By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
BRIMLEY – Thirty years ago this spring, John Payment became an unlikely part of Michigan high school track & field history.
In some respects, it almost seems like yesterday the Brimley High School senior soared 7-feet, 1 inch, to set an MHSAA Finals high jump record that still stands. In fact, Payment is the only Upper Peninsula athlete in this sport to own an all-Finals record – meaning his performance remains the best all-time from any class or division in either peninsula.
Payment is still approached by strangers about his performance that 1989 day in Marquette, and is stunned people remember what he did.
Think about it: A high school senior with a minimal high jump history from a tiny Upper Peninsula town accomplished a feat that has not been duplicated by hundreds of athletes from big cities like Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids.
It is mind-boggling it happened, and mind-boggling the record still stands. Talk about doing something very notable well beneath any radar screen.
"It is kind of neat to say no one in the state of Michigan has ever done this," Payment said in a telephone interview on the eve of the 2019 Upper Peninsula Track & Field Finals. "It is actually kind of weird to say it.
"It is very humbling. It is amazing people haven't forgotten. It never gets old."
Payment still finds it hard to believe it happened. He had never been able to break the 6-10 barrier in a meet, even though practice jumps convinced him he could surpass that mark.
At the U.P. Finals, he even passed until the bar got to 6-11. He missed twice at 7-0, then easily cleared it on his final try, by a couple of inches. He then asked officials to put the bar at 7-1, but his next jump was delayed until the height could be measured officially to ratify the record attempt.
By that time, the public address announcer had explained Payment’s opportunity to the huge crowd in attendance at what remains the Upper Peninsula's largest one-day prep athletic contest. The meet basically came to a stand-still as athletes in the infield gathered around the high jump bar.
"(The official) stood on a folding chair and measured the bar at 7-1," said Payment. "He then told me, 'Son, if you do this, it is a state record.'"
After clearing that record-setting height, Payment said, "I was excited. Then I tried 7-2, but my legs got rubbery and I just couldn't do it. They said I cleared 7-1 by 3-4 inches. I just couldn't do it anymore. I had an adrenalin rush, but I just wore out."
Obviously very excited at what had just happened, the request to go at 7-2 came up instantly – and he never really had a chance to collect his thoughts and rejoice.
"I couldn't wait for the other jumpers to jump because they were done. It was like boom, boom, boom. I couldn't just sit down and let it sink in," he recalled.
In the immediate aftermath, Payment said he understood what had just happened. "It was huge; it was like a sigh of relief that I just did 7-feet. I was more in awe than anything. (But) I didn't get a chance to savor it."
The realization of what he did hit home on the way back to Brimley when he learned the Detroit Free Press was trying to contact him for an interview. "It was like, wow, this is something. Now it is a bigger deal. It took a little while to have it soak in about the caliber of the jump," he said.
Payment and teammates Bob Carrick and Kevin Sutton finished 1-2-3 in the high jump in U.P. Class D that day, and Payment said having good teammates and their competition helped him reach record heights. In fact, Carrick helped him adjust his approach by having Payment start a step closer on the blacktop rather than begin on the grass.
"I had three teammates always helping. We would be laughing and joking. It wasn't stressful. That was helpful. It was an individual event, but we made it our individual event," he said.
He also adjusted from a J approach to a straight-on Fosbury Flop to clear the bar.
Blessed with strong legs, Payment said he "messed around in the gym" and then his coach, John Morrison, said he should try the event. "I cleared it pretty good," said Payment.
As a junior, he drove to Mount Pleasant and worked with the Central Michigan University coach, who later came to Brimley for some on-site coaching. "We just jumped. It was fun," he said, indicating he quickly was clearing 6-8 but the mental block struck at 6-10. "I couldn't get past it," he said, even though he was sure he could clear that barrier.
He is still shocked at the response of athletes and fans who focused on his state record effort. "High jump is not a flashy sport, it is not the main (track & field) attraction," he said.
"It was definitely exciting (that day). Once I cleared seven feet, people went crazy. Believe it or not, but I just focused on doing it. I don't think I noticed the crowd until afterward. People shook my hand and asked for autographs. It was really something."
The accomplishment opened a whole new world to the innocent youngster. He competed in all-star track invitationals in Indiana and Chicago against athletes from across the country, quite a leap for someone from the shores of Gitchee Gumee just south of the Canadian border. In fact, he flew to Chicago, which was his first airplane ride.
His part of the world was so small, but suddenly it had enlarged well beyond his imagination.
College track coaches and recruiters were now after the unsung champion, who was somewhat uncomfortable being the talk of the town.
He turned down the chance to attend college and compete at the higher levels of high jump. "The opportunities were there, but for me it just wasn't my thing," he conceded, indicating it became more important to get a job and start earning money.
"It was a real eye-opener. You don't realize what is all out there, and to leave a small town and see what was out there," he said, adding more classroom work was not a priority.
"The schooling I wanted to be done with," he said, noting his parents encouraged him to attend college. "Maybe I was just scared. My grades were not the best. Life goes on, the what-ifs go on."
Payment, who also played football (wide receiver), basketball and baseball at 6-3, 175 pounds, for the Bays simply decided to move on with his life. He got a job with the road commission and still works there, although he now weighs about 275.
"The world is full of what-ifs. I've got some regret I didn't go on and try, but we've got four kids and four grandkids and another one on the way. I'm doing all right," he said.
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012 and currently is in a second stint as the interim in that position. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTO: Brimley's John Payment flies over the high jump bar in 1989 to set an all-MHSAA Finals record in the event that still stands. (MHSAA file photo)