Brock Netter, Staff Writer
WHEELERSBURG — Year in and year out, Wheelersburg is one of Southeast Ohio’s premier football powerhouses.
While the team leaned on a new cast of players this past season, after the graduation of a strong senior class the year before, the Pirates met their standards by going 8-4, winning the SOC II and making the playoffs for an eighth straight time.
One of the key contributors to those accomplishments was L.J. Payton, who made his presence felt from the wide receiver position.
After helping the Pirates piece together a 20-6 record over the past two seasons, he’s decided to continue his football career at the collegiate level and commit to Ohio Northern University.
“I love their football program and everything they have going on there. During my overnight visit, the team and staff made me feel welcomed and they were all pretty cool guys who I could see myself around in the future,” Payton said. “Being at ONU just made me feel at home. But most importantly, I am majoring in nursing and ONU has a great nursing program. That played a big role in my final decision because not only do I want to play college football for a great program, but I also want to be able to set myself up for a career after college.”
After moving to Wheelersburg from Pickerington during his sophomore year, the same year Wheelersburg won the Division V State Championship, Payton quickly saw how different the culture was as a Pirate.
Once he had the chance to be around Pirates coach Rob Woodward and understand how things were done, the transformation from him as a player quickly took place.
He contributed this year with 14 catches and a touchdown reception, as well as 11 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble on the defensive end.
“I wish I would have been with coach Woodward for all four years. He was always able to understand me more as a person rather than just a player,” Payton said. “He always pushed me to be the best player I could be, and he always preaches, ‘Control the things that you can control.’ I didn’t really get it at first but as the days went by, I started to realize the deeper meaning of those words. I control my attitude, character, work ethic, determination … you have all the things that can make you a better person, but only you can control them.”
Although he only spent two seasons as a Pirate, his memories suiting up for the orange and black are endless. But there’s a couple that particularly stand out.
“The Ashland and Minford games this past season are my top two favorites for different reasons,” Payton said. “We were in overtime [against Ashland] and if we scored, we win. I knew that if I held my block long enough for [running back] Makya [Matthews] to get outside of me, then we were cool. He hiked the ball and I got my block just long enough for him to run by me and into the end zone. I was so excited. If you look back at the film, you can see me jumping about four feet in the air after he scored.
“Minford was wild. Another overtime game, but this time Minford had the ball and if they scored, they won. I was confident our defense could make the stop. Both teams lined up ready to go. Minford hiked the ball, handed it off and tried to dive through the line. My heart stopped for a second because I couldn’t see the ball carrier anymore. Then the refs blew the play dead and I saw the he didn’t score. I ran to celebrate with the team so fast that I cramped up on the way there. Completely worth it.”
Payton is going to a Polar Bear team that finished with a 6-4 record this past fall.
While he admits that he isn’t the fastest player on the field, he continues to work on the little things, along with his route-running, to ensure he sees the field at the next level.
“I’ve never been the fastest guy on the field, but I’ve always been quick,” Payton said. “So I used this to my advantage and did footwork and route-running drills almost everyday to sharpen that part of my game. It was a process but to look back and see the progress that I made is surprising. I’m confident that any field I step on, I run the best routes.”