By DANIEL SUDDEATH
NEW ALBANY —
As one of the nation’s leading rushers, his ability to weave and wind his way between tacklers has grabbed Tuwan Payton plenty of attention.
But it’s the demeanor of the senior New Albany High School running back that has garnered him the highest level of respect from his coaches.
“He’s an example of what I think is right with New Albany and with New Albany High School,” Bulldogs’ coach Charlie Fields said this week. “To be a great football player, you’ve got to be a great kid.”
And Payton certainly has been making his mark as one of the best rushers in New Albany school history.
Payton has carried the football 191 times this year for 1,899 yards. According to the website www.maxpreps.com, Payton ranked fourth in the nation in rushing after last week.
Ironically his rushing total also puts him at fourth in the state, as the three running backs in front of him on the national list all hail from Indiana as well.
Payton has found himself in the end zone almost as often as a field-goal post, as he’s scored 23 of the Bulldogs’ 33 rushing touchdowns this year.
But ask Payton about his success and he will quickly heap the credit upon his coaches and teammates.
“Football is the ultimate team sport,” Payton said. “Everybody has to do their part.”
Headed into tonight’s rivalry game with Floyd Central High School, the Bulldogs are 6-2 on the season.
New Albany has already racked up wins over other rivals in Providence and Jeffersonville, the latter of which marked the first time in Payton’s varsity career that the Bulldogs triumphed over the Red Devils.
“I feel like we’re rolling, but we’ve got to get the win” tonight, Payton said.
Former Bulldogs great Chris Whitehead was “the man” in New Albany when Payton was coming up as a freshman on the team.
Payton said he always revered Whitehead’s ability. But he makes no bones about it, he wanted to be the top Bulldog in people’s memory after completing his playing time for New Albany.
“I always wanted to make people forget his name,” Payton said.
Whitehead set state quarterback records when he dashed for 2,224 rushing yards in 2010. Payton enters tonight’s game 225 yards behind that mark, but he’s already bested at least one of Whitehead’s records.
Payton set the single game New Albany rushing record this year when he scampered for 390 yards against Jennings County — a contest in which he on played a little more than two quarters.
Payton described himself this week as an all-purpose running back. He prides himself on catching passes and blocking in the backfield.
Fields and Payton both credit his fantastic senior season in part to his offseason strength training program.
This was the first year that Payton was able to join the program in the offseason, as he was occupied before with playing other sports such as basketball.
Getting a New Albany kid to drop basketball to focus on football is somewhat of a change of pace. But what really thrills Fields and the New Albany coaching staff is Payton’s dedication in seemingly every walk of life.
“He’s one of the first players here and he’s one of the last to leave,” Fields said.
And Payton’s leadership and focus isn’t just an athletic trait.
Laura McGuirk has been Payton’s senior counselor at NAHS this year.
Payton has been attempting to qualify for the rigorous Indiana Academic Honors Diploma, and McGuirk said he’s quite intense and driven when it comes to his future.
“I’ve just found him to be a terrific, just an all-around great kid,” she said. “In addition to his football statistics, he’s also focused on getting a diploma.”
Payton vowed that he will be going to college next autumn whether it’s on a football scholarship or as a normal student.
To Payton, it’s only natural to strive for success in any situation. His little brother attends his games, and Payton said he wants to be a solid example to his younger sibling.
“You have to be great in the classroom, and you have to also be able to show it on the field,” he said.
Fields said some colleges have been eying Payton, including Indiana State University. Payton’s skill set will allow him to play slot receiver or defensive back at the next level if he chooses to do so, Fields continued.
Is Payton the greatest rusher in Bulldogs’ history?
“He’s in the discussion,” Fields said. “I think that’s saying something considering the running backs that we’ve had here.”
TUWAN PAYTON'S 2013 STATS
(Through eight games)
• 1,899 rushing yards
• 191 attempts
• 23 rushing touchdowns