If you've ever tuned into ESPN on a Saturday morning in the fall, chances are you've heard the story told many times. The story of how the only thing Athlete X wanted as a child was to grow up and play collegiate football. It is a story told with such frequency it has become a cliché, its meaning and impact on the observer diluted.
This is not one of those stories. Payton Beyer did not always dream of lacing up his cleats and playing in front of a large crowd every weekend. Frankly, all he's ever wanted was to have fun.
"Honestly, I was playing sports just to play sports," Beyer said over the phone. "I didn’t really think I was going anywhere with them. But I enjoyed being with the people I was surrounded around and I enjoyed being with all my friends and all that stuff. And I guess I turned out to be alright.”
"Turned out to be alright" is selling it a bit short. Beyer, a senior at Owatonna High School and three-year contributor at wide receiver and corner back, turned in one of the most accomplished careers the school has ever seen when the season ended last fall, racking up over 1,000 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns. As a result, he will be taking his talents to Winona State University in the fall to continue his football career at the NCAA Division II level.
Beyer announced his commitment to the Warriors last Friday, choosing Winona State over offers from Bemidji State University, Minnesota State University, Mankato and the University of Minnesota, Duluth. While it wasn't an easy decision, the family feel of the team and the coaching staff's ability to relate to their players were the factors that ultimately sealed Beyer's decision in their favor.
According to Owatonna wide receivers coach Nate Skala, a former Warrior who continues to have contacts on the team, Winona State couldn't be happier.
“They’re super ecstatic to have Payton commit," Skala said. "I think everyone agrees, if he keeps working at his craft, he could definitely turn some heads in the (Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference)."
Beyer is one of two wide receivers that will be brought in by Winona State head football coach Tom Sawyer next fall, a fact that was intentional on their part, according to Beyer.
“With the whole COVID situation, all of these colleges had their numbers all messed up," Beyer said. "They had roster spots they had to fill, but they had no scholarship money, so they were trying to keep spots available for players. They only had a few receivers come in and I was luckily one of them. So, that was pretty cool. They told me that I was one of the few they were offering.”
Beyer, a self-described natural athlete, possesses great size for a wide receiver, standing 6-foot-3 and weighing in at around 200 pounds. His large frame and innate ability to make adjustments to the ball give him a significant catch radius, an attribute that quarterbacks and coaches love. It was these characteristics that made it difficult to keep him off the field, even as a sophomore, according to Skala.
"His hands are tremendous and he runs precise routes," Owatonna head coach Jeff Williams said. "We really got to see his full potential this year as he did not have as many receiving weapons around him. He was forced to step up and be 'the guy' and his performance did not disappoint. Payton really established himself as an outstanding leader this year. He is not easily rattled and that allowed him to step up and make clutch plays in tense and important situations. He became our 'go to guy' when the chips were down."
Although quite strong, his game isn't without its weaknesses. He could have fallen more in love with the weight room, Beyer admits, and he won't be the fastest guy on the field in terms of straight line speed. But, according to Skala, that hardly matters for the hard-working Beyer.
“His (40-yard dash) time isn’t going to blow people away, but when you get him on the game field and game speed and his playmaking ability, it shows up for sure," Skala said. "We would be watching him in practice run routes and we’d be like ‘Man, he looks fast’, so there’s a difference.”
Beyer will likely redshirt as a freshman, allowing him to retain all four years of eligibility while still allowing him to practice and be around the team. This doesn't bother him, though, as redshirting falls in line with his goals.
“Definitely getting bigger, faster, stronger, that whole deal," Beyer said. "Make sure I earn a spot as well as the chance that I got to have a spot. I just want to make sure that I have a connection with all the players there and make sure I fit in. And enjoy it as well.”
Fitting in won't be an issue for Beyer, according to Skala.
"He’s an awesome kid...Has a great sense of humor," Skala said. "He’s always good at lightening the mood when it’s needed, but he also knows when it’s time to compete and when it’s game time. Kind of that balance that is hard to teach. The loose side of people, but also knowing when it is game time.”
Speaking with Beyer revealed a level of maturity and self-awareness that is uncommon for a kid his age, two characteristics that readily manifest every time he takes the field or court. These traits along with those mentioned by Skala will serve him immensely, not only on the football field at Winona, but as he advances through life as well.
At the end of the day, that is what matters.