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Bring ’Em Back: Alli Payne

Jan 6, 2021

"Bring 'Em Back" is a series of features on Oregon alumni who played important roles in UO athletics history, but who may not have received the attention their contributions merit. Listen to "Duck Insider" each week for more interviews with deserving Ducks from years past. To nominate a former UO student-athlete for the series, click here.

Rain was falling in the San Francisco Bay Area on a spring day more than 20 years ago when Alli (White) Payne found herself on the side of a highway, blinking back tears as she dialed the phone number of her third-grade teacher.

Payne hadn't spoken with Mrs. Kath in some time. But having recently graduated from the University of Oregon, where she was an honorable mention all-Pac-10 volleyball player in 1998, Payne wasn't finding joy in her new job as a recruiter for the tech industry.

Mrs. Kath, she remembered, "had a firm hand, yet an encouraging hand – much like some of the best coaches I've ever had."  Payne knew she could provide some wisdom.

Her advice: "Get in here. You were born to be a teacher."

"I drove there that day," Payne recalled recently. "And I'm now in my 21st year of teaching."

A native of Los Gatos, Calif., Payne is now giving back to the community that once raised her. She's teaching first grade at the elementary school she herself attended. She has a daughter attending Los Gatos, who dreams of being an athlete at Oregon, just as Payne once was.

In her career with the Ducks, Payne battled injuries while competing in the most grueling college volleyball conference in the country. She learned about fighting through adversity, which she's doing now while helping educate young children through the challenges of a pandemic.

"Where I grew up gave me so much, whether it be a coach or a teacher or the village of parents who surrounded me," Payne said. "Now I have the ability to give that back."

Payne averaged 3.73 kills per set and led the Ducks with 97 blocks as a senior in the fall of 1998. She married former UO football player Greg Payne, and they moved back home to Northern California after graduating from Oregon.

Payne began her job as a recruiter, and coached the junior varsity team at her old high school. She played some exhibition volleyball matches with a group of other recent college graduates, including former Stanford setter Lisa Sharpley. But mostly, Payne was ready to move on with her life, building a career and a family.

It wasn't very long before that fateful day when she pulled off Interstate 280, the main artery between San Francisco and San Jose, and wiped away tears while calling Mrs. Kath. What, Payne wondered, was her destiny? She knew one thing: Working in high tech wasn't it.

"I'm an outgoing person, and I gravitate toward helping people," she said. "Coaching and teaching is where my passion lies."

Almost immediately, Payne re-routed her life's path. By fall of that same year, she was working toward her teaching credential. A one-year training program was turned on its head when, that November, a second-grade teacher abruptly resigned.

Within months of her epiphany on the side of a highway, Payne was offered the chance to lead a classroom of second graders.

"I said, 'Let's do it,' '' she recalled. "And that's all she wrote."

Two decades later, Payne is still at it. Her daughter Addison, 16, is a junior at Los Gatos High. Her second child, Taylor, 11, plays on a youth team coached by Payne's former Oregon volleyball teammate Shelby Edwards, now a high school principal.

They're both trying to navigate the pandemic this year, and keep their kids on track – the kids they're raising, and the kids they're teaching. Payne is scheduled to be back in front of a classroom in January, after primarily online learning this fall.

"Children are amazing," Payne said. "They're so much more resilient than we are; they can teach us a lot. This has taught me a lot about grace and empathy and humility in life. The kids have been amazing; the families have been amazing."