ATLANTA — The big man from Alabama rumbled. He moved heaven and earth and the middle of the Clemson offensive line to get into the backfield and nab an interception. His 300-pound frame couldn’t be stopped, the way he sidestepped a would-be tackler on his way to a 21-yard return.
Not much later, the big man showed grace, too. The junior defensive tackle came onto the field on offense this time and lined up as one of two fullbacks near the goal line. He crouched down, put his hand in the turf and appeared ready to move heaven and earth once again, plowing a path for his running back into the end zone. Only he didn’t. He slipped out into the flat and plucked a pass out of the air for a score, his first career touchdown reception.
Da’Ron Payne arrived that New Year’s night in New Orleans. He seemed like a creation of his coach, Nick Saban, concocted in some dark, dank lab somewhere in Tuscaloosa for a new era of football in which big men couldn’t just be big anymore. To combat the rise of spread offenses, they needed to be big and fast and athletic, and Payne was all of the above.
His mother, Kemberly Smith, beamed inside the Superdome. Her boy was having his breakout moment as the Sugar Bowl defensive MVP. She teased him afterward about having “hands of gold” and how he went on his tiptoes to catch that touchdown pass.
Mostly, though, she was proud.
“He’s been quietly working hard,” she said, “and now he’s finally getting seen.”
On Monday in Atlanta, the whole world will watch Payne closely as he anchors Alabama’s defense when it goes up against Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).
The world isn’t likely to see his mother, though.
They won’t see her struggle, as she fought a years-long battle with lupus.
They won’t know her resiliency.
They won’t understand why she’s the real source of the big man’s strength.
“That’s my rock,” Payne said.
Mario Cristobal thought it was a joke at first. He hadn’t been at Alabama long as an assistant coach, so maybe someone was playing a prank on him.
But the man on the other end of the phone was dead serious. Bill Smith, an Alabama alum and coach at Shades Valley High School (Irondale, Alabama), wouldn’t joke about something like this.
“This guy just turned 15 years old,” Smith told him. “He’s throwing the shot putt 60 feet, he’s benching over 400 pounds, he runs under 4.9 in the 40-yard dash.”
“All right,” Cristobal responded sarcastically, “does he play for the San Diego Chargers? Who does he play for?”
Cristobal was intrigued and decided to go watch Payne practice.
His reaction: “Oh wow. My oh my.”
It was like a dream. Cristobal couldn’t get over what he’d seen. He replayed it over and over in his mind as he drove the hour back to Tuscaloosa. He asked himself, “Did I really just see this guy? This guy is a freak of nature.”
Cristobal, who played at Miami, had just seen the second coming of Warren Sapp, only bigger. High school players were not supposed to be that large, that strong and that athletic, let alone as sophomores. Smith told him that Payne could touch his wrist to the rim when he dunked a basketball.
Cristobal waited a beat in his office and picked up the phone. He talked to Smith for a minute and then had him put Payne on the line.
“A man of very few words,” Cristobal said of Payne. “I don’t know if I just excited him with a [scholarship] offer or scared him away.”
Not long after, Cristobal attended a meeting with Saban and the rest of the staff to update where things stood with recruiting. He told everyone of the 15-year-old gem he’d just uncovered.
Saban wasn’t happy.
“We don’t do that,” Cristobal said he was told. “We don’t offer sophomores here. That’s not part of our process.”
Eventually, Saban got onboard.
In fact, Payne was exactly what Saban was looking for.
Less than a year earlier, in 2012, Alabama’s defense was shredded by Texas A&M and fleet-footed quarterback Johnny Manziel, losing 29-24 at home. The game brought the truth to light: Saban’s defense couldn’t continue to be built on the size and strength alone. To combat the rise of athletic quarterbacks and spread concepts, he needed defenders who had the athleticism to play in space.
Terrence Cody, the 350-pound nose guard who was a unanimous All-American in 2008 and 2009, was already outdated. Payne was the new, updated model.
Alabama strength and conditioning coach Scott Cochran said that, in terms of natural strength, Payne is “the best I’ve ever seen.” And that’s a list of All-Americans a mile long and includes NFL linemen such as Jonathan Allen, Marcell Dareus, Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson.
Cristobal, who served as Payne’s primary recruiter, didn’t have it easy reeling him in. Payne, after all, was an Auburn fan growing up. So was his grandfather.
But Cristobal put in the time with the family and made Payne an automatic visit anytime coaches were allowed to make contact with recruits.
“It began a process and a relationship with one of the most beautiful families you can imagine,” Cristobal said.
Sure, Payne is easily one of the most gifted athletes he has ever been around. But what gets him excited as he talks about his former player now as the head coach at Oregon, thousands of miles away, is how he got to know Payne and his family.
Payne was quiet and difficult to read. His mother, an Alabama fan through and through, was the opposite.
“Miss Kemberly,” Cristobal said, “you couldn’t find a sweeter person, a more pure heart, a more caring mother.
