5:57 PM EST, November 24, 2010
In the 2005 state championship game, Oakton High's Keith Payne dominated Landstown's Percy Harvin.
Four years later, Payne was out of football, a certifiable bust at the University of Virginia.
Meanwhile, Harvin was earning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors with the Minnesota Vikings, this a season after helping Florida win the national championship.
But now look. As 4-7 Virginia enters Saturday's season finale at 9-2 Virginia Tech, Payne leads not only the Cavaliers in rushing but also the ACC in touchdowns.
"I've got a whole lot to be thankful for," Payne said Wednesday after practice.
Thankful for loyal teammates, a second chance from first-year coach Mike London and a quick recovery from a leg injury that sidelined him last week at Boston College.
A 6-foot-3, 255-pound senior, Payne runs from the tailback position with a fullback's mentality, welcoming contact and shedding tacklers.
"I just look at a big back with size that can get 5 (yards) and can get 40, can catch out of the backfield," London said. "I told him one of the early things a (NFL) scout said was, 'Can he pass protect?'
"Early on I think he got knocked over by somebody coming off the edge, took that lesson to heart, and now has shown that he can pass protect. The future is bright for Keith as long as Keith himself doesn't get in the way."
In large measure, self-inflicted pain doomed Payne's first four years at Virginia. And once any player was sentenced to then-coach Al Groh's canine castle, extradition was virtually impossible.
London was willing to grant clemency, with stringent conditions. It's his nature, plus, with the Cavaliers reeling from their worst season since 1982, he needed all the warm bodies he could get.
"I was reluctant," London said. "To tell you the truth, it was an academic deal and coming back it was an academic risk. He still has some hurdles academically to cross over to get his degree. I put that out in front of him first and foremost. …
"But being able to play on the field and do the things he's done, it's been a complete turnaround because of the humbleness he has as opposed to the cocky kid coming from high school that was all-everything. It's been interesting. But knowing him now and seeing him now, being able to see the transformation, basically it took time for him to grow up and become for us this year a significant factor."
Payne has run for a team-high 741 yards and scored 15 touchdowns, 14 rushing and one receiving. That's three scores shy of the school record set by All-American Gene Mayer in 1914 and matched by Hall of Famer Bill Dudley in 1941.
"It's obvious the people around me changed, coaching and all that stuff," Payne said. "I was pretty much doing the same things before. Given an opportunity, you take advantage of it, at least you try to. …
"Coach London finds a way to get your attention. … Basically he made me become a man. I thought I was humble before. I guess I just didn't understand the word and what it meant. … This season has taught me a lot, plus the time I had off taught me a whole lot about being humble."
Payne rushed for 219 yards as a redshirt freshman backup in 2007 but carried the ball in only one game (five attempts at Duke) as a sophomore. A hand injury shelved him for the final five games of 2008, and buried on the depth chart the following summer, Payne left the program, sitting out last season.
When Virginia fired Groh following a 3-9 finish, Payne approached London, "hat in hand," as London described.
'Twas quite a comedown for the star of the 2005 Division 6 state final at Hampton's Darling Stadium.
The game figured to be a coronation for defending champion Landstown, winner of 27 consecutive games, and Harvin, the nation's most acclaimed prospect. But Payne rushed for four touchdowns and a career-high 250 yards in a 28-7 beatdown.
Moreover, he played linebacker on a defense that smothered Harvin. Now he has a chance to join Harvin in the NFL.
"Keith still thinks of himself as a svelte tailback, but he might be somebody's fullback," London said.
"That's a rarity, to get someone that tall and that thick," running backs coach Mike Faragalli said. "There's been a lot of (scouts) asking about him. … I wouldn't be surprised if he turns out pretty good at the next level."
Payne insists NFL pursuits are for another day.
"A lot of people say they really enjoy their teammates," he said. "But I'm from the heart, from the bottom of my heart, I really do appreciate them. They stuck with me the whole time. This whole season's been good."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime, and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.