The question asked of Kendrick Payne is, "what do you do in your spare time?"
The 6-foot-2 defensive lineman, along with running back Covaughn Deboskie, is one of two members of Cal's incoming recruiting class who decided to forego their final semester of high school to start college early. By enrolling at Cal in January, it enables them to participate in spring practice and get a jump on the 2008 football season.
"It's gone pretty well so far," said Payne, who's one of three defensive lineman in the 2008 recruiting class along with Trevor Guyton and Aaron Tipoti. "I'm learning to handle things on my own."
Playing as an interior lineman, Payne made a lot of progress during the spring. After rotating in and out with the third unit defense early in the spring, Payne was beginning to see some work with the second unit defensive line alongside Ernest Owusu and Cameron Jordan as Derrick Hill began to see work with both the first and second units.
At one point this spring, Payne had his "Welcome to D-1 football" moment.
"The coaches put me out there with the ones. It was very different," said the even-keeled Payne. "In high school, I was used to always dominating. I'd never felt so helpless. It was the first reality check."
Although such an experience could be debilitating to a young player's confidence, Payne took it in stride.
"For me, it lets me know how far I have to go, and I know I have to get stronger," said Payne, who has a list of what he'd like to work on this summer. "I need to get bigger, faster, and work on my arm strength. That's why I wanted to come in early. I've always been strong in my legs but I can definitely see some room for improvement."
While he's still new to the team, he's happy with the chance to work with new defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi.
"I couldn't ask for a better coach," said Payne, who had 44 tackles and seven sacks for Houston's Klein Forest High School last season. "He's intense, and you can tell that after last season he was angry and determined not to let that happen again. He's always reminding us that 7-6 is not acceptable."
Much of the team was felled with some sort of illness during the spring and Payne was no different. Although listed as weighing 255 pounds prior to his senior year, he showed up to campus weighing 281 pounds, but was actually down to 272 during spring camp.
"I'd like to get back up to 280 by fall camp," said Payne, who was rated as a two-star star recruit. "If I can go into the season around 280 or 285, that's be good."
Probably the most frequent question that the 6-foot-2 freshman from Houston's Klein Forest High School has been asked is "Why?"
For high school seniors, that last semester of high school is one of the great moments of life. Besides winding down classes and coming to the steady realization that a major phase of life is about to end, there's that nervousness as friends race home to check mailboxes to see where they'll be going to college, there's senior ditch day, the prom, getting your yearbook signed, and a time when you're at ease of unburdening yourself of crushes, grudges, and admirations.
So the question, again, is "Why?"
"A lot of people have asked that," said Payne. "I didn't want to be sitting around. I looked at my credits and saw that I just would have needed one credit in the spring, so I thought, why not go ahead and get a head start?"
But the story of how Payne ended up graduating early shows an unusual level of foresight for anyone, much less a high school student.
"Three weeks before the school year started in the fall, I gave it serious thought," said Payne, who never needed to take classes during the summer to graduate early. "Sometimes counselors make mistakes so I always kept track of my own credits. I always made sure that I filled out my schedule when I took classes, and I kept track of which classes I needed. I saw that if I took this one class on Saturdays that I'd be able to finish up."
By starting school in January, Payne wasn't able to benefit from the Summer Bridge program which helps smooth out the transition to college. Consequently, he's had to take a crash course in everything in that freshmen have to go through. Part of that means adjusting to an entirely different geography. Where classes once were located in a small cluster of buildings, Payne now finds himself crisscrossing the expanse of the Cal campus several times a week.
"The first three weeks I didn't have a bus pass so I had to learn my around the campus quickly," said Payne. "I got lost a few times, but I learned my way around."
Payne's roommate is Covaughn Deboskie, another student-athlete who eschewed his final semester of high school to start college early.
"Covaughn's been a like a brother to me and we do what we can to help each other," said Payne, who admits the adjustment to college has been tougher for him than his roommate. "You have to remember everything and always have to keep track of where you have to be. In high school people will call to check up on you, but out here, if I don't remember, it doesn't happen. The coaches have been staying on me, and Coach Lupoi's always reminding me that I can't be late."
Coming from Texas, going home for the weekend isn't a convenient option, but he's able to stay close with his family.
"We talk everyday," said Payne, who missed most of his junior season with a hip pointer. "I love my family and I love being around them. It's difficult, but when I look into the future, I see how much this'll benefit me."
Although the first semester can especially challenging for a student who's thousands of miles of home, Payne is absolutely certain that he's in the right place.
Payne visited Arizona State, Rice, Tulane, and Iowa State in addition to Cal, and after visiting Berkeley this January, the decision was easy.
"Going to a good academic school was one of the biggest points (for me)," said Payne, whose uncle is former NFL running back Harvey Williams. "I've had it drilled into my head that football doesn't last forever. All the people in my family are athletes and that all painted the picture that it was going to be hard, but I needed to make a good decision about choosing a good academic school. I could have gone to Rice, but I thought even if I don't end up in the NFL, I wanted to chance to play big-time football and if I could do that at a great school, that would be the perfect combination."
Now year after year there are stories about players who choose Cal for its academic reputation, but then during the following four or five years, you'll hear little to no mention about what their major is or what classes they're taking. While they may dutifully attend classes and responsibly pursue their academics, it's rare when you hear anybody discuss their classwork with any degree of fervor.
Not so with Payne.
"I've been taking sociology and an introduction to physics course," said Payne. before excitedly talking the section of Physics C10 that he's enrolled in. "The course is called Physics for Future Presidents. That's real cool, it covers things that every president should know about physics, like global warming."
And so on this early spring evening, instead of deciding whether to make a run to a nearby Sonic or Krystal in northwest Houston, he's two time zones away, discussing physics, graduating early, getting lost on campus and practicing with Cal's first unit. As well as the only question that he's having trouble answering.
He finally finds the answer, probably not one that he's happy with, but for now it'll have to do.
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As he searches for an answer to the question, Kendrick Payne has the look of someone who might have had a good reply a few months ago. But maybe a result of trying to answer that question several months ago explains why he is where he is. Instead of goofing around and scraping together burger money back in Texas, he's spending his spring fighting his way past 300-pound men on the football field.