It runs in the family

Published 4:59 pm Monday, December 7, 2015

Nicole Payne, the youngest of the Payne children, runs cross-country and track for Oak Mountain and will play soccer for the Lady Eagles this spring. (Contributed)

Nicole Payne, the youngest of the Payne children, runs cross-country and track for Oak Mountain and will play soccer for the Lady Eagles this spring. (Contributed)

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor


By and large, the Castilles are considered the most athletically gifted family ever to pass through Shelby County. That’s understandable. Jeremiah Castille, the patriarch, did not spend any of his athletic career in Shelby County, but did send his five children to Briarwood Christian School where they were all standout athletes. His sons, Tim, Simeon and Caleb, were especially memorable athletes in their high school days. All went on to follow in their father’s footsteps and spend time playing for the University of Alabama while Tim, who was a five-time ASWA first team All-State selection, and Simeon spent time in the NFL.

The Castilles have had that corner locked down for a long time now. But there’s another family in Shelby County giving them a run for their money.

Meet the Paynes

Oyeleke and Mojemilat Payne are not from here. Both were born in Nigeria, relatively near each other, but had to travel roughly 6,000 miles away from home to meet. Both are quick to flash a wide smile, are incredibly polite and accommodating, and their genuine sincerity is evident in their deep, dark eyes. Mojemilat is a runner by trade, who came to America in 1989 to run the 800-meters for Alabama A&M. Oyeleke grew up in the Nigerian youth soccer program, where he excelled for years as a forward, before also coming to America to play soccer for Alabama A&M, where he played for a season before transitioning into a coaching role.

“I was part of the youth system in Nigeria, that’s where I learned all my tricks of the trade,” Oyeleke said. “In Nigeria you can coach the national team and you can get a little bit of a problem if you lose. If you coach a youth team and you lose one game, it is a whole lot of problem. The focus, the concentration, the tenacity that a coach has to go through to coach in the youth system (in Nigeria) is really, really tough. That’s how I learned my focus, technique and work ethic, and that’s what I try to give to my kids.”

Oyeleke, or Coach Payne, hung up his cleats a year after coming to America, knowing he wanted to concentrate on his education. He and Mojemilat married in 1994 when she got a job with the Birmingham Board of Education. Now, she is the head coach of the cross-country and track and field teams at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, where she is currently mentoring and coaching one of the top track prodigies in the world, Jayla Kirkland.

While both were athletes in their own right and had stellar careers, it is their children who have truly blossomed into world-class talents.

Talented children

Toni Payne, the oldest Payne child, currently plays soccer for Duke University. While in high school, Toni scored 141 goals for Oak Mountain in just three seasons. (Contributed)

Toni Payne, the oldest Payne child, currently plays soccer for Duke University. While in high school, Toni scored 141 goals for Oak Mountain in just three seasons. (Contributed)

Antoinette, or Toni, came first, and it was apparent from an early age she had inherited a natural knack for soccer from her father and speed from her mother. Oyeleke, calling on his years of experience in the game back home in Nigeria, took on the responsibility of coaching his young stead and instilling in her the same values and tricks he had been taught.

“I kind of dove into it (coaching) when she was four or five,” he said. “It just grew from there. She was recruited all over the United States, you name it, any college, all the Division I schools, and she ended up settling with Duke University.”

Oyeleke, an engineer by trade, has now become something of a talent-development guru and helps kids from all over the South navigate the murky waters of high stakes Division I recruiting for soccer. He has an obvious passion for helping kids, not just his own, reach their full potential.

“The opportunity to help the kids is the goal for me,” he said. “That’s really important to me. If any kids, whether you train with me or not, I will help as many kids as I can. You look at the state of Alabama, there are not many opportunities. If God gives someone an opportunity (to play soccer in college), I am willing to help in any way that I can.”

The experience he has in that world came first through Toni’s recruitment. She attended Oak Mountain High School, where she scored 141 goals in her career, which ranks her seventh all-time in state history, in just three seasons. She went to Oak Mountain from 2010-2013, but only played soccer for the school in her final three years. She also accumulated 92 assists in her career at Oak Mountain in her shortened career, good for third place all-time in the state. This means she averaged 47 goals and 31 assists per season for Oak Mountain.

