St. Louis BattleHawks defensive lineman Jake Payne (99) lines up before the snap during an XFL game against the Dallas Renegades on Feb. 9. The XFL filed for bankruptcy last week, leaving Payne searching for another way to extend his playing career.

Jake Payne wasn’t surprised when the XFL, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, halted its operations midway through its return season last month, as it was inevitable that the rebooted football league would follow the lead of other professional leagues that had taken the same actions. The real shocker for Payne came last week.

The XFL, which at the onset of the COVID-19 shutdown had mentioned in a league statement that it was committed to returning for a second season in 2021, filed for bankruptcy on April 12. That leaves Payne, a former Shenandoah University standout who was playing for the XFL’s St. Louis BattleHawks this year, once again looking for another route to extend his professional football career.

It marked the second time Payne has been part of a first-year league that folded midseason for financial reasons. In 2019, Payne played in the Alliance of American Football before the league shut down eight weeks into what was supposed to be a 10-week regular season.

“It sucks. It was just like, ‘Dang, this again?’ Having to deal with it with the AAF and now this,” Payne said on Thursday afternoon of his reaction to the XFL news. “I was surprised … because the way things ended in St. Louis it was all like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll be back.’ That was really not even up for question. That really kind of blindsided all of us, even more than the COVID thing. With the COVID thing, we kind of saw that coming a little bit because all these leagues were shutting down. … With the bankruptcy thing, we were just kind of like, ‘Where’s this coming from?’ That we really weren’t expecting.”

Payne’s pro career to this point – which also included two seasons in the Arena Football League in 2017 and 2018 – has been a constant quest to land a spot on an NFL roster. Even after the most recent setback, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive lineman said he is “100 percent focused” on making that happen.

The 2020 NFL Draft, held virtually this year while the country remains on lockdown, began on Thursday night and is scheduled to conclude on Saturday. Payne said that he and his agent have “talked with a couple” NFL teams, adding that once the draft is done, much will depend on when restrictions on social gatherings are lifted and players can attend workouts for teams.

After his senior season at Shenandoah in 2015 (he won the Old Dominion Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year award that year), Payne received NFL rookie mini-camp invites from the New York Jets and Philadelphia Eagles but his first and only foray into the top echelon of the pro football ranks ended there.

He’s optimistic that he’ll get another shot at the NFL this year.

“I’m pretty confident that I’ll at least get a workout,” Payne said. “I’m pretty confident that if I get a workout, I’ll kill it and get signed and get a shot in camp. That’s all I need.”

Asked if he’s NFL-or-bust at this point in his erratic career (he also briefly signed with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes in 2017 but was released before training camp), Payne said he’ll go anywhere that’ll allow him to keep competing and keep improving himself to increase his chances of one day making an NFL roster.

“I knew this wasn’t gonna be an easy task when I started. I try to pray for the best but prepare for the worst. I’m just gonna keep working and wherever I land, I’ll land on my feet and make the most of it,” said Payne, a Catharpin native and Battlefield High graduate.

“I’m not too stressed about it because I know I just continue to get better, so I’m not really that worried about it. Obviously, I have some stuff planned (for the) worst-case scenario. I’ve done some commercial real estate work, and I have a guy that I’ve spoken with a few times. I’m actually gonna be doing some this summer, potentially, a little part-time work. So, I mean I’ve got that type of stuff and potentially want to go into coaching. But no, I don’t really think about (other career paths) too much because … I know I can play in the league.”

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