Payton Lewis knows the urgency — he sees the look in his father’s bulging eyes. It is the “Lewis Look” that dates back generations. Banjo eyes, they call it.
One pole vault attempt remains at the NCAA Division II outdoor track & field meet. If he misses the mark, that’s it. It would be a failure in the mind of Lewis, who has first-team All-American aspirations.
And it would be disappointing for his father, who stands near the runway in the coach’s box.
“You have got to compete right now,” father Kasey Lewis says to his son, Payton, who missed two previous attempts. “You’ve got to compete right now.”
Would the nerves get the best of him? They did two months prior at the national indoor meet. That’s when Payton entered with the No. 3 mark in the country, but finished ninth. A second-team All-American award was a laudable accomplishment, but he expected more.
And now the nerves are back.
His warmups are bad. The crosswind is nasty. The pressure is mounting.
Some athletes never get this opportunity — and there’s no guarantee it will come again. Kasey, a former Boise State assistant, talked about mental preparation for two weeks with Payton, and in this moment of desperation, the Banjo Eyes are the signal to get serious.
And so Payton darts down the runway, plants the fiberglass pole and skies above 16-feet, 2.75 inches to advance out of the opening round.
A short time later, he stood alongside his father and held a plaque as a first-team All-American.
“It was kind of fun to share that with him; I looked at him, and he kind of wanted to tear up,” said Payton, who hit 16-10.75 in the ensuing round to seal fourth place on May 23 at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. “I would say I achieved more than I expected. I set standards for myself, but you kind of expect to not reach some of them.”
Two All-American awards as a freshman? And to think, it was only his fifth season of pole vaulting.
PIGSKINS TO POLES
Football was his first interest, partly because his grandpa was a 1953 NFL draft selection by the Los Angeles Rams. Ray Lewis, the author of the Banjo Eyes, displayed an eye-bulging intensity that translated into a successful career as a coordinator at Boise Junior College under legend Lyle Smith.
Thus, Payton was initially more concerned with tackles and handoffs.
The pole vault was just a recreational activity.
“When he was younger, he was a chubby little guy. He was a bit slow down the runway,” said Kasey, who won the 1982 gold medal at the Pan American Junior Athletics Championships in Venezuela. “He would do it 100 times without me really coaching him. I wouldn’t really push him to do much of anything.
“It was kind of something he fell in love with on his own.”
As a high school freshman, Payton’s mindset altered. Time to pole vault. Four years later, he graduated Nampa Christian High with back-to-back state championships, hitting a height of 16-2 as a senior.
He increased that distance by nearly a foot as a freshman at Northwest Nazarene — which he partly credited to gymnastics training — and swept the GNAC championship titles in both the indoor and outdoor seasons.
Payton became the second pole vaulter in the league’s 14-year tenure to clear 17 feet, posted the best overall mark in championship event history (16-11) and repeatedly surpassed the Crusaders’ all-time school record of 16-1 set by Mark Unicume in 1984.
“Some people can waste their talents or the blessings that God gave you, but I’m glad I stuck with it,” said Payton, who was named West Region Field Athlete of the Year during the indoor season — an award given by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA). “I definitely thank Him for all my talent, and the blessings He’s given me, and all that stuff. It’s crazy that he’s blessed me with these talents.”
It continues the family lineage of pole vault success.
Payton won his collegiate debut at the Jackson’s Open inside the Idaho Center with a first-place vault of 16 feet, 9.25 inches. It broke the NNU indoor school record, which happened to be owned by cousin Preston Lewis (15-9 in 2005).
Now he aims to beat more relatives: Kasey (17-10) owns the highest mark in the family, followed by uncle Tori (17-6), who was a decathlete at the University of California Berkeley.
“He’s not going to have any problem beating that,” said Kasey, who was the first three-time Idaho state champion (5A Capital High, 1979-81). “It’s going to happen soon. He’s so ready.
“Finite improvements are going to make big catapults for him.”
Imagine what the future holds for Payton, who also broke school records in the heptathlon, long jump and decathlon — the latter was his third GNAC title of the year.
But his long-term aspirations are centered around the pole vault — and the potential is endless for an athlete who reached a height of 17-0.75 this past season.
Genetics and clutch performances appear to be on his side, too.
Kasey endured a similar pressure-cooker situation in 1982 at the U.S. Junior Track & Field Championships in Bloomington, Indiana. The competition was stiff. He had one final attempt to stay alive and qualify for the Pan Am Games.
And Kasey conquered the trepidation with a 16-5 vault that won the national title and clinched a plane ticket to Venezuela.
Still, he’s never felt more nervous than that day in Michigan, when Payton had a last-gasp attempt to qualify for the next round of nationals.
The Banjo Eyes sent the signal to dig deep.
And Payton followed in his father’s footsteps to overcome the tension and cement a building block for the future.
“My ultimate goal is to go to the Olympics,” said Payton, who swept the GNAC Freshman of the Year award during the indoor and outdoor seasons, and aims to vault 19 feet as his prime years unfold. “Everybody has a goal of breaking the world record. That’s my ultimate goal: To break the world record in the pole vault.”