USFL: What Gamblers' Donald Payne learned playing in the NFL

USFL: What Gamblers' Donald Payne learned playing in the NFL

Jun 14, 2022

Donald Payne is a tackling machine.

The Houston Gamblers linebacker not only leads the USFL in total stops with 108 but has racked up 22 more than his closest competitor, New Orleans linebacker Jerod Fernandez. Not bad for an undersized defender who played college football at tiny Stetson University.

Payne spoke with RJ Young on his podcast, "The Numer One Ranked Show," about his journey from Stetson to pro football.

"Stetson is a small Div. I-AA school, there are no athletic scholarships just like the Ivy League," he said. "I had great stats, a great career there and everything, but you know we weren't any NFL scouts at our practices like that.

"But going into my senior year, my coach told me that if I really put my mind to it, go all-in, I could have a chance at the next level. … During my senior year I basically said, ‘you know, I can take this to the next level. I can make this a career. I can make this a lifelong dream.'"

Payne signed as a free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017 and went on to rack up the third-most tackles among special teams players in the NFL that season. 

He said his coach at Stetson, Kiwaukee Thomas, encouraged him to use special teams as a path to the pros. Thomas himself built an eight-year career in the NFL primarily through special teams, playing for the Jaguars, Dolphins and Bills.

"He said he was able to stick in the league by being a great special teams player, by knowing if you can run down on kickoffs, make blocks in the open field, then you're going to have a chance to stick in the NFL, have a chance to make some real money," Payne said. "I kind of honed in on that and basically said ‘I’m a smaller linebacker with speed. That's what special teams are for — a linebacker that can hit and run down the field.'"

Other topics Payne discussed on the podcast:

— The qualities that have helped him become such a prolific tackler.

— How he has dealt with being an undersized defensive player.

— Why he didn't transfer to a school that had athletic scholarships.

— What it felt like to knock the previously unbeaten Birmingham Stallions off their pedestal in Week 9.