Boys & Girls Club father figure guided WCU's Fred Payne to "do things right"

The academic honors have come rolling in during Fred Payne’s career at Western Carolina.

The senior finance major, who carried a 3.2 grade-point average into this semester, is a two-time Southern Conference Academic Honor Roll recipient and was named to the 2014 fall Academic All-SoCon squad. Last week he was named a semifinalist for the Campbell Trophy, which in December will be awarded to the football player judged the nation’s top student-athlete.

“It is an unbelievable feeling to be a nominee and be honored for a big award like that as a collegiate athlete,” said Payne, who graduates in December. “Not many athletes have an opportunity to be nominated for that award, so it is a great honor.”

Not many people, let alone student-athletes fortunate enough to go to college, have been able to persevere the way Payne has. His father by the same name was incarcerated and for the most part absent from the life of his only son. But starting at 7, Payne, found an outlet and a father figure in Derrick Caldwell at the Boys & Girls Club of Wall County in his hometown of Gainesville, Ga.

With Caldwell’s help, his association with the club and support from a loving and caring mother and grandmother, Payne was able to flourish in the classroom and on athletic fields with football long being his favorite.

“We built a special relationship and he was a mentor in my life,” Payne said of Caldwell. “My father wasn’t there for me and (Caldwell) helped me maintain a good grade point average. The Boys & Girls Club was able to provide me with somebody to teach me to do my homework and do things right.”

When Payne was not spending countless hours at the club he was home being raised by his mother, Anita Harrison, and his grandmother, Edith Williams.

“That’s my heart and my character,” he said of Harrison and Williams. “Those are the No. 1 ladies in my life. They are always a big influence as they are always telling and showing me the way of how to be a grown man.”

That grown man has played in all 39 games the Catamounts (1-3; 0-2 SoCon) have played since his freshman season of 2013 and Payne, as strong safety has started the last 27. He heads into a game at No. 21 Samford Saturday on ASN as the conference’s second-leading tackler with 11 per game.

While his durability and performance on the football field stand out, he has long understood that what happens on Saturday afternoons is secondary in the overall scheme of things.

“I knew that school always came first and I focused on that in high school,” said Payne, who attended Gainesville High with and is a long-time friend of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. “I taught myself to be accountable, to always maintain good grades and show how responsible I am as a person that I can keep up with my schoolwork and be able to balance football at the same time.”

Caldwell would reinforce the message that academics come first, but Payne is somebody who did not need to be told things twice.

“I would tell him that the effort that you put into football you better be putting into the classroom,” said Caldwell, who was a safety at West Texas A&M. “He would be like, ‘I got it.’ I can see that with his academic honors that he is putting his education first. He is a natural born leader and he has always had a strong mind.”

Such self-discipline has been instrumental not only in the success Payne has achieved on and off the gridiron at WCU, but in keep his goals realistic. That is clear in a Twitter post of his from earlier his year. Under a “Life goals” heading a list of achievements highlighted by material gain is edited to be more realistic and responsible.

“It’s about trying to live the right way,” he said. “Materialistic things are not what you should value because they can be here today and gone tomorrow. You need to see the bigger picture and lead the next generation.”

It is care for the next generation that keeps bringing him back to the Boys & Girls Club.

“I try to go back as often as I can help lift those up who also come from not only situations like mine, but other backgrounds as well,” said Payne, who noted that while he does not see him much he currently has good relationship with his now freed father.

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