For players at this level, however, high school soccer is more of a side hobby than top priority. Payne spent time with the US U-15 National Team, she was a member of the US U-17 National Team that won the 2012 CONCACAF U-17 Women’s Championship in Guatemala and has spent time training with the U-20 National Team as well. She is “one of the most dynamic and skilled players with the ball to play at Duke,” according to her biography page on the Duke athletics website.

Stephen Payne, the middle child in the Payne family, is currently playing soccer for UCLA. (Contributed)

Stephen Payne, the middle child in the Payne family, is currently playing soccer for UCLA. (Contributed)

Stephen, the middle child, is currently a freshman at UCLA playing soccer as well. He did not attend Oak Mountain High School, rather he went to a boarding school in Chicago, Lake Forest Academy, where he was a four-year lettermen and was a four-star recruit coming out of high school. He also spent time with the US U-18 team in April and October of 2014, according to the UCLA athletic website. He has had offers to play soccer professionally in Portugal, but has not signed a professional contract yet.

The youngest, Nicole, is potentially the most gifted runner of the three, although she is adamant both her siblings are just as fast. All three of the Payne children were runners in their younger days, but Nicole has held on to running the longest, much to the delight of her mother. She won the 2014 7A 400-meter state title for Oak Mountain with a time of 56.09, as an eighth grader. Her personal best in the 400 is a 56.07, which is just 0.91 seconds off the state record. That in and of itself is impressive enough, but when her sprinting ability is paired with what she can do in longer distance races, her talent is better appreciated.

In the 5K, Nicole has routinely run under 19 minutes since she was in the seventh grade. For a reference point, there were only 22 female runners across Alabama that went under 19 minutes in 2015 across all seven classifications. As a seventh grader in 2013 she ran an 18:29.00 at the state meet, good enough for third place overall in 6A and was the sixth-fastest time across the state that season. She placed sixth overall at the 7A state meet this year as a freshman as well after skipping the state meet as an eighth grader. Why didn’t she compete as an eighth grader? She was busy playing soccer for the US National Team. Her ability to excel at both short and long distances at such a high level is essentially unprecedented, and puts Nicole in rarified air with runners across the nation.

And Nicole isn’t even a runner by trade. She, like her brother and sister before her, is a soccer player first and foremost. In fact, it is her soccer training that has allowed her to excel at such a high level, according to her mother.

“Because soccer kind of leads the way, the majority of her training is actually based on soccer,” Mojemilat said. “My husband, what he has done, he has kind of combined that training. There are a lot of things that involve running and soccer, so those are the things he has put in place that have helped. So really, apart from the little more training she does at school, the majority of her training for track comes from dad.”

Nicole, a bubbly, polite, energetic 14-year-old freshman in high school, has some time before she has to make a college decision, although she likes West Coast schools like Southern California and UCLA. In the meantime, she will continue to try and be a normal teenager and do things like hanging out with her friends and seeing movies while simultaneously being quite abnormal and doing things like playing for the U15 National Team. This year, as a freshman at Oak Mountain, she will join the Lady Eagles as they seek to repeat as 7A state champions.

The accolades and awards and achievements the Payne children have racked up over the years goes on and on. It’s much too extensive to list them all here. What is important, however, above their athletic achievements, is to understand who this family is as a group of individuals.

More than talent

The tendency with a family like this, with a family that has produced three children who have accomplished so much athletically, is to chalk all of their success up to God-given talent. People marvel at their ability and watch them do things that their peers, and few people on the planet, can do, and the knee-jerk reaction is to assume they come by it effortlessly. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

“If you’re going to do something, give it all your best,” Oyeleke said. “And I’m going to help you get to the top if that’s what you want to do. But talent can only take you so far. The hard work and the work ethic that it takes to succeed in life is what I try to put into them.”

Yes, they’re a gifted bunch, no doubt about it. But they have worked, hard, for what they have achieved. The combination of talent, dedication and also genuine humility and kindness this family has is both refreshing and compelling. This family has made a conscious decision to help not just their own children, but others as well, reach a level that few could ever hit. If you get a chance to see any of the Payne’s play, they’ll be easy to spot.

They’ll probably be the ones scoring goals.