By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
Chris Payton-Barba will suit up for his 40th varsity football game tonight.
He’s a four-year letterwinner for the Joplin Eagles, not a common occurrence at a Class 6 school.
When he first became a part of the JHS varsity squad, Barack Obama was less than a year into his presidency.
But ask Payton-Barba his key to success and he doesn’t get fancy or mince words. It’s simple really.
“Just don’t do stupid stuff,” Payton-Barba said on Wednesday at Junge Field. “You see some other friends who don’t play sports doing bad stuff and they say ‘Oh, hey come do this.’ But I have stuff I’m supposed to be doing.”
Stuff, like becoming one of the most consistent running backs in a recent Joplin history that has been filled with pass-heavy attacks.
Payton-Barba — all 5-foot-6 and 145 pounds of him — has rushed for 1,279 yards through nine games this season, averaging 142 yards per contest and 5.6 yards per carry. He rushed for 1,030 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior.
He has been the go-to man for Joplin’s zone-read offense.
“The thing for him is, he’s decisive,” Joplin coach Chris Shields said. “ Our inside zone play, our bread and butter, we ran the play about 10 times in the last two drives (last week) and it can go anywhere ... It’s not about size and speed, it’s about vision and balance and being decisive. Chris does a great job of making one cut and getting vertical.”
Payton-Barba — a distant relative, on his mother’s side, of Chicago Bears great Walter Payton — has five games this season with at least 145 yards and two with 200-plus — a 233-yard effort in a driving rain at Parkview and a career-high 256 yards in a home win against West Plains.
He has the ability to break a long run, but more often than not, he is the team’s work horse, surprising opponents with strength and durability.
That, he says, comes from a strong work ethic in the weight room.
“That’s what we do, we lift all the time,” the soft-spoken Payton-Barba said. “We’ve been working since January, on the field and in the weight room.”
Shields — who says Payton-Barba “just doesn’t get tired” — sang the praises of the senior’s mentality, demeanor and attitude as much as anything else.
“He is the most unselfish kid I’ve ever seen,” Shields said. “He will do anything you ask, he’ll take all of the blame and he’ll give all the glory to someone else. I’ve never heard him utter a negative word to any player or coach in any situation since I’ve been here.
“He’s one of those kids who you wish you had 50 of.”
Payton-Barba’s prep career could come to an end tonight. Joplin faces Raymore-Peculiar, the No. 8-ranked team in Missouri Class 6. A loss sends the Eagles home for good.
If that happens, it will be the end of an era, for Joplin football and Payton-Barba.
“Football has been very important to me,” said Payton-Barba, who says he would like to try and play in college while studying to become a physical therapist. “It’s helped my keep my grades up and kept me on the right path.
“It’s been fun and I love the people I’ve been around. It has shaped me into who I am now.”