D’Andre Payne didn’t hesitate to celebrate.
Payne, Iowa State’s 5-foot-10, 190-pound defensive back, entered last Saturday’s game against Iowa on the sixth play of the Hawkeyes’ first drive. Payne, a redshirt sophmore, didn’t feel rattled, even though it was his first time on the field since 2014.
Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard dropped back into the pocket on a 3rd and 4 pass play and snapped his head to the left side of the field. He threw a bullet to star receiver Matt VandeBerg, who appeared open after a quick curl route.
But there was Payne, who jumped into the frame with the quickness reminiscent of his time as a 12-year-old track star, with an impressive breakup and a little shimmy afterward.
“I can’t really explain that type of feeling,” Payne said. “It was just something that I had always dreamed of, playing on that stage in a big rivalry game.”
But the road to that play and what he describes as his “first official game” in college was filled with potholes and obstacles.
From the outset, Payne seemed destined for big-time football at a young age. After joining the varsity football team at H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, D.C., as a freshman, Payne quickly ascended national recruiting boards. A few years later, Payne turned into a consensus top-25 cornerback in the nation and the No. 2 2014 recruit in Washington, D.C.
Naturally, colleges flocked to the Eastern Seaboard to vie for Payne. He still remembers his first collegiate offer — a letter from Texas Tech in his sophomore year of high school after a coach watched him participate in simple footwork drills.
Payne sure didn’t mind the attention. He immersed himself in the recruiting landscape, taking unofficial visits to colleges throughout the eastern and southeastern parts of the country.
“[Recruiting] was so fascinating with the whole process,” Payne said. “Just by being young and not really knowing what to expect out of that. But yeah, I was just enjoying that.”
Amid getting looks from Florida State, Auburn and Clemson, Payne received a letter from Tennessee in the spring before his senior year of high school. Payne took an unofficial visit to Knoxville. He was hooked.
Payne didn’t commit right away, traveling to a few other schools, including Vanderbilt, but he made it official in early April 2013.
“I told my dad: I don’t want to take anymore visits. [Tennessee] is where I want to go,” Payne said.
Payne quickly realized what going to Tennessee entailed. He graduated high school a semester early and enrolled at Tennessee for the 2014 spring semester. But being away from home took a toll early on.
During spring camp, Payne said he added more than 20 pounds of weight — going from about 165 pounds to 188 pounds — and wasn’t performing up to his standards.
“Once I got there, reality hit,” Payne said. “I was really on my own. ... It was a lot that hit me in the face.”
Despite his personal disappointments on the field, Payne ascended the ladder to make an appearance on the Volunteers’ two-deep depth chart.
He managed to right the ship in the fall before the 2014 season and even played sparingly in eight games as a freshman, registering four tackles.
But it wouldn’t last long. Family issues forced Payne to move closer to home, where he enrolled at Maryland for the 2015 spring semester. Because of NCAA transfer rules, though, Payne would have to sit out the entire 2015 season. He decided that wasn’t what he wanted, at least not with the Terps.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he says now. “And I didn’t even really want to be home anymore, really.”
His next journey took him to Arizona Western Community College in Yuma, Arizona, a sweltering-hot, sand-isolated city about 15 miles away from the Mexican border.
Payne used his redshirt and sat out the season, making the lonely place all the more difficult. After all, it was his third college in less than two years and it was in the middle of nowhere.
He sometimes called his dad, who Payne said was a rock throughout the tumultuous times, with tears streaming down his cheeks.
“He was always there every day, helping me stay motivated,” Payne said. “He had to sacrifice a lot of things for me to get to this point, so I’m really grateful for that.”
Payne first started talking to Iowa State coach Matt Campbell and his staff when D.K. McDonald made contact while the staff was still at Toledo. After his first conversation with Campbell, Payne knew this was the leader he wanted to play under.
“Anywhere he went, I would’ve gone,” Payne said. “Even if he stayed at Toledo, I still would’ve went and played for him.”
During Payne’s recruitment, Campbell took the head coaching job at Iowa State in late November 2015. Payne made true to his promise, becoming part of Campbell’s first signing class on mid-year signing day in December.
Payne’s name swarmed conversations about Iowa State’s defense. He had an inside track at a starting job throughout spring camp and entered fall camp listed No. 1 at the star position.
“He can cover and run guys downfield,” said defensive coordinator Jon Heacock. “He can play any of the five positions that we have in the back-end and those are the types of guys that we’ll continue to look for.”
But falling in line with the rest of Payne’s narrative, he still faced adversity heading into the 2016 season. In a fall camp practice, Payne hurt his left knee through a “freak accident” during a contact play. Although the injury was relatively minor, Payne said the team decided to sit him out for the season opener against Northern Iowa.
Payne was cleared to play for the Cy-Hawk game. He didn’t start and registered one tackle. Although his impact has been minor so far, the Iowa State coaching staff said he will continue to improve when his injured knee is 100 percent.
“He’s been getting back healthier,” Heacock said. “I think it was a great growing experience for him, with the idea that he’s coming back off an injury. I was really pleased with him. He was not at his best, but I believe he’ll get better as the season goes on.”
Looking back on his journey now, Payne only regrets rushing into his recruitment. He doesn’t regret burning through a year of eligibility through three different schools.
It has been a winding journey to Ames, but he has picked up something on each stop along the way.
“It was about all different types of aspects — some of them were off the field and some were on the field,” Payne said.
“It’s just a thing that you’ve got to keep moving and it’s going to be greener on the other side.”