By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Foundation
Unlike the training set-up he now uses to mentor pupils at his pole vaulting club in Haslet, Texas, Bill Payne got his start jumping over barbed-wire fences and shower curtain rods.
As for using mats for soft landings, he said, “Shoot, we just used dirt. If we were lucky, we’d be able to get somebody’s old mattress and put it out in the back yard.”
From those humble beginnings in Joshua, Texas, Payne developed into the best pole vaulter Baylor’s ever had, a six-time All-American who still holds the school indoor and outdoor records.
“I actually got involved when I was in the first grade,” said Payne, part of the 2017 Baylor Athletics Hall of Fame class that will be inducted Oct. 20. “I had one of those old-time coaches that was the principal of our elementary school. . . . We had a set of bleachers that were like 6-foot tall, and he had an old bamboo pole. He’d put us at the top of the bleachers and say, ‘Hey, boys, hang on to this pole and ride it to the ground.’ I got hooked.”
A high school quarterback and 14-foot pole vaulter in high school, Payne attracted a few small-college offers. Carl Erickson, Baylor’s pole vault coach at the time, watched Payne at a summer track meet in Dallas and said, “He doesn’t really know how to pole vault, but he’s fast, I could teach him.”
Track coach Clyde Hart gave Payne a partial scholarship and a promise that if he earned All-America honors as a freshman, “we’ll put you on a full-ride (scholarship).”
“My mother came up with the money to get me through that first year, and she said, ‘All right, son, this is all I’ve got, go do what you can,’’’ Payne said. “That freshman year was one of my most memorable times, because I went out and made All-American (fifth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships). Clyde backed his word up, gave me a full scholarship, and I was able to stay in college. And that allowed me to go on and do bigger and better things.”
Mentored by Erickson, Payne was part of a golden era of Baylor pole vaulters that included previous All-Americans David Hodge, Todd Cooper and Mike Shafe that literally set the bar high, becoming the first trio of vaulters from the same school to go over 18 feet in the same NCAA meet (1985).
“The combination of coaching and those three guys is kind of what got me going,” he said. “I always watched them when I was in high school, and I couldn’t stand getting beat. I wasn’t really that good in high school, I was kind of self-taught. Once I got on the same playing field with them, I could see what they were doing, and I learned a lot from them, just watching them. I worked my butt off just to get up there with them.”
And then kept on going, breaking all their school records and setting the collegiate record of 19 feet, 2 ¾ inches in winning his fourth Southwest Conference title at the 1991 outdoor meet in Houston.
A consistent 19-foot vaulter in practice, Payne said to do it in a meet “you’ve got to really have a lot of horsepower and things have got to go right for you. I knew I could do it.”
The week before the SWC Championships, the team was at a meet in Abilene, Texas, and the conditions were so bad that he considered not even vaulting.
“But then, I saw this little junior college kid jump 17-4, and I’m like, ‘Man, if he can jump 17-4, I can go out there and hit a big one,’’’ Payne said. “Sure enough, I did. I jumped 19 foot for the first time. And then all eyes were on me, like, ‘OK, what are you going to do at the Southwest Conference meet?’’’
Payne capped off his phenomenal collegiate career with a runner-up finish at the 1991 NCAA Outdoor Championships. He still holds the top five indoor and outdoor marks, including the indoor record of 18-4 ¾ at a 1990 meet in Norman, Okla.
Turning pro, he won a silver medal at the 1991 Summer Universiade in the United Kingdom, competed at the 1995 World Championships in Sweden and won several Grand Prix meets.
“Unfortunately, I had bad luck on Olympic years, but I can’t complain. I had a really good run,” he said. “I should have made the team in ’92, but it was just a lack of experience. I got too pumped up and couldn’t control it. And then in ’96, I was hurt. My best year was probably ’95. And then, of course, in 1991 when I set the collegiate record. It had been a while since Americans were jumping 19 feet, so that was really big for me.”
Twenty-five years later, though, he found an even greater joy in watching his daughter, Demi Payne, set the collegiate record and become one of just six women in the world who have gone over 16 feet. She was the 2015 NCAA champion while competing at Stephen F. Austin.
“As an athlete, it was very gratifying for me to do it,” he said. “But to sit there and watch my kid do it, I’m telling you that was more overwhelming than I can even tell you.”
Bill and his wife, Dorene, live in Haslett and have three other children, Kaylee, a senior at Eaton High School who will play college volleyball; Kyndal, a high school freshman who will be “the next big thing to come out of high school,” Bill said; and Luke, a 12-year-old who is “just now starting to jump a little bit. His main sport right now is football.”
In addition to coaching the pole vaulting club, Bill has been with FedEx for the last 20 years and currently serves as operations manager at the branch in Fort Worth at Alliance Airport.
Joining Payne in the 2017 Hall of Fame class are fellow track stars Jeff Jackson and Jennifer Jordan Washington, former NCAA tennis champion Benjamin Becker, Steffanie Blackmon off the 2005 women’s basketball national championship team, football players Ron Francis and Bill Hicks and women’s golfer Melanie Hagewood-Willhite.
Tickets to the Hall of Fame Banquet, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20, in the Brazos Room at the Waco Convention Center, are $50 per person and may be purchased by contacting the “B” Association at 254-710-3045 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Table sponsorships (seating for eight) are also available for $750 (individual) or $1,000 (corporate).