CINCINNATI, Ohio – The accolades roll on and on when you get people talking about La Salle High school running back Gi'Bran Payne. Good kid, good student, good football player, good leader, good son, good friend.
Good, good, good.
Pick a category, and check a box. That's Gi'Bran Payne.
The personal side of the Cincinnati kid doesn't have much to do with the four stars that drip off his name on most every recruiting website. But all those special off-the-field traits? It makes him a favorite of everyone that ever gets to spend some time around him.
Payne, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound running back who was born and raised well in Cincinnati, committed to Indiana last Monday, and is now a key piece of the best recruiting class in school history. He's the fourth four-star recruit in the 14-person class, and the highest-ranked running back in the state of Ohio.
Indiana, with a lot of late closing power, grabbed Payne over the likes of Penn State, Tennessee, Cincinnati and a few dozen others.
It's a huge get for Indiana, on multiple fronts. They're getting a talented athlete, of course, one with multiple state titles on his resume already, but they're also getting a young man who's been raised well and does everything right. He's a hard worker and an excellent student, one who's driven to succeed at everything he does.
And he's just getting started.
"If there's a better running back in the country, I'd like to see him,'' said La Salle football coach Pat McLauglin, a fellow Cincinnati native who's starting his fifth year as head coach at the school. "We've never had a single problem with him at all, not one discipline issue, never late for practice or meetings or classes, always the hardest worker in the weight room. He's just that good of a kid.
"He comes from a great family, and we talk all the time, his parents and grandparents. My son is going to be a freshman in our program this year, and as a father, I want him to be around a kid like Gi'Bran. I think that's the ultimate compliment I can give him.''
It may be, but it's just one of many compliments that you hear on a trip to Cincinnati for interviews. Everyone likes Gi'Bran Payne, and now Indiana fans are going to like him, too.
A star in the making at an early age
It was evident immediately when Payne arrived at La Salle that he was going to be something special. McLaughlin saw it right away. Everyone did.
"The first time we actually saw Gi'Bran, we do a Friday night lights camp thing and he was in eighth grade, and he was very different from all the other eighth graders there that night,'' McLaughlin said. "You could tell right away that he was a naturally gifted athlete.
"He probably could have played varsity as a freshman, but he just soaked it all in and learned a lot instead. He was already physically ready. And his sophomore year, you could just tell that he was going to do some special things. He had a terrific sophomore year.''
Payne said he soaked in all the knowledge he could from Cam Porter, his predecessor at running back at La Salle who's now at Northwestern. It was a great apprenticeship, he said.
"I think just being behind Cam Porter and getting his knowledge, I just followed him and let him show me the way,'' Payne said during a lengthy interview in La Salle's football complex this week. "Start of my sophomore year, I felt ready then. He told me to just do me, and take up where he left off.''
The ''doing me'' part comes easy for Payne. He sets goals, chases them and – most of the time – achieves them.
No matter what it takes.
He proved that as a sophomore after dislocating his left wrist in practice. He played two playoff games with a cast up to his biceps, rushing for 141 yards in one game and returning an interception 95 yards for a score in another. He played the state championship game in a short cast, rushing for 129 yards and a score to earn La Salle's fourth state title in six years.
"People joked that I played better with the cast,'' Payne said. "It didn't bother me any. I was playing no matter what. They were not taking me off that field, cast or no cast. Winning state meant a lot, and it was great to finish that off.''
His junior year, he wasn't as lucky. He fractured a bone in his ankle midway through the season, and after a few weeks of rest, he tried to give it a go.
"At first we thought it was a sprain, and I tried to work through it,'' Payne said. "But then I got it rolled over on the first game back, and the X-rays showed a fracture. That ended it.
"So now I'm trying to get it all back this year after not having the junior year I wanted. I was 100 percent by track season, and we won state in the (4-by-100) relay. That meant a lot, doing it with my guys. That felt good to win state.''
And now he's ready to dive into his senior season. At La Salle, the first team goal is always to win conference and state titles. That's no different this year.
