Last spring, former Gainesville High defensive back Fred Payne traveled to Europe with fellow Red Elephant alumnus and Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson in search of an adventure. What he found was a means to move his football career forward.
As the two passed through Berlin — expecting to find most sports fields occupied by soccer teams — they were surprised to happen upon a youth American football team in the middle of a practice.
“We went out and Deshaun talked to the kids and we threw the football around a little bit,” Payne said. “Some of the American coaches approached me and told me the GFL (German Football League) was one of the biggest up and coming leagues in the world, just behind the NFL and the CFL. They told me to check it out.”
One year later, Payne returned to Germany as a member of the GFL’s Ingolstadt Dukes.
“Just getting back on the field was the biggest thing for me,” he said of his decision to join the league. “Instead of holding out for maybe an offer from one of the leagues in America, I figured that I might as well go with the team that wanted me now, and if I show what I know I can do in my first season here, hopefully it opens up an opportunity to come back home to play.”
Playing overseas has caused Payne — who most recently played college football at Western Carolina — to go through a bit of an adjustment period. Though the rules in the GFL are the same ones he’s been used to playing by his entire life, the cultural differences between Germany and the United States have been striking.
Payne said he’s still struggling a bit with the language, but has definitely made improvements over the last three months. Getting used to the general way of life in Germany has been easier.
“Back home, everything happens fast paced,” he said. “Everything’s on a strict time schedule. Here, everything is a little bit slower. People spend more time just enjoying nature, and it’s more country style.”
And while Payne’s more local teammates teach him about German culture, he is teaching them more about football.
GFL rules restrict teams to having only two American players on the field at a time, so Payne is one of the few members of the Dukes who grew up with the sport.
“It’s really new to a lot of the guys here, so they’re open to learning from the Americans on the team,” he said. “It’s cool. Since they want to learn from us, it’s almost like being a player coach.”
That said, Payne’s first season in the league has not been a walk in the park.
With American players often setting the standard in the GFL, Payne said he always gets the best shots from his teammates when going up against them in practice. But for him, the friendly challenges are always welcome.
“We kind of have a target on our backs,” he said. “Since most of us have been playing this game since we were little kids, a lot of the other guys are trying to match up to our standard, and that pushes me harder and makes me better.”
Getting better is the name of the game for Payne as he continues to pursue his dream of one day playing in the NFL. Through his first six games in Ingolstadt, Payne has already forced four turnovers — two interceptions and two forced fumbles.
After grabbing a pick in each of the team’s first two contests, Payne hasn’t seen a target in coverage since. Following his one-year contract with the Dukes, Payne hopes his recently refurbished resume will be enough to earn him at least a tryout with a chance to join Watson in the NFL.
“I want to show coaches that I’m just a natural football player,” he said. “I can play any position in the secondary, special teams, even if you put me out there on offense I’ll make plays. This is just the next opportunity for me to show NFL coaches what I can do.”