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Eager to bring back prestige of Gainesville High football, legendary former defensive back Fred Payne excited about joining its coaching staff
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Gainesville’s Fred Payne (20) pulls a group of Clarke Central defenders behind him during a 2011 game at City Park Stadium. - photo by J. Bryan Stiles

Fred Payne needs no introduction as the newest member of the Gainesville High football coaching staff.

Among a hand-picked group of highly-qualified men from different backgrounds who are working with first-year Red Elephants head coach Josh Niblett, Payne stands out for many reasons.

He’s a local legend and has an unwavering support for the Red Elephants.

“There’s no place like home,” Payne said. “Gainesville’s got one of the best programs in the country. I want to do my part to help the program get back to that level of success.”

A prolific defender during his four-year career at Gainesville from 2009-2012, Payne was a catalyst to its program winning the Class 5A state title his senior season.

Now, 27, Payne will be one of the men shaping the direction of the program as it transitions to the leadership of Niblett, who won six state championships at the highest classification in Alabama with Hoover High.

Payne will work as an assistant defensive backs coach, Niblett said, as well as facilitating positive relationships between the Gainesville football program and the community.

In addition to new leadership, the Red Elephants will have top-notch, on-campus facilities open in time for the 2022 season.

“I’m excited for all the players of the players at Gainesville to have all the resources on and off the field they will need to be successful,” Payne said.

Paynes’s personable demeanor and steady leadership qualities will be an excellent fit for Gainesville’s coaching staff, said his high school coach Bruce Miller.

Playing along with his closest friend Deshaun Watson, Payne was never overlooked for his talents.

His high school career ended with 360 total tackles and 14 interceptions for the Red Elephants, along with being All-State as a senior in 2012.

Niblett has seen Payne’s passion for football in the short time they’ve known one another.

“Fred’s got an awesome heart,” Niblett said. “When a player, you usually coach the same way you played. He’ll bring that to the table for us in our program.”

Making the transition from player to coach, Payne’s ready to instill what he knows with a fresh crop of Red Elephants.

“I’ve been hoping Fred would get into coaching for a long time, maybe 3 or 4 years now,” Miller said. “He’s always enthusiastic and I think he’ll be great at coaching.”

After having an excellent playing career at Western Carolina University, Payne pursued the professional route, spending the 2019 season playing in Germany. 

He was drafted into the XFL by the Houston Roughnecks prior to the 2020 season, which was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, Payne is back home and eager for the next chapter of his life: if no other professional playing opportunities manifest.

Payne carries positive clout in the community, not only having grown up in the city, but always handling success in football with modesty.

Even since he was young, Payne has brought out the best in his teammates.

The new Gainesville High assistant football coach was molded by the influences he was around at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Lanier, in Gainesville, as well as being a major part of some Gainesville High programs with elite talent.

In addition to winning a state championship, Payne started as a freshman for Gainesville’s 2009 squad that played for the Class 3A state championship against Peach County in Atlanta.

With years of tireless work, Payne refined his skill on the football field and became a Division-I college prospect for the Red Elephants.

Miller still remembers that sunny, but cold day in 2012 when the Red Elephants were preparing to play for the state championship at the Georgia Dome.

All day during warmups at Georgia State, Miller said Payne had precise focus as it geared up for the biggest game of the season and final game of his high school career.

Payne went out and had his most memorable performance, too.

In a 49-13 win against Ware County, Payne was arguably Gainesville’s best on the field that night, even though Watson threw for 303 yards and scored five touchdowns.

Payne had a fumble return for a touchdown in the state championship game, along with an interception that he returned 67 yards down to the Gators’ 2-yard line.

“Fred was all over the place making plays that night,” Miller said.

Niblett was formerly acquainted to Payne when the new head coach was introduced to the community on Dec. 13 in the school’s cafeteria.

Payne showed up wearing his letter jacket and state championship ring.

After Niblett’s rousing introductory address, Payne stuck around after it was over to shake hands and exchange pleasantries with the Red Elephants’ new leader for the football program.

Immediately, Payne made a good impression, Niblett said.

Like all of Niblett’s coaching staff members, Payne will be utilized to help mold the program in various aspects of life away from the field.

“Coaching is all about chemistry and relationships,” Payne said. “I want to take the time to get to know them and see the younger guys fulfill their dreams.”

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