"Winning state championships, that's the goal. It always is. We set the bar high here, of course,'' Payne said. "We all push for that, and I feel like that just makes everyone else better too, not just me. Winning state, that's how I want to go out.''
What makes him great
Payne strives for greatness, and is more than willing to put in all the work to do that.
He's a rock solid running with all the skills. His track speed is evident, but he's also got football instincts. He can stop on a dime, is quick out of every break and can run through tackles often.
"He's very strong, and he has great vision,'' McLaughlin said. "He has a low center of gravity, and the ability to accelerate. He's really hard to bring down. I was telling someone the other day that I've really never see the first tackler ever bring him down.''
That's the part of Payne's upbringing and personality that carries over. He loves the weight room, loves getting stronger and more flexible – and even does all the hard stuff with nary a complaint.
He even loves leg day. And as anyone who's ever stepped in a gym knows, no one loves leg day.
"I have personal goals, team goals, but I feel like in every category, I can get better and that starts with continuing to get faster and get stronger,'' Payne said. "I love the weight room, and I've been putting in the work.
"I take pride in leg day. I love leg day. My legs are strong. And I want to keep getting stronger.''
He feels 100 percent now, and is ready for a big senior year, both athletically and academically.
"Academic-wise, I still want all first and second honors, that's nothing different, and athletically I want to stay healthy all year,'' Payne said. "That's the goal for me, and I want a 1,000-yard season and win a (Greater Catholic League) championship and a state championship. That's how I want to leave.''
His parents see that, too.
"After last year, I think he's really looking forward to having a great senior year,'' his mother, Dannon said. "They have a great schedule and a lot of really good players. We're all excited. He's doing what he loves, and he loves to win.''
A special person, too. That's how he grew up, surrounded by love and lots of people willing to help him succeed, right from the beginning.
"It makes me proud that we've raised a great kid, and raised a great leader, too,'' his mother said. "In this climate that we're in these days, we need more leaders, not followers. He was raised by leaders – a lot of leaders – so it seems natural to some extent.''
"It takes a village to raise a child these days, and he's been surrounded by great people like that since he was a small child. Some kids, you have to pull the words out of their mouths, but with Gi'Bran, we've always had that door open to talk about anything. And he does. He's quiet, but we talk, and we give him options and we can talk about the way he handles things.''
That upbringing shines out in him every day.
"He's been raised well, and I think we've instilled in him the ability to make good decisions. We have a medium-sized family, but we also have a lot of great close friends that we consider family, so that's our village, if you will,'' Dannon Payne said.
"He's always been around a lot of wonderful people who really love him and look out for him and support him in everything he does.''
How Indiana won out in the end
During Payne's big sophomore season, the recruiters starting lining up to chase after him. Nearly two dozen offers later, it was decision time.
Indiana was there from the beginning, but they weren't at the top of his list until Deland McCullough came back this winter to be the running backs coach and assistant head coach. They touched base briefly when McCullough got to Bloomington from Kansas City, where he had won a Super Bowl while coaching the Chiefs' running backs.
"When Coach McCullough got back, we hooked back up. Not really the first month after he got back, but we've been talking a lot ever since,'' Payne said. "I have a lot of respect for him, He has the experience at every level, high school, college and the NFL. I want to learn from the best.''
The COVID-19 pandemic has messed up recruiting – especially in-person visits both at home and on college campuses – and it was tough on Payne, too. He had met Indiana head coach Tom Allen during his sophomore year before the pandemic, and it really wasn't until this spring that Indiana's stock starting rising with him.
McCullough pushed harder and harder, and they've developed a very strong bond. An official visit last weekend to Bloomington sealed the deal – for all involved.
"On the visit, the players and weight room, it was all great. And the staff in general and the people all there walking around greeting us, they were all showing a lot of love,'' Payne said. "It's a great campus. I went through the Kelley Business School too, and it's one of the best business schools, so that meant a lot to me too. I plan on majoring in business.
