Birmingham Natives Become International Royalty
The Payne family has quickly risen to international prominence from very humble beginnings. While Toni, Stephen, and Nicole’s home is in Birmingham, Alabama, their foundations come from Nigeria with their parents Mojemilat and Oyeleke Payne. The Nigerian backgrounds of Mojemilat and Oyeleke obviously opened the door for Toni and Nicole to play for the Nigerian National Team, but it also taught the young athletes about working for everything they desire.
Oyeleke and Mojemilat Payne are two First Generation Nigerian immigrants, and the parents of the Payne siblings. Mojemilat was a track star who came from Nigeria in 1989 to attend Alabama A&M in Huntsville, Alabama. Her success in the 800m brought her to the United States where she eventually met “Coach Payne.” While they did grow up in the same country, Oyeleke and Mojemilat met in Huntsville while Oyeleke played soccer for one season, then eventually became a coach. Coach Payne decided that his education came first, and that drive of work ethic and education is clear in their children.
Mojemilat would eventually move to Birmingham with receiving a job offer to become a physical education teacher in the Birmingham City Schools. Coach Payne, of course, followed his wife to Birmingham where he has become a local legend and has taught almost every single soccer player to ever come out the 205. Their hard work to come to the United States, stay on top of their academics, and continue to thrive in their respective crafts takes hard work that most could not imagine putting in. For the Paynes, this was just life. The opportunity to give their children the best chance to succeed as not only athletes, but as humans was and will always be paramount in the Payne Household. The fruits of their labor are ripening for the entire world to see, and the footballing world will never be the same (in a great way).
The eldest sibling is Antoinette Payne. Payne, an Oak Mountain Hall of Famer, paved the way for her and siblings to put the Payne family on the map. After a VERY successful high school sporting career where she dominated the track and field, won a 5A State Championship in Soccer, receiving U-17 USWNT call ups, and finally winning the Gatorade Player of the Year. Her U-17 call up made major news in the state of Alabama, with the 16 year old sending real shockwaves throughout the Birmingham area. A Birmingham native having success as a young soccer player is not a new idea, it’s not even new for Oak Mountain student, but something about Toni felt different. The Payne family felt different. This was no flash in the pan and the success would continue to skyrocket.
Toni was obviously a brilliant athlete, but she absolutely blew away the university and professional divisions. The political science student was considered to be, “One of the most dynamic and skilled players with the ball to play at Duke.” This is high praise considering the former and current National Team and Professional talent that Duke University has produced in the women’s side. Toni is often spoken highly for her pace, vision, and natural finishing.
Professionally, Toni signed with Ajax straight out of college. The young forward would go on an earn 22 appearances for the club in Amsterdam. This is a massive move for Payne as she would become the first member of her family to become a professional. She would later sign a three year deal with Sevilla, only after completing the Double with Ajax. Her pace and efficiency has earned her 66 appearances with the club, and has been the leading goal scorer for the club in the Capitol city. That said, the highest honor is her call up to the Nigerian Women’s National Team. While she only has one official cap for the Super Falcons (coolest name ever, by the way), she is considered to be the future of Nigerian football and many anxiously for her next appearance with the team.
Stephen Payne is the middle child and the only brother in the Payne family. Stephen’s talent was clear from day one. Just like his mother and his older sister, he was a track star and like Toni, a soccer phenom. While he was born in Birmingham, Alabama, Stephen attended a high school in Chicago, Illinois called Lake Forest Academy and was involved with the Chicago Magic PSG Academy. While at the Chicago Magic, Stephen received an invite to the U18 USMNT camp after totaling 24 goals and 14 assists in one season at Lake Forest.
After his time at Lake Forest, Stephen committed to attend UCLA, following after another Birmingham native, Chandler Hoffman (who was elected in the same Hall of Fame class as Toni Payne). While at UCLA, Stephen showed his potential in a very competitive side in Los Angeles. While he only contributed one goal and one assist, both came in crucial situations. His assist came as the leveler in a 4-3 win over UC Irvine where UCLA overcame a 0-3 deficit and scored 4 straight to win the match in overtime. His first goal came against San Diego State in a 4-0 win for the Bruins, but that goal was as cool as you like.
After one season at UCLA, Payne began his professional career in Portugal called G.D. Estoril Praia. Estoril is a very prominent club in Portugal, appearing the Europa League just as recently as 2013-2014. While Payne was at the club, Estoril was in the middle of a golden generation of success where Payne unfortunately did not have the opportunity to play for the club.
In 2017, Stephen made the move to Varzim Sport Club. When Payne joined the club, Varzim was recently promoted to the Liga Portugal 2 (second tier). He spent some time with the B team where he scored 7 goals throughout the season. With that success, he moved up to the first team where he made 14 appearances with only one goal. Despite only one goal, his talent was very obvious and he was making an impact every time he stepped on the pitch.
That talent was recognized by Portimonense Sporting Clube, a Primeira Liga club who took a punt and signed the youngster. The club did not end up playing him, but sent him on loan for him to gain playing time and gain more professional experience in Portugal. Payne became a Portugal journeyman with many loans and many appearances across the many tiers of Portugal.
Recently, Stephen has signed with America’s oldest club, the Richmond Kickers. The Kickers are a USL League One side which are apart of the third tier of soccer in the United State. This move to Richmond will make for his first professional experience in the United States. This historic club will surely take care of Payne with the leadership of the Red Army and prominent voices in the US Soccer-verse like RiverCity93.
Nicole is the youngest of the bunch, six years younger than Toni. While she may be the youngest, Nicole’s résumé already speaks for itself. The West Virginia Junior has made over 33 appearances as both a forward and a defender, tallying 4 goals and 2 assists through just two seasons of work at West Virginia. While this is a very impressive tally, her legend started long before her time at West Virginia.
While at Oak Mountain High School, Nicole was one of the most dominant track and field stars the state of Alabama had ever seen, winning the Gatorade Track and Field Player of the Year. She was a multiple time state champion in track and field, leaving Oak Mountain as a state record holder in the 200m and 400m. This is all before her soccer accolades. She was called up for the USWNT youth teams multiple times, earning caps for the U17 and U19 groups. Her success lead to her being considered one of the top athletes of the 2019 gradating class.
In 2021, the Payne family made history. For the first time ever, two sisters shared the pitch together for the Nigerian national team. For a country with as rich of a history as Nigeria, this was a fairly shocking stat for everybody to read. The Payne sisters have the eyes of everybody upon them, but they have seemed to take it all in stride. While both are very experienced footballers to this point, many see the Payne’s as the future of Nigerian football, and there is not a single family that would represent a country.
Toni, Stephen, and Nicole were born with talent. That was obvious. With the parents they have, it was impossible for them to not be blessed with outrageous potential. However, we have seen this song and dance before. Athletes with talent and potential, but complacency takes over. Not the Paynes. Mojemilat and Oyeleke would never allow that to happen. They instilled a work ethic that has brought the family, the city of Birmingham, and an entire country of Nigeria an overwhelming sense of pride. While their journeys are not yet over, their legacies will last a lifetime.
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