Some visions just stay with you.
It was the first Friday in September 2007, and I was standing near the sidelines on Western High’s football field, the home team nearing the end of a 20-7 victory against Green Valley.
A father of a Western wide receiver was pacing back and forth talking on his cell phone, talking about how well his son had played, how proud he was, how he hoped there were college coaches in attendance, how bright the future appeared.
The man was gushing. His smile was wider than the field. I’ll never forget that.
Five months later, on his 18th birthday, the son signed a national letter of intent with UNLV.
A month later, the father was dead.
Phillip Payne chose the Rebels for many reasons, but none more important than his wish to stay home and help watch over his ill father while beginning one of life’s most important journeys.
Joel Payne was a Vietnam veteran who died at age 52 from prostate cancer, and the young man he so openly bragged about that September evening begins his third college season tonight at home against Wisconsin.
“I know he would be proud,” Phillip said. “People always told me he was the proudest dad in the world, but to me, most of the time he acted like a coach. Tough love.”
Payne to this point has been to a wide receiver spot what a set-up man is to holding late-inning leads. He has been a specialist, a secondary option whose skill in the red zone has produced 11 of his 14 touchdowns.
Think of Brian Urlacher, only not in a hulking NFL linebacker type of way. New Mexico used to line up Urlacher at receiver whenever it ventured inside an opponent’s 20-yard line and pretty much threw jump balls to him in the end zone.
He was too big and physical for most college defensive backs to stop. Payne has often been too tall and athletic.
But a new season has brought a new coach (Bobby Hauck), a new system, a new role.
Ryan Wolfe and his helmet full of school records are gone, meaning Payne is a No. 1 receiver who needs to understand there is more to success than fade routes.
Stories and quotes and TV clips about how things are so much better and different from a previous coaching staff border on absurd. Nobody really cares. Just find a way to win games. If not that yet, teach someone to tackle.
But if one theme has continued to escape from Hauck’s first fall camp here, it’s that of an improved toughness. Payne, like most of his teammates, needs to be tougher. Needs to play harder each snap. Needs to understand there is no limit to one’s effort.
“We watched tape from last year, and of his 53 catches (for 661 yards), 39 were outside the lines,” UNLV wide receivers coach Cedric Cormier said. “He needs to go over the middle more now, needs to not go down on the first hit. Yards after the catch will be a big deal for him this season.
“I’m not going to lie — we’re not going to throw the ball 50 times a game. But we’re going to get the ball to our playmakers, and Phillip is our No. 1 playmaker. He has the potential to become dominant.”
Whether his numbers will be is uncertain. In seven seasons as Montana coach, Hauck’s teams produced a 1,000-yard receiver three times.
It’s a somewhat misleading stat, given in two of the seasons where one didn’t emerge, at least three wideouts had 490 yards.
In 2006, three had from 641 to 801.
“One reason I came here was for the spread offense, four receivers, a way to get on the field quickly,” Payne said. “But even though we’ll run the ball more now (under Hauck), I think that will open up our passing game, and we’ll get more one-on-one coverages and chances for some big plays.
“I need to be more of an impact player. I need to expand my game. I always knew this was the best place for me. I still do. My Dad was so happy and excited about it. I knew the end was coming for him. I just didn’t think it would come so fast.”
Tell you what — the man I saw that September night in 2007, the one pacing up and down near the Western sidelines talking about his son, as proud as a father could be, will be watching tonight.
With a smile wider than the field.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618.