"It's one big family there at Indiana, I think that's huge. It's my second home, where I'm going to be living the next three or four years. They show a lot of love for all the people coming in from out of state, so that's a big part of contributing to why I commit.''
Indiana has put together 8-4 and 6-1 regular seasons the past two years, and they are a program on the rise, both in the Big Ten and nationally. The appeal, obviously, is there. With Payne's commitment, Indiana is a top-20 program nationally in 2022 recruiting rankings.
"I was down to Penn State, UC (Cincinnati) and Tennessee, but it just seemed right at Indiana,'' Payne said. "It's great that it's close, but my family wanted me to go wherever I wanted. But now that it's done, they all love that it's Indiana, and I'll be so close.
"I love the rising of the football program at Indiana, especially last year when they were the second-best team in the Big Ten. And especially now, with Coach D-Mac back, I love where they're going, and it's great to be a part of it. Coach D-Mac, he's bringing his offense from the NFL to the table too, and that's going to be fun to be a part of. He said with his coaching and my skill-set that we can do some big things. I'm excited to work with him. Going on the visit on Sunday, that just sealed it.''
Sealed it for the family, too.
"We're all very excited for him that he chose Indiana,'' his mother said. "He's handled it all pretty swell. I'm super excited to be so close to him. We left it all up to him, of course, and I had questions. We all had questions. About the scholarship, about the setting, about the school, the staff.
"We all wanted to feel comfortable enough with any school that he visited, and we wanted him to know what it's like to go through that college experience, and let it all up to him. We were going to support his decision no matter what. No matter where he went, he was always going to be a drive away, or a plane ride away. I'm happy it's just a short drive.''
The Indiana staff impressed his parents, too.
"Indiana was new for us and we had a lot of questions. Gi'Bran, sometimes he's not a wealth of information, and when the lockdown got lifted, there were a lot of things we weren't sure about, like official visits and unofficial visits and when he should commit,'' Dannon Payne said. "We knew he had until December to sign, but we didn't know when he should commit. COVID kind of messed things up, and for his class, it gets a little messy without the visits.
"But we're really happy. Really, really happy.''
Adding to the size of 'The Village'
You know that village we discussed? The one that helped Greg and Dannon Payne help raise Gi'Bran into a well-respected young man? Well, that now includes Tom Allen and Deland McCullough and every single person who's a part of the Indiana football program.
"I've been really impressed with how much interest they've all taken in Gi'Bran,'' his mother, Dannon Payne, said. "Especially in the last few weeks, it was just really obvious how much they wanted to have a great relationship with all of us. You want to feel a safety factor there, and we definitely feel it.
"When you leave your child with someone, you want to know that he's in good hands. We certainly feel that with the coaches at Indiana. If I need to know something, or have a question for anyone, I can just ask any of them and get the information I'm looking for. He's 17, but he's very mature, and they have his best intentions at heart. They've shown that.''
The Paynes will be ready to hand him over next year, but they're also glad that he's just going to be an hour or so up the road.
"He just felt really comfortable when he was there,'' said his mother, who's a social worker in Cincinnati. "He really likes the coaches, likes the school, likes the players. It felt right, those were the words he used with me. And if it feels right for him, then it feels right for all of us. We're very happy for him.''
McLaughlin, his high school coach, is very happy, too. He's seen all the work that Payne has put in, seen it all first-hand. Seen it more than anyone, perhaps. The lofty goals? Payne never stops chasing.
"It carries over to him. He's a quiet kid, but he's a leader,'' McLaughlin said. "He sets goals, and he works hard to achieve them. He wants to play a full season this year, and he has a lot of team goals, too. He wants to win state, and we have a tough schedule. We've got a lot of good kids coming back and we have a chance to have a very good season.
"In my opinion, he's a top-10 back in the country. He's the best I've seen. Gi'Bran is that good. He'll do anything to win. As a sophomore, he played with a cast on for a month and he made an interception with basically one hand and ran it back 95 yards for a touchdown. He plays through pain, and works his tail off every day to be great. Indiana is getting a very special player.''
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