But what happened a few hours later was nothing Payne could prepare for. He wasn’t just the best player on the field Thursday — he transcended the competition on the grandest stage, adding a memorable performance to one of the city’s oldest high school football traditions.
The Tennessee commit caught a 60-yard touchdown pass and set up touchdowns with a dazzling interception and a punt return to lead H.D. Woodson to a 25-13 win over Wilson in the 44th annual Turkey Bowl in Southeast Washington.
“I worked hard all week. I prayed, I prayed, I prayed,” said Payne, who was named the game’s most valuable player. “Me and and my team we worked hard, and we came out and gave them a show.”
The Warriors (10-3) will meet the winner of Saturday’s game between Friendship Collegiate and McKinley Tech in next week’s D.C. State Athletic Association championship, but this holiday win will remain at the forefront for a while.
H.D. Woodson was dominant up front against the Tigers (9-4). It controlled the ball behind durable outings from quarterback Rashad Cooper (two touchdowns) and Jai Carson, who finished with 73 yards on 21 carries, including a 10-yard sweep for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead with about seven minutes remaining in the second quarter. That score was set up by Payne’s interception. He snagged the pass near the flat after coming down from his safety position.
The play of the day came late in the third quarter, with the score 13-7, when Payne created separation at wide receiver and took a slant 60 yards untouched for a touchdown. He credited that opportunity to his team’s running attack.
“He’s a very good teammate,” junior linebacker Jamaal Jones said. “We just had to do our thing.”
Payne starred again on the next possession, when he took a punt return 25 yards into Wilson territory. The run covered nearly double that many yards after he darted up to the ball, made a move to the left sideline and cut back inside, making several Wilson players miss and triggering a collective gasp from the large crowd at Eastern High School. That set up a Cooper touchdown to push the score to 25-7 with nine minutes left.
Payne called it the best game he’s played while at Woodson. It has been a long, and at times, troubling year. He sat out three games to begin the season over a residency issue. He plans to enroll at Tennessee in January, but he wasn’t thinking about that Thursday. He was still soaking up his performance and the Warriors’ second Turkey Bowl title in four seasons.
“It was kind of hard, but I just stayed strong. I just played through it,” Payne said. “We came out and did good.”