By Thomas Sellers Jr.
But one Trojan varsity player came into the program earlier this year an expert on the late Dana Payne. Entering his senior year at Millington Central High School, Payne’s little brother Jer’fonzo Smith finally decided to suit up in the black and gold.
“What made me decide to come out and play football?” Smith asked rhetorically. “I felt like it is my senior year. I’ve been playing football my whole life. It was the only thing I knew. I had been playing football since the age of 5.
“I just felt like, why stop now,” he added. “I was told I had so much talent. I felt like it would have been a waste for me to waste it for no reason.”
Smith acknowledged coming out to play gave him a chance to honor his brother and add to the family’s legacy in Trojan Football. Back when Smith was 11 year-old, he slowly got the news of his brother’s passing.
On August 21, 2012 during a Millington Football practice, Payne was called onto the field for a drill. The sophomore, 15 years old, played defensive back and wide receiver for the Trojans.
The play he was called to participate in led to a tragic episode with his breathing. Payne died that day after being tackled and sending his heart into irregular beats.
“I was at home when it happened,” Smith recalled. “My Mom was calling my brother’s phone and she wasn’t getting an answer. She got a call that something had happened. She wasn’t telling me anything.
“She took me over my grandmother’s house and talked to her,” he continued. “She went and picked my little brother up. They were just talking and I was in the dark for a moment. They dropped me off over a friend’s house because my grandmother wanted to go.”
Then time started to go by slowly for Smith that August night. No news only meant bad news for the young Smith.
“I’m thinking they’re heading up to Millington to pick up my brother,” he reminisced. “I would say about an hour and half later, I was consistently calling my mother wondering what happened. I didn’t get any answer. Then she called me about three hours later and told me what happened. ‘Your brother has passed away.’”
More than six years later and standing on the field where his brother took his last comfortable breathes, the pain of losing his brother is still hard to accept.
“At first I didn’t think it was real,” Smith acknowledged. “I knew he was in the hospital because a family friend told me. They told me where my Mom was heading. In the back of my mind I thought everything was OK.
“It’s going to be OK because both he and I suffered from asthma,” he added. “It was really hot that day. I thought it was just the heat that made him pass out on the field. It didn’t know the severity of the situation. When she called me it just felt unreal. It’s still unreal.”
Since Payne’s passing, MCHS has retired the No. 87 and his jersey hangs in the school. A large No. 87 is painted on the Millington Fieldhouse doors and tributes to Payne can be found throughout the campus.
“My brother, we were like all brothers, we fought and played,” Smith said. “He was just so carefree and nice. No matter how much I bugged on him or snitched, just being a little brother, at the end of the day he just forgot about it.
“He loved me,” Smith added. “He was never the type of person to try to distance himself from me. Every time he would go to the park to play basketball, he would take me with him. He would say, ‘I don’t care. I’m taking Bud with me.’ He called me Bud.”
Bud and big brother Dana were common sights throughout Northaven. Smith admired his brother for playing for the Northaven Bulldogs and then making the Trojan varsity roster.
“I was under him,” he recalled. “I would always follow up under him like any little brother would. He was a role model for me. He was the person I wanted to be like. I wanted to be like my big brother.”
Smith followed in his brother’s footsteps playing for the Bulldogs and Metro Trojans. But when high school approached, Smith said playing for the varsity team was a tough decision because his brother never got that chance in an official game.
Soul searching, talks with his mother Tameka and encouragement from classmates, Smith said the time was right to salvage a chance to add the family’s legacy on the gridiron.
“Every game, I pray to God and I sent up a special prayer to him, ‘I know you’re watching over me,” he said. “Guide me through this game. Lead me so I can help lead these guys.’ Right before the game I kneel and do another prayer.
“I got a little Dana Payne thing I wear every game,” Smith added. “Every drive, every snap, and every run I’m thinking about him. I know he’s behind me giving me the great guidance I need out here.”
Another Dana tribute adorns Smith’s chest.
“When I got this tattoo it was kind of hurting,” he noted. “So I never got a chance to get it finished. I didn’t understand the pain level. It started off kind of small. It’s still not complete.
“I want an 87 and his name inside the dove,” Smith continued. “It represents him as my guardian angel and somebody looking over me. I put him over my heart because he’s with me every day. I love him.”
Smith’s love for his brother helped him endure critics who questioned his timing to join the football team. But leading the team in touchdowns with 12, including four against league foe Craigmont, has quiet a lot of the doubters.
“This season I got a lot of criticism with me playing first season, me being a senior and not having that four-year experience,” he said. “Some people were not looking to me as a leader because I’m only playing one year. But like I told them, ‘I’ve been playing football my whole life. I feel like you just can’t lose something you’ve always had.’ It’s like riding a bike.”
Smith is the leading rusher for the Trojans in 2018 and has emerged as a vocal leader in the locker room.
“It’s just something that comes naturally,” he said. “Football comes naturally to me. This year I feel like a lot of weight has been put on my shoulders even though I am a one year player.
“I am a senior and I am one of the guys that people look up to,” Smith added. “I have to stay composed for these guys. They see me breaking, I can’t. I have to stay composed for them.”
Smith said the lessons he learned from his brother about leadership and taking someone under your wing made him the man to answer Head Coach Chris Michael’s call during preseason.
“Coach Michael said last year there wasn’t that much senior guidance,” he said. “No one really stepped up as a leader from the seniors. I care about the team. Those are my brothers up in there.
“They give me their all and I’ll give them my all,” Smith continued. “I put my faith and trust in them. I tell them before every game, every person on the O-line I shake their hands. And I tell them, ‘I got you.’”
Smith draws from his triumphs and tragedies. The more success he has in the black and gold gives him a chance to keep his brother’s memory alive.
“I look at it as I get to finish something he started,” he said. “I look at it like these guys here, that bond has formed. I walk around so many guys with his name tattooed on them. They have 87 everywhere.
“People really cared about my brother,” Smith concluded. “It’s not just one of those pop-up friends or we just doing this because he passed away. For them to do that, actually shows they cared. They didn’t have to do that. They could have just given us a jersey or gave him a little tribute. They didn’t have to put that 87 up there. It’s going to be up on the door for who knows how long. It really shows they are for me and my family. I appreciate that.”