It’s been four years since Gainesville High won its first Georgia High School Association state championship. Western Carolina University defensive back Fred Payne, a senior for the Red Elephants in 2012, is still fighting the same battle he fought just a few short years ago.
“We were the first in history to bring (the championship) back,” Payne said. “That’s what we’re trying to do on this level.”
The Catamounts have been members of the Southern Conference in football since 1976, but have never produced a league championship.
After coming off a junior season where he recorded 75 total tackles, which included five tackles for a loss — one of which a sack (the first of his career) against Texas A&M, Payne said he’s OK with the pressure to bring back the school’s first SoCon title.
The former Red Elephant will also be under the pressure of being named to the preseason All-Conference Second Team defense with fellow WCU senior defensive back Trey Morgan.
The fact he was named to second team and not the first team is a motivating factor for Payne as he heads into his senior year.
“It gives me motivation. It shows we’ve got something to prove,” Payne said. “You can’t be satisfied with what the preseason proves. It looks good on paper, but it shows me what they think of me compared to another guy at the same position.”
Payne has been building a solid resumè to this point.
He’s played in every game since stepping foot on campus, including starting every game in his sophomore and junior seasons. That early and often exposure to the speed of the collegiate game has been beneficial to Payne.
Still, the conversion to Western Carolina wasn’t completely easy.
During his freshman season, Payne was somewhat humbled by the results of games. Those same results became fuel for his desire to turn things around.
“I lost eight games my entire career at Gainesville and my freshman year here we lost 10 games,” Payne said. “I learned what it was like to be on the other side of the sidelines. I pushed everybody harder and harder. We’ve gotten better and better every year, but we’re still not satisfied.”
After a 2-10 season and finishing seventh in the conference his freshman season, the Catamounts jumped to third his sophomore year with a 7-5 overall record and a 5-2 mark in league play. His junior year, the Catamounts had an identical 5-2 conference mark and third-place finish. The Catamounts were 7-4 in Payne’s third year.
Western Carolina has only finished better than third in the conference standings three times (1983-84, 86), when it finished second.
Payne got off to a hot start in his college career with his first tackle coming against Middle Tennessee State in the 2013 season opener. In his seventh game, Payne recorded his first career interception as he picked off Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
He also tallied a fumble recovery in the contest.
“Going into that game Coach Speir asked me if I was nervous, but I told him I’d played in big games already in my career,” Payne said. “He told me I was a young guy so they would come at me early.”
Payne didn’t start the Auburn game, but it was his first play on the field that he picked off Johnson.
Payne said he feels as though “the bigger the stage, the bigger I have to perform.”
He did just that during his junior year as the Catamounts converged on College Station, Texas to play the Aggies. Payne walked away from the contest with 10 tackles and his first career sack. Despite setting a career-high in tackles with 15 against Virginia Military Institute, Payne still refers to Texas A&M as his best game so far.
Payne said teams have began going away from his side of the field when Western Carolina is on defense.
“I try to stay consistent for the most part,” Payne said. “A lot of teams go away from me because they know the athlete I am. I can play corner, safety, linebacker and nickel. I think that shows my athleticism and my football IQ.”
After posting his 75-tackle season, Payne said he can still improve.
“I feel like I left some plays out there last year,” Payne said. “This year, I want to increase that 75 to 100. I may have had a few missed tackles get away from me. I want to be more efficient. I want to make plays and help my teammates get in better position as well.”
Payne said this year is going to be an exciting year for football fans to pay attention to the SoCon.
“We’re going to turn a lot of heads to this conference,” he said. “It’s one of the best conferences in the FCS. I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”
Payne said his team is going to have to be “mentally sharp” this season if it wants to make that elusive championship run.
“Physically we put it all out there last year, but mentally we had a few breakdowns,” Payne said. “We were an emotional team last year. When things were going good, we played well. When they were going bad, we played to our emotions. We need to be mentally sharp, play physical football and be a bend-don’t-break team.”
After the season, Payne will graduate early with a degree in finance in December. He made the SoCon Honor Roll as a freshman and a sophomore, and made the 2014 Fall Academic All-Southern Conference team.
Regardless of all his successes at the collegiate level, Payne still finds a way to campaign for his best friend, former Red Elephant teammate and current Clemson quarterback: “Last thing I’ll say is ‘Deshaun for Heisman.’”