Walter Payton Award nominees announced

FAMU Florida A&M Rattlers Logo
Posted at 5:08 PM, Jul 24, 2013
and last updated 2013-07-24 17:08:00-04

First presented in 2008, the Walter Payton Achievement Award is an honor given annually to a player from each school participating in the MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney.

The award is named in honor of late Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, who attended Jackson State University, a SWAC school, in the 1970s before embarking on his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears.

Three nominees from each school -- Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference’s Florida A&M University (Tallahassee, Fla.) and Southwestern Athletic Conference’s Mississippi Valley State University (Itta Bena, Miss.) -- were selected by a committee consisting of academic advisers and coaches.

Two winners -- one player from each school -- from the pool of six will be determined via online fan voting before the game on Sept. 1. Voting opens on July 19 and ends on Aug. 19, with the winners announced on Aug. 30.

Here are the nominees from each school:

Mississippi Valley State University nominees

Julian Stafford, WR

Hometown: Memphis, Tenn.

Major: Physical Education

Class: Junior

GPA: 2.53

In 2012, Stafford’s 51 receptions led the team, propelled him to fifth in the conference, and resulted in 779 yards and four touchdowns. He also returned two kickoffs for scores and was ranked fifth in the FCS in kickoff return average (29.5). Stafford was ranked second in the SWAC in all-purpose yards, with an average of 115.9 per game. “He’s a fluid and elusive receiver with real good hands,” coach Karl Morgan said. “He can be great here at MVSU, if he really wants to be.”

Robert Simpson, DT

Hometown: Biloxi, Miss.

Major: Business Administration

Class: Senior

GPA: 3.06

Simpson is coming off of his best season as a Devil. He led the FCS in tackles for a loss, with 22.5 and was named to The Sports Network FCS All-America team. He also made first team All-SWAC and was a Boxtorow Honorable Mention All-American. Simpson was an integral part of an MVSU defense that was ranked second in the nation last year. “He’s a four-year starter who was one of our first signees in the summer of 2010,” Morgan said. “His progress mirrors the progress of the program.”

Kevin Eugene, S

Hometown: Miami

Major: Business Administration

Class: Senior

GPA: 3.06

After transferring from Fond Du Lac Tribal and Community College in Minnesota, Eugene immediately made an impact in his role as a starting safety. He racked up 38 tackles last season and tied for second in the SWAC with four interceptions. He also scored twice; once on an interception return, and the other on a 100-yard fumble recovery return against Texas Southern. “He’s a good, instinctive player and a good person,” Morgan said. “He’s an example of the success we’ve had with the junior college players we’ve signed … good, solid players, but better people.”

Florida A&M University nominees

Damien Fleming, QB

Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.

Major: Physical Therapy

Class: Junior

GPA: 3.02

Fleming has been the Rattlers’ starting quarterback since midway through his freshman year. His grace under pressure made him one of the most successful QBs in the conference, with impressive results: 2,157 yards and 16 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He ranked 23rd nationally among FCS passers in 2012, with 142.2 yards per game. Fleming was initially accepted to Vanderbilt, but a coaching change paved the way for the Rattlers to steal him away. “Damien is the best quarterback in the state of Florida,” raves FAMU coach Earl Holmes. “On top of that, he is solid in the classroom. We look for his maturity to help lead our players on and off the field.”

Jonathan Pillow, S

Hometown: Jacksonville, Fla.

Major: Physical Therapy

Class: Senior

GPA: 3.08

Originally signed as a quarterback, Pillow stepped in last season to fill a significant and unexpected void in the Rattler defense. After an injury sidelined the starting safety, Pillow made quite an impression in his first full-time action, when he led the entire team with 10 solo tackles and three assisted ones against Oklahoma. Last season, Pillow led all returning players in tackles with 66. “Jonathan is a solid football player and an even better young man,” praised Holmes. “He was thrown in the fire against our toughest competition of the year in the Oklahoma Sooners, and he responded with hard-nosed play. He proved all last season that he is capable of playing at a high level.”

Chase Varnadore, K

Hometown: Tallahassee, Fla.

Major: Psychology

Class: Junior

GPA: 3.00

Varnadore took over the kicking duties after Trevor Scott, one of the most accurate kickers in FAMU history, graduated. While he had big shoes to fill, Varnadore has more than risen to the challenge. Last season, he was named SBN First Team All-American as well as MEAC Special Teams Player of the Year for his outstanding performance against North Carolina Central University. Varnadore made five field goals, leading the Rattlers to a 22-21 upset victory over the second-place Eagles. He also nailed a 41-yard field goal to become the first FCS opponent to score on an FBS school last season. “Chase is the kind of guy you feel confident about going into battle with,” explains Holmes. “Last season we had issues scoring in the Red Zone; so I told him going into the NCCU game that if we get down there I was going to call on him. I didn’t know we would need him five times, but he came through without a miss.”