Payton Willeford knows first-hand just how physically demanding playing sports can be.
Throughout his career at Parkers Chapel, Willeford played through a litany of injuries.
As a senior, he played with a knee injury that eventually required surgery and cut short his final year on the basketball team.
But the respect he has from his peers is unrivaled.
Last year, he was voted as the only two-time captain in the history of Parkers Chapel football.
Willeford also shines in the classroom, sporting a 4.13 grade point average that ranked him as the class salutatorian.
Thanks to his work, Willeford is a finalist for El Dorado News-Times Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year.
“I’m excited about that,” Willeford said of being the class salutatorian. “It was nice to see that my hard work paid off a little bit.”
Willeford said his father, Josh, was his biggest influence on hitting the books.
“Definitely my dad,” Willeford said. “My dad is that guy who is always going to make sure I’m always doing my best because he wants the best for me.”
When asked about his favorite subject, Willeford said he enjoyed math.
“This year, I would probably have to say it was math,” Willeford said. “I took an AP stats class this year that I really enjoyed. The main reason I enjoyed it the most is because we tried our best to straight up apply it to daily circumstances. We’d use statistics for things going on in the world. We used things from sports. It was just a way that I could tie it into what I was actually interested in. That made it all the world better for me.”
Willeford originally signed with Lyon College to play football, but changed his mind.
“After I had signed, I did end up having knee surgery,” Willeford said. “While I was recovering, they informed me that they had a rule where they didn’t necessarily redshirt, they had this thing called a grayshirt. That means I couldn’t be on the team at all in my first year. That wasn’t something I wanted to be a part of. I wanted to be able to grow with the team, grow with the players, just be a part of it while I was still recovering.”
Having moved on from Lyon, Willeford is heading to a school that has deep roots in his family.
Willeford said he is going to try and walk-on to the football team at Southern Arkansas, adding that he could expand that to powerlifting or track.
“My dad graduated from there, my stepmom did some time there, my grandma used to work there, so it’s always been a part of the family,” Willeford said. “It’s also close enough to where I can still see them, but I won’t be right next to them. They gave me a pretty good academic offer, so it’s the smartest decision for me.”
In addition to being a football standout with the Trojans, Willeford was a three-time district champion in the pole vault.
“There’s some people that can walk up there and they’re so athletic, they can get over eight, nine feet,” Willeford said, adding he has cleared 10 feet in a meet. “If you want to get up there, you have to have good form. It all comes down to technique. It’s a very technical sport for sure.”
As far as his knee is concerned, Willeford said he is just about fully recovered.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Willeford said. “I had about six weeks of rehab after three weeks of not moving. It took some adjusting, but it was OK. I’ve started working out a little bit. I can do a little bit of squatting here and there. Nothing crazy yet, but once I’m fully cleared, I plan on going back to it.”
And it’s because of the laundry list of injuries he’s had during his career that Willeford wants to pursue a medical career. Willeford said he will go into pre-med, but isn’t sure which path he will take.
“Originally, I did want to do some kind of engineering, but just being in sports for so long and having to deal with injuries is just something I’ve become fascinated with,” Willeford said. “I’m not quite sure where I want to go with it, but I want do something in the medical field.”
Willeford’s injuries have rarely kept him from being productive on the football field.
“The knee was this year and a little bit of last year,” Willeford said. “The year before that, I had a contusion in my hip that I had to play on all year. The year before that, I had tissue damage in my MCL.”
Due to low numbers, Parkers Chapel dropped to the ranks of eight-man football last year, but despite the roster limitations, Willeford was determined to play.
“It wasn’t easy, but at the end of the day, it was something I was passionate about,” Willeford said. “With the low numbers that we had, I wanted to make sure everybody got a chance to play.”
And while he was far from being 100% healthy, Willeford did what he could to stay on the field.
“I had to wear a pretty big brace,” Willeford said. “Besides the pain, it wasn’t too bad. Obviously, I wasn’t able to run as fast as I could or jump as high as I could, but I just did what I could to make it through the year.”
Willeford then had to shift gears and get ready for basketball.
“It definitely was different with the amount of jumping I had to do,” Willeford. “I made it about halfway through the season before I had to end it and get the surgery, but I’m glad I did at least try. It was fun. I was glad to be on the team with my friends.”
Having to jump from sport to sport left Willeford also trying balance his work in the classroom, and he said that while it was tough, he had plenty of support.
“It can be very difficult at times,” Willeford said. “I’ve been blessed with people around me and teachers who want to make sure I’m doing my best. I’ve always been able to go to them if I’ve needed help. It’s made it a million times easier.”
Josh Willeford served as Parkers Chapel’s defensive coordinator, and while Payton said there were disagreements, he enjoyed the experience of playing for his father.
“There was no doubt we butted heads because, you know, father and son,” Willeford said. “I really did enjoy having him out there. I knew I could go to him with anything I needed and he was there.”