Even after a stellar football career at Dutchtown High School, linebacker Jamie Payton still had to prove himself.
He had no Division I scholarship offers.
In fact, he barely had any offers.
With few options, he headed to Jackson, Tenn., to play NAIA football at Lambuth University. Payton had to prove himself, and he did, to the tune of 226 tackles, 12 sacks and four interceptions from 2008-10.
So this summer, when Lambuth closed down — not the football program, the entire university — Payton transferred to Southern, close to home, for his final college season.
“Going into camp, I met a lot of new faces,” he said Tuesday. “I had to prove myself, just like every other new player.”
Prove himself, Payton did.
He was the only Southern player to make the All-Southwestern Athletic Conference first team.
The All-SWAC team was announced Tuesday by the league, four days before the championship game between Grambling and Alabama A&M in Birmingham, Ala.
SU wide receiver LaQuinton Evans, tight end Mike Berry and cornerback Virgil Williams earned spots on the All-SWAC second team.
Alabama A&M led all schools with six first-team selections. Grambling had four first-teamers.
So did Jackson State, whose quarterback, Casey Therriault, was named offensive player of the year after he threw for 3,808 yards and 27 touchdowns with 15 interceptions.
Payton finished with 93 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble and three fumble recoveries.
He finished second in the SWAC in tackles per game (10.3) despite missing two games late in the season.
The SWAC suspended Payton for his role in the Jaguars’ postgame fight Oct. 15 at Arkansas-Pine Bluff (he was one of 40 players suspended, 25 from UAPB and 15 from Southern).
The only player who made more tackles per game than Payton was Grambling linebacker Cliff Exama. He averaged 11.7 tackles per game and had 129 tackles overall, along with three sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one safety.
Tuesday, Exama was named co-defensive player of the year, sharing the award with Prairie View defensive end Adrian Hamilton, who finished with a league-high 19.5 sacks.
“I heard about (the award) from my position coach, Andre Robinson,” Exama said. “I went on the Internet to kind of double-check it. ... I believed it, but when you find out something, you want to see it. And you want to know who else made the team and who you’re sharing it with.”
Exama, now a three-time first-team All-SWAC selection, had hoped last year to be voted defensive player of the year — but he injured a knee ligament late in the season and missed the Bayou Classic.
He said winning the award “made me feel like I accomplished a lot at Grambling. It’s a lot of great players that played at linebacker here.
“At Grambling, it’s a competition. So this is something I wanted, and I’m definitely proud of it.”
Payton, for his part, said that before this season began, he wrote down a list of goals. One of them: to make an All-America team.
“But it’s always an honor when you make all-conference,” said Payton, who did so as a sophomore at Lambuth. “If I could go back and do it all again, I would. I wouldn’t change anything. ...
“We started off kind of rough, losing up at Tennessee State. But as the season went on, we got better. It might not have shown in our record, but I thought we became a better football team as the year went on.”
Asked about his most heartbreaking game, Payton said it was Sept. 17, when a near-sellout crowd watched the Jaguars lose a fourth-quarter lead to Therriault, who led JSU to a game-winning touchdown pass in as the Tigers prevailed, 28-24.
Incidentally, that game might have included Payton’s best individual performance. He filled up the stat sheet with 11 tackles, two fumble recoveries, one interception, one sack and two hurries.
He was also named team MVP in the Bayou Classic. Payton made 15 tackles in that game, but Grambling blew away Southern 36-12 in an anticlimactic season finale.
Was it a good year, then, for Payton? A tough year? A strange year?
“All of the above,” he said.