prior.
“I sat down with him between his junior and senior year, and I said, ‘Donald, if you’re going to make it in the league, if you really want to play in the NFL, you have got to do special teams,’ ” Hughes remembered. “It wasn’t a democracy and I wasn’t looking for his input. I was telling him this is what you need to do to play in the NFL, and I’m not going to let you fail. While he may have had some reservations about it, they fell on deaf ears. I really felt like that was his way into the league.”
Hughes was right, and Payne began to shine on yet another unit. The All-American blocked three kicks his senior season, including a blocked field goal in overtime against Campbell that resulted in the game-winning touchdown.
During Baltimore’s second preseason game against Miami, Payne made the first big play of his professional career, forcing a second-quarter fumble on a kick return. The Ravens would recover the loose ball and kick a field goal. Payne finished with three tackles and the turnover.
“That’s when I realized I could play in this league,” Payne said.
Two weeks later against New Orleans, Payne had his best game to date, leading the Ravens with 11 tackles in the preseason finale. Two days later, however, Payne was cut, and told he would be signed to the practice squad if he cleared waivers.
Luckily, the two-time All-American never made it that far. The following day, the Jaguars claimed Payne and signed him to their 53-man roster. One week later, he set yet another Hatters record during Jacksonville’s season-opener at Houston. He became the first player in program history to play in an NFL regular-season game.
“That call from Jacksonville changed it all for me,” said Payne, who recorded a special teams tackle during the 29-7 win. “It was a lifelong dream.”
The season-opener was just the beginning for Payne, who has since recorded a team-high 12 special teams tackles — which was also the 11th most in the league during the regular season. Three of those tackles came during Jacksonville’s 20-17 win over the Chargers on Nov. 12. After the game, head coach Doug Marrone awarded the former Stetson star the game ball.
“He’s done an unbelievable job,” said 33-year-old linebacker Paul Posluszny, a staple in the middle of Jacksonville’s defense since 2011. “He’s been so mature for a rookie and a great teammate. He’s got unbelievable athletic ability. The way he strikes people on special teams, how physical he is, it’s going to transfer to linebacker with no problem at all.”
While Payne would probably like to see that process happen a little quicker — he’s only had three plays at linebacker this season — the 23-year-old is perfectly content with his newfound role at the moment, especially with the Jags just one day away from hosting their first playoff game in nearly two decades.
However, don’t expect the undrafted free agent-turned-tackling machine from Stetson, who was cut just four months ago, to be too overwhelmed when he runs out of the tunnel Sunday afternoon. As Hughes said, the “Cinderella story” is just beginning.
“I didn’t take the typical route to get here,” Payne added, after a long pause. “It sounds crazy, even when I think about it. I came from a small private school in Georgia, wasn’t recruited high out of high school. Then I went to Stetson, a team that didn’t even have a program at the time. I did well there, but still had to fight and claw and do so many things just to be an undrafted free agent. To come from all of those things, to now getting ready to run out of that tunnel (Sunday), it’s a blessing.
“I’m not trying to prove the people who doubted me wrong. I’m trying to prove the people who believed in me — my coaches, my friends — I’m trying to prove them right. I do it for them.”