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NEW ORLEANS — A man weighing 308 pounds and wearing the No. 94 is rarely asked or allowed to touch the football. Such unspoken rules are embedded in the foundation of the sport.
But on the rare occasion when large men are do more than simply move other large men out of the way, one can't help but marvel at that mass being put to such good use.
And for at least one night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Da'Ron Payne, the latest in a long line of supremely gifted Alabama defensive linemen, was not subject to such rules.
Over the course of four-and-a-half minutes and eight plays, Payne made an interception and caught a touchdown pass, contributing in an unlikely way on both sides of the ball. In so doing, he became an unexpected face of Alabama's latest playoff triumph—a suffocating, classically Bama 24-6 victory over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl that secured a spot in the national championship game.
"You all are shocked, but we're not shocked at all," fellow defensive lineman Da'Shawn Hand said of Payne's performance after the game, cracking a smile at his locker. "We have some athletic big man. We're used to it."
In elimination games, it's the quarterback and those privileged enough to touch the football who occupy the spotlight. But on Monday night, Payne was the player on the Sugar Bowl stage enjoying the warmest embrace.
It turns out stars are not required to have six-pack abs or run the 40 in 4.4 seconds. They do not need extraordinary throwing arms that produce tight spirals. Otherworldly athleticism and the ability to do a little something extra will suffice.
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"I dreamed about it last night and it all came true," Payne said while accepting his defensive MVP trophy. "So I'm just blessed and thankful for the opportunity."
It wasn't just that Payne contributed in ways defensive linemen often don't. It was that his contributions came at a time when Alabama needed them most.
With Clemson down just 10-6 nearing the midway mark of the third quarter, quarterback Kelly Bryant was hit while trying to throw. His pass ended up in the arms of Payne, who did a marvelous job to secure a ball that seemed destined to hit the ground. He returned the interception 21 yards, drew a questionable personal foul that added 15 more yards and even executed a shockingly effective juke of a defender during his journey.
"It just kind of shows you his athletic ability," linebacker Rashaan Evans said. "But to be honest, that stuff is pretty usual to see from him. He's the kind of guy who can do it all, and it showed tonight."
Only seven plays later, Payne jogged onto the field on 2-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Lined up at fullback, Payne shifted to his right before the snap.
But rather than running directly into the pile to create a hole for running back Damien Harris—a tactic Alabama has employed with its defensive linemen on offense in the past—Payne sprinted toward the pylon.
"When he made the interception, there was no doubt that we were going to throw him the ball on the goal line," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after the game.
Dreams do come true 🙌 https://t.co/lTkh8WMURU2018-1-2 04:38:48
Because of Payne's athletic ability, the play didn't seem at all unnatural. It was part of the game plan. Throughout the week, Alabama practiced it, hoping to find the right time to use it. And all week long, Payne provided enough evidence that he would be up for it.
"We run it every day, and I was ready," he said. "I catch it every single day. Haven't dropped it yet. I knew they were going to call it, because they told me all week they were going to."
Beyond securing the ball in the end zone, Payne tapped both feet in bounds and looked more like a 308-pound ballerina—if only for a moment—than a lineman.
This was not the first touchdown catch of his football life. He also caught one back at Shades Valley High School in Birmingham, something he wasn't shy about pointing out after the game. You don't forget those moments.
"He got two feet in there," Hand added "I said, 'Man, he learned that from Calvin Johnson.' He's been watching some Lions tape or something."
The design of the play was simple. Payne made sure quarterback Jalen Hurts had a bull's-eye to target.
"Throw it to the belly," Payne said. "So I just made sure that I caught the ball."
The touchdown connection made it a two-score game, which was all Alabama needed, given the way the defense played. Beyond intercepting a pass and scoring a touchdown, Payne also helped limit Clemson to 188 total yards.
The Alabama offense did enough to widen the margin. Hurts finished with two touchdowns on a quiet but efficient evening. But the sequence that will be remembered by the 72,360 Sugar Bowl attendees will unquestionably be the man on the other side of one of his throws.
"[Wide receiver Calvin Ridley] might want to watch out," Hurts said of Payne's receiving skills.
On a night that saw Georgia and Oklahoma combine for 102 points in the Rose Bowl, Alabama made its most dramatic statement on offense with a defensive lineman.
As Payne walked off the field, he cradled his MVP trophy under his arm like a football. He lumbered slowly, in part because he was swarmed with interview and selfie requests. Everyone wanted a slice of the supersized star of Alabama football.
By the end of the night, the focus would undoubtedly move to Georgia and another national championship game. But not then and there, in his moment to soak it all in.