After making brief stops in the Arena Football League and the Alliance of American Football, “The Payne Train” could next be destined for the XFL.
Former Shenandoah University defensive end Jake Payne, who was named the Old Dominion Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year following his senior season in 2015, was chosen in the fifth and final phase of the 2019 XFL Draft by the St. Louis BattleHawks last week.
The 70-round, 560-player draft held on Oct. 15 and 16 was the inaugural player-selection process for the rebooted, eight-team professional football league, which will return to competition in 2020 after a nearly 20-year absence.
For Payne, should he make the BattleHawks’ final roster, the XFL would be the third professional league he’s played for since graduating from SU in the spring of 2016.
“It’s just another step,” Payne said by phone on Tuesday morning. “I set a goal out like eight years ago as a sophomore in college that I wanted to play in the NFL, so it’s just another step to reach my end goal. It’s a great opportunity and I appreciate St. Louis for drafting me and giving me the chance to play. I’m excited to get back out there and dominate on the field.”
The XFL Draft featured five phases after each of the league’s eight teams was allocated a tier-one quarterback. Phases 1 through 4 each included 10 rounds and featured certain position groups: Phase 1 included offensive skill players (quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and tight ends), Phase 2 featured offensive linemen, Phase 3 included the defensive front seven (defensive linemen and linebackers) and Phase 4 featured defensive backs.
Phase 5, the 30-round “open” portion of the draft, included the remaining members of the 1,000-player draft pool to be selected in any order. It was in that phase that Payne, who said he earned a spot in the XFL draft pool because of his participation in the short-lived AAF earlier this year, had his name called.
Each XFL team has 71 players on its preseason roster, with mini camps starting on Dec. 3 and league-wide training camp taking place in January. Each team will have to cut its final roster down to 52 players at the end of training camp. The 10-week regular season begins on Feb. 8.
“I’m focusing on just winning,” Payne said of how he’ll approach the next month and a half before mini camp. “That’s really all. I just want to go in and win games and help the team win games.”
Payne, whose nickname — “The Payne Train” — would’ve fit in quite well with the original XFL that debuted in 2001 and lasted just one season, last played professionally for the AAF’s Birmingham Iron last spring before the first-year league folded midseason. Payne said he played defensive end for the Iron, though he played more like a defensive tackle in the team’s 3-4 scheme.
Payne, who noted that he’s up to about 290 pounds and tipped the scales at 300 at one point with the Iron, said he’ll play that same position with the BattleHawks. Payne said he recently teamed up with new trainer Justin Kavanaugh, founder of the Sport and Speed Institute in Chantilly, whom he called a “guru with NFL athletes and Olympians.”
“My body feels better than ever,” said Payne, a Catharpin native and Battlefield High graduate. “I’m stronger and faster than I’ve ever been. Even at 290 I’m moving better than I had when I was at 260.”
On how he can earn a roster spot with the BattleHawks, Payne said he just has to do what he does best: get to the quarterback.
“That’s kind of always been my thing, is just my pass-rushing ability,” said Payne, whose 17 career sacks rank second in Shenandoah history. “I’ve always been good against the run but a lot of guys are good against the run. It’s kind of expected for you to be good against the run. And I’ve always been solid against the run but I think I’ll help my team win games because I’m getting to the quarterback.”
Payne’s pro career to this point has been a bit of a whirlwind.
He fielded a couple of NFL rookie mini camp invites in the spring following his senior season at SU but didn’t stick on an NFL roster. In December 2016, Payne signed a nonguaranteed contract with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League but found out 3 ½ months later — and with the CFL’s training camp approaching — that Montreal no longer had a roster spot for him.
Payne then signed with the Arena Football League’s Washington Valor in 2017 and played two seasons in the AFL, winning an Arena League title with Washington in 2018.
From there, Payne, seeking a step up in competition as he continued to seek a path to the NFL, ended up in the AAF, which didn’t even make it through its first season before folding in mid-April.
The AAF’s abrupt halt was particularly tough, Payne said, because the Birmingham Iron had just locked up a playoff spot and he felt the team was playing its best football of the season and constantly improving. A championship, Payne said, was in the Iron’s sights.
“It’s been a grind,” Payne said of his pro football experience. “I mean it’s just been led by blind faith. I have faith that God’s got a plan, that I’m gonna keep playing, and the only thing I can do is just work and when the opportunity is presented, just make sure I’m ready.”
Asked what keeps him coming back to professional football, Payne said he wants to be able to provide for his family — something a shot at the NFL would allow him to do — but his biggest motivation is his own competitive drive.
“I set out a goal to become the best football player I could be and I just wanted to see how far I could take it,” Payne said. “And I still feel like I’m becoming a better football player every day, and I think I’m gonna just keep seeing how good I can get, how high of a level I can compete at. I want to compete at the highest level. It’s just the work for me. Like I said, I set out a goal and I don’t want to stop until I achieve that.”
It’s helped, Payne said, that he’s had support from his family and loved ones.
“My parents have always encouraged me to keep going. My dad has always kind of been the one — there’s been times when things, obviously, when things have been really bad and I’ve been like ‘I don’t know if I should keep doing this,’ and he’s always kind of been the one that’s encouraged me to really keep going,” Payne said. “And my girlfriend, she’s just been awesome really making it easy on me. I get stressed going ‘Oh man, we’re gonna be away for so long,’ and not once has that ever been an issue. She’s always been encouraging of me. She’s been a huge blessing, to have someone who’s really encouraging me to pursue my goals. … She knows how much it means to me and I couldn’t be more thankful for the support of my girlfriend and my family.”