“A lot of time in and out of the hospital now. But you don’t ever see her complain. That’s a strong woman. You want to talk about the person in the household, the backbone, the strength of that home. Go through her Facebook page. Da’Ron, when he comes home, when he has a couple of days off, he’s sleeping right there in mom’s bed. He’s a momma’s boy.”
The world was about to find out where Da’Ron Payne, the No. 2-rated defensive tackle in the 2015 class, was going to school. At the Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando, Florida, he would make his decision on live TV.
Surrounded by his family, he put on an Alabama cap and committed to play for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Little did anyone know, that was only the second-most important announcement that day. His mother, a die-hard Alabama fan, had gotten a call more than a decade in the making: There was a kidney available for her in Tennessee.
But when she found out about the possible transplant opportunity, she didn’t leave immediately. She had battled lupus for more than a decade, and she wasn’t about to miss being a part of her son’s special moment because of it.
Once the announcement was made and the game ended, she packed up and hit the road, driving through what felt like endless rain to get the operation.
She was excited and nervous, she said. When Payne flew home from the game, he got in his car and drove straight to the hospital to be with her.
And then the doctors told her the bad news: The kidney wasn’t a match after all.
“I was heartbroken and devastated,” she said.
Payne was, too.
A remarkable thing happened next: Kemberly kept going. She stayed on waiting lists, got treatment and kept her faith.
Payne went to Alabama and made an immediate impact, playing as a true freshman on a defensive line with future pros Allen, Reed and Robinson. And every game, Kemberly was there. If it was on the road, she’d take her dialysis machine with her and give herself treatment in her hotel room.
“Sometime, as a parent, you got to do what you got to do,” she said. “But I wasn’t going to do anything that would keep me from seeing him play. Everywhere I went, my machine went with me.”
All told, Kemberly has missed no more than four of her son’s games.
Back in 2016, she had a good excuse for being absent.
“I won’t be able to come,” she told her son, “because I’ll be having the transplant.”
“Are you for real this time?” Payne asked, excited for the possibility of putting all of this behind them.
Kemberly approached the operation differently this time. She guarded against optimism, fearing a repeat of what happened years earlier. But it worked. The doctors were able to perform a successful kidney transplant, and she watched Payne dominate LSU from her bed in the hospital.
On one particular play that went viral, Payne used his incredible strength to literally run over an offensive lineman and get into the face of the quarterback.
“I was mad because I was not there,” Kemberly said. “And I wanted to be.”
Said Payne: “She’s always been there for me. Everywhere I need to go, she gets me there. Anything I need, she gets me. She’s always been there since I was in little league. I just love her to death and am thankful to have her in my life.”
When Kemberly takes her seat inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Monday, she’ll see her son’s No. 94 jersey and smile.
“He’s got to this point by working hard,” she said. “He always had it in his mind that he was going to get to college and play in the NFL. His dream is about to come true.”
Payne isn’t some middling prospect, either. Anytime Cristobal talks to scouts — even now at Oregon — they ask about his former player. It wouldn’t surprise him to see Payne become a top-10 pick, he said, if Payne leaves school early to enter the NFL draft.
But for the purposes of this game and this season and this team, Payne is the heart and soul of Alabama’s defense. He doesn’t pick up many stats as an interior lineman, but he always has an effect on the outcome of the game.
Don’t let the shy side of him fool you. He’s quiet, but he’s got a fire in his belly. When he and former tight end O.J. Howard got into a tussle during practice two years ago, Cristobal said, “It was like unleashing a grizzly bear that can throw Mike Tyson haymakers.”
“This guy, he’s just a rare talent.”
When Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney turns on the tape, he sees someone who isn’t your typical nose guard clogging up the running lanes and little more. He called Payne a “playmaking nose” who represents a change in the position.
“He ain’t little,” Chaney said. “He’s just smaller than Cody and some of the other kids, but I would say — that has something to do with the evolution of the game.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator until 2015 when he left for Athens, said that he’d love to take credit for Payne. But he knows he can’t.
“We can all say that we coached that into him,” he said, “but that came God-given and came from his high school level. He’s as talented a big guy that I’ve seen in a long time. He’s the one guy that I will put in the Marcell Dareus category that when you run sprints, he can run with the DBs as well as he can the D-linemen.”
Cristobal took it a step further: “There’s nothing like him out there. He’s the 100th percentile. You don’t see it. If you wanted to play him at tight end, you could flip him over and play tight end. If you had him drop 40 pounds, he could probably step in there at middle linebacker. This guy, there’s nothing he can’t do.”
The big man can truly do it all.
He can run you over, run around you or jump over you. And as we found out against Clemson, he can even catch a pass or two.
Da’Ron Payne isn’t your ordinary big man.
He’s not just big and strong and athletic. He’s driven and he’s determined, and there’s no doubt where that comes from.
It’s in his DNA, all right. It’s his mother’s strength to keep showing up in the stands.