Clemson might have been surprised by The Catch, but not those who saw and coached Da’Ron Payne at Shades Valley High. They had an “Elephant Package” for their rising star.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Coach Bill Smith felt comfortable enough with a two-touchdown lead against Center Point to make the call.
“We said, ‘Let’s get him the ball,’” Smith recalled.
As head coach for the Shades Valley Mounties, Smith had installed a short-yardage formation — appropriately called the “Elephant package” — for situations inside the 5, and included were a couple of pass options for their 300-pound-plus defensive lineman-turned tight end, Da’Ron Payne.
Previously in the game, Payne had helped to stifle the Center Point offense, and Smith wanted to reward his best player with an offensive touchdown.
As Smith recalls, the Mounties ran the play to the short side of the field, and the quarterback had to release it quickly on a bootleg. Payne caught the ball and, in very similar fashion to the catch-heard-round-the-world against Clemson in Atlanta on Jan. 1, had to toe tap to keep his feet in bounds.
The result, however, was the same. The Man with the Gold Hands snagged the ball in the end zone, and was mobbed.
“He was more excited about catching that touchdown probably than having 7 sacks,” Smith said. “The team really celebrated. We were really happy for him.”
Fast-forward four years, to 2018. Smith is now the head coach at Munford High School in Talladega County, and his former player is a talented defensive tackle for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Over the years, Smith and Payne have maintained a close, family-like connection.
“Because of my love for this kid, I watch him on every play,” Smith said. “Normally I’m watching a QB, but I watch him at the start of every play. I see if 94 is on the field.”
For most of New Year’s Day 2018, coach Smith had been lounging in his recliner, soaking in a day of football. But when Payne intercepted a Kelly Bryant pass and, channeling Marcell Dareus, began rumbling toward the end zone, Smith burst out of the chair and began to celebrate.
“I used some 1979 Soul Train dance moves that had not been employed since 1979,” Smith said.
A few plays later, Smith witnessed the Alabama front crouch down at the 1 in a package similar to the one he’d employed in 2014, only this time Alabama lined up with more beef than a Western Sizzlin’. Payne, offering 308 pounds of brawn, squatted beside Quinnen Williams, who brought 285 bills of his own to the proceedings.
“And guess who has come into the game, the guy who just had the interception — 300-pound defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne,” Joe Tessitore, sounding eerily similar to former WWF legend, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, said portentously.
As Payne went in motion, side-straddle hopping to his right, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts received the snap and coach Smith leaned up in his chair. Hurts sold the play on a fake handoff to Damien Harris, who dove over the top of the goal line pile.
But then Hurts gracefully rolled out and looked for a heftier option. Payne negotiated his route and announcer Todd Blackledge, watching the play unfold, said, “They’re gon’ throw it to him!”
After Payne made his quicksilvery move, Hurts lobbed the pass to the corner of the end zone. Hauling it in with his big, spidery paws, Payne accentuated his grab with a nifty toe-tap, making sure his feet were in bounds. Then, lifting his arms for balance, Payne fell over the end zone line and into the cameramen. Collectively a broad smile emerged on the faces of Alabama nation as in one fail swoop, Payne cured the Tide’s offensive anemia.
“Oh my! Story-book it, for the Big Man!” Tessitore exclaimed.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 2, 2018
As Payne was besieged by his teammates, the camera panned to one of the Clemson faithful, who was distraught in his sad-fans-are-sad orange Fair Isle sweater.
Three-hundred-and-seventy miles away, Smith leapt out of his chair for the second time in as many possessions. But Smith assured that this celebration was more House of Pain (Payne?) than Kool & the Gang.
“My wife jumped up and down like two little kids,” he said. “I had kid-like joy when he caught that pass.”
After the game, Payne, alluding to the supple 2014 grab while he was at Shades Valley, admitted that this was not the first touchdown catch he’d made in his career. And in a moment, the aw-shucks, improbable receiver brought delight to the college football world in one simple statement.
“I’ve got gold hands,” he joked.
But don’t expect any fade routes for Payne on Monday night against Georgia. He’ll go back to his day job of taking a bite out of offenses as if they were cathead biscuits.
To be sure, this was his dream when he inked on the dotted line to play for Alabama.
