Practice was over. So was study hall. For the Southern University football team, there were no more meetings, no more classes, nothing left to do until sunrise, which was sure to bring more of the same.
But the day wasn’t over for senior linebacker Jamie Payton. And it wasn’t over for the teammates he inspires.
About 10 p.m. Tuesday, he and a half-dozen defensive players hauled some video equipment and some DVDs to a darkened room in the empty third floor of the A.W. Mumford Field House. Together, without the coaching staff, they watched more video of their next opponent, Florida A&M.
For Jamie Payton, this is the rule, not the exception.
“He’ll come get me out of my room,” said sophomore linebacker Franchot West. “He’ll be like, ‘Hey, Franchot, we’ve got to go watch film. We’ve got to go lift and run.’ And that’s on a day like Sunday. I mean, we just had a game the day before.
“But we end up getting better because of that. Jamie Payton has really showed me how a college linebacker is supposed to be.”
At 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Payton and the Jaguars (1-2) face rival Florida A&M (1-2) in the Atlanta Football Classic at the Georgia Dome.
Almost everyone — coaches, players, fans — are frustrated and heartbroken over Southern’s latest loss. Last week, the team blew a host of opportunities and allowed Jackson State to rally for a 28-24 win. That game could’ve meant so much.
Payton certainly did his part. He had 11 tackles, two quarterback hurries, one interception and two fumble recoveries. He had quite a game.
He wished he could’ve done more.
“We’re still hurt by the loss, but now we’ve got to get over it,” he said. “We’ve got the next most important game of our life, against FAMU this weekend in Atlanta. We’ll have a lot of people there. The crowd is going to be energized. It’ll be a great atmosphere. So it’s another great opportunity.”
Funny he should say that. Payton knows a little about opportunity.
Raised in a singe-parent household with two sisters and a younger cousin, Jamie Payton realized early he had a talent — not only for football, but for things like diligence and perseverance. As an eighth-grader at Gonzales Middle School, he fractured his kneecap while playing football, underwent surgery, rehabbed for six months and was back in business by his freshman season at Dutchtown High School.
His mother, Evelyn, is a janitor there. Her office just so happens to sit across from that of the football coach, Benny Saia.
This week, while recalling Payton’s four-year stay there, Saia beamed.
“A coach on the field, a guy that studied the game above and beyond what you ask him to do,” he said. “I’d take 12 or 13 guys like him every year. No telling what we could do.”
At Dutchtown, Payton was the beating heart of the defense, a permanent team captain. With the guidance of defensive coordinator Chris Daigle, he started to learn the importance of homework, as it applied to football.
He learned that sometimes, plays are won before the snap, and games are won long before kickoff.
“You’ve got to know everything your opponent likes to do and the situation he wants to do it in,” he said. “Down-and-distance. Formations. All that stuff. If you study it, you’ll see it all.”
At the time, the Griffins had plenty of talent — guys like Eddie Lacy and Ryan Lewis and Eric Reid and others. What the young program didn’t have was a signature win.
During Payton’s senior year, in the 2007 Class 5A playoffs, they got it.
The week before their regional-round game against fourth-ranked Catholic High, Payton hung a stuffed bear around his neck, complete with black-and-orange enemy colors, just to remind himself of the big showdown that lay ahead.
That Friday night, the Dutchtown defense led the way in a 9-0 shutout. Payton led the way with 15 tackles.
“There is no way you can convince me that Southeastern, Nicholls, McNeese, Southern — all those schools found 30 kids that were better than him,” Saia said. “I was so disappointed that he had to go out of state to play.”
But he did.
Recruited by only a handful of programs, Payton was set to sign with Harding University, a Division II school in Searcy, Ark., until the night before national signing day. Harding called with regrets, saying it had to withdraw its scholarship offer.
Scrambling for a place to play, Payton eventually found Lambuth, an NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn., that offered a full ride and a big change.
The folks there had different accents, and, to some degree, a different way of life.
“The food, man. No Blue Runner beans. All barbecue,” he said, smiling. “But they taught me how to make it on my own, being so far away from home. We were a little, small private school. Not a lot of people. But we were family.”
Their ride together lasted three seasons — until this spring, when the university, without enough money to stay afloat, closed down after 168 years.
At it happened, Lambuth assistant Jorge Baez had gotten a new job coaching receivers at Southern. He saw how Payton knocked on teammates’ doors, thumbed through playbooks with them, convinced them to hit the weights one more time.
When Baez moved to Baton Rouge, he started selling his new boss, Stump Mitchell, on Payton. It didn’t hurt that SU needed linebackers, or that Payton was a local guy.
And sure, as a senior, he’d only have one season to play at SU. But Baez said he would’ve taken Payton regardless of circumstance, if only because of his effect on teammates.
Mitchell turned on the video, watched a few plays and thought to himself: This kid can play.
Then he brought Payton to campus, and his astonishment grew. Mitchell learned what Saia, Baez and a host of others already knew: This kid is a natural-born leader.
“Jamie is fantastic for us,” Mitchell said. “I love him. He’s a coach-player. He gets guys to do things that they wouldn’t necessarily want to do. ... We’re asking them as coaches, but really, the team belongs to the players. They have to buy in and do the right thing, and he gets them to do that. It’s a pleasure to have Jamie Payton on our team.”