Stunned beyond belief.
That’s how the Southern football coaches felt.
It was Friday night, some eight days before the Jaguars’ season opener Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., against Tennessee State.
The campus had emptied out. Most students were headed home, fast asleep or out on the town.
At 10 p.m., SU coaches were milling about the A.W. Mumford Field House, preparing for a scrimmage. There, they stumbled upon Jamie Payton and 10 of his fellow linebackers, who’d stayed late to watch more film.
“Unbelievable,” defensive coordinator O’Neill Gilbert said. “Friday night, after a hard practice, most guys want to go eat pizza and do whatever college kids do. Friday night, they were up here with Jamie Payton.”
If you believe Stump Mitchell, that kind of player-driven authority was missing from last year’s team, which infamously posted the worst record in school history.
“There’s just no substitute for leadership. None whatsoever,” Mitchell said. “But I was pleased with the way Jamie (has) helped bring the guys together.”
Payton, a Dutchtown High graduate, spent three years at Lambuth University, where he excelled as a linebacker and team leader.
When the university closed this summer, the receivers coach, Jorge Baez - freshly hired at Southern - all but begged his new boss to find a place for Payton.
Baez spoke of Payton’s football skills, sure. But he spoke more of his leadership. At Lambuth, he said, Payton took it on himself to wake up teammates, to demand that they sneak in an extra weightlifting session.
Why would a young man do all this? It’s very simple, he said. He wants to excel.
“My mama always used to tell me, ?There’s always somebody better than you. There’s always somebody working harder than you,’ “ Payton recalled. “So anytime I get a chance to put in work, I’m going to put in work and try to get better.”
It’s not a one-time thing, either. It’s not for show.
You might have heard that times are tough at Southern.
The Jaguars are desperate to prove they’re not a 2-9 team anymore, but they’re also hamstrung. Among other things, the team isn’t allowed to practice on Mondays this season, thanks to an NCAA penalty relating to the team’s substandard Academic Progress Rate.
But Monday afternoon, Payton rounded up his defensive teammates anyway.
That morning, they lifted weights. That afternoon, they returned to an empty practice field, where they ran through coverage drills and pounded tackling dummies, with no coaches in sight.
“They took Sunday and Monday from us,” Payton said. “But we, as players, don’t take those days off.”
Southern’s defense has been a weakness in recent years, not a strength. Missed tackles have haunted the team.
Payton can help with that. But he could also give the Jaguars the kind of leadership they’ve been missing.
Their season begins Saturday, and they’re about to learn how much of a difference Jamie Payton can make.