But it all started in Irondale.
The Rise of Da’Ron Payne
Bill Smith took over the program at Shades Valley High in 2011. When he inventoried his players for the first time, he noticed a large, 255-pound slab of flesh on his 9th-grade squad who introduced himself as Da’Ron.
“He was already a big kid and stronger than any 9th-grader I’ve ever coached,” Smith said.
Smith knew Payne had the potential to be a college football player, but didn’t know how high his ceiling was at that time. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Payne grew two inches and tacked on 35 pounds. “He was about 6-2, 290 his 10th-grade year and he was already bench pressing 400 pounds,” Smith said. “He was a solid starter at defensive tackle.”
That year, Smith led Shades Valley to the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Though the Mounties were throttled by Hoover, 38-7, Payne had a great game and began to garner interest from several programs. The first person to inquire about the star defenseman was Mario Cristobal, a former recruiter for Alabama who is the current head coach at Oregon.
“In the offseason, Cristobal called me and started asking questions about him,” Smith said. “(Alabama) didn’t offer him on that phone call, but about a month later, he got his first offer — from Ole Miss.”
More offers soon followed. Alabama, South Carolina, Clemson.
“It just exploded,” Smith said.
Smith had no problem making the pitch for Payne. In many ways, he was a dream player. “His whole four years that I coached him, I don’t recall that he ever missed a workout,” Smith said. “He was never late for meetings or workouts. I never got one e-mail or phone call from another teacher, saying, ‘Can you help me with Da’Ron Payne he’s missing class, he’s tardy, he’s being disrespectful.’ He’s done things the right way.”
Describing his former player as “humble” and “respectful,” Smith says that fame hasn’t changed him, either. “He’s still the same,” Smith said. “Da’Ron makes it easy to root for him because of his humility. He’s never been a bully. He’s nice to people. He’s polite. He’s very shy.”
So shy, in fact, that Smith had to put one of his assistant coaches in charge of prepping him for college interviews. Every time the coach would see Da’Ron in the hallways or at the field house, he would stuff a pretend microphone in his face.
Tell me, Da’Ron Payne, how did practice go today? What’s going to be the secret of our success as a team?
And Payne would answer. Eventually the shyness began to wear off, and Payne grew comfortable with the mic.
Payne turned into a freak athlete, one whose natural skills and strength led Smith to conclude that all men are not created equal. Rated a 5-star recruit his junior year, Payne ballooned to 350 pounds his senior season and was angered when one of the combines dropped him to a 4-star. So when he attended a camp at Mississippi State, he had a chip on his shoulder.
“He weighed 352 and ran a 5-flat 40-yard dash,” Smith said.
But mostly, Payne attacked his recruitment with a rare humility and levelheadedness. He didn’t change his mind several times or engage in the oft-seen histrionics that accompany many of today’s recruits. And when coaches would call to set up on-campus visits, Smith would assure them: “I’m going to warn you — he’s a homebody. He’s not a partier.”
By December of his senior year, Payne had whittled his decision to Alabama and Auburn, but he kept his decision close to the vest. Even Smith didn’t know where he was going to end up. About one week before the Under Armour All-America game, Payne texted Smith and said, “Coach, can you buy me a Bear Bryant hat?”
“That’s pretty much how I knew he was going to commit to Alabama,” Smith said.
Starring for the Crimson Tide
When Payne arrived at Alabama in the fall of 2015, Smith followed the progress of his former player. “I texted (Cristobal) the first week of practice his freshman year when they report in,” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not going to hold you to this, but are y’all going to redshirt him? He texted back and said, ‘That dude’s got to get on the field!'”
Smith says that he’s not surprised at Payne’s success and that it has mirrored his expectations. “I expected him to have a great career at Alabama,” Smith said. “I know the intangibles were there and the work ethic was there. And if he decides to stay his senior year or if he decides to go in the NFL Draft, he’s going to be successful.”
Such is life for the 20-year old teddy bear of a man who’s reveling in the chance to jam a second ring on his finger come Monday night.
Smith will again be glued to his chair — that is, unless Payne scores another touchdown or intercepts a pass. In that case, he’ll break out some more moves.
“I’m working on my MC Hammer,” Smith said.