RTHS grad Payton reflects on Sun Bowl experience

Former Rochelle Lady Hub student-athlete Christina Payton began working as a graduate assistant athletic trainer with the Central Michigan University football program during the fall. Payton was on the sideline when the Chippewas faced Washington State in the 2021 Sun Bowl on Dec. 31. (Courtesy photo)

Former Lady Hub student-athlete working as graduate assistant athletic trainer for Central Michigan football program

Rochelle area residents who watched the Central Michigan University football team take on Washington State in the 2021 Sun Bowl on New Year’s Eve may have seen a familiar face working the sideline.

Former Rochelle Lady Hub student-athlete Christina Payton was among the athletic trainers on the Central Michigan sideline as the Chippewas outlasted the Cougars 24-21 at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Payton, who earned her bachelor’s degree in athletic training from Northern Illinois University, was hired on as a graduate assistant this past year and has been working with the Central Michigan football team ever since. With nearly 35,000 fans in attendance at the Sun Bowl, Payton said the experience was unforgettable.

“It was an amazing experience because it was my first time working a bowl game as a certified athletic trainer,” Payton said. “It was definitely a memory that I’ll cherish forever based on everything I was able to do for our team. We went out there and showed them what the MAC Conference is all about. It was an experience unlike any other and I thought we played one of our best games of the season. My mom even caught a video of me jumping up and down on the sidelines and I lost my voice during the game as well.”

Payton’s passion for athletic training was sparked during her years as a student-athlete at RTHS. Payton, who spent four years with the Lady Hub basketball and softball programs, suffered a concussion during her freshman basketball season before suffering a serious knee injury during her junior season. As she worked to recover from both of her injuries, Payton formed a strong relationship with RTHS head athletic trainer Mark Lovell, who she said became a role model for her throughout her time as a student-athlete.

“Dr. Lovell was always there for me when I was injured,” Payton said. “He explained everything to me and I spent a lot of time with him. He’s an amazing person overall and he’s very sarcastic and funny. Even when I was stressed out or upset that I couldn’t play, he brightened my spirits every time I went in to see him. It was frustrating that I couldn’t catch a break, but he was there for me every step of the way to explain things to me and teach me things that allowed me to understand what exactly my body was going through.”

Motivated to learn more about athletic training, Payton spent two years as a team manager with the RTHS football program and one year with the RTHS boys soccer program. After receiving the inaugural Rochelle Township High School Sports & Health Scholarship from Northern Rehab Physical Therapy, Payton graduated from RTHS in 2017 and enrolled at Northern Illinois University to study athletic training. While on campus, Payton earned experience working with the Huskie football and women’s basketball programs.

“NIU was close to home and I loved the atmosphere that Rochelle, Creston and DeKalb brought,” Payton said. “One of their students talked to me when I was in high school and he told me about his experiences working with high school programs and NIU programs. I knew I could stay close to home while working toward as many opportunities as I could to grow as a young professional and a student. My teachers and mentors made me feel welcome and I learned a lot of valuable skills throughout my experience.”

Payton traveled around the country throughout her four years at Northern Illinois University, even earning a senior internship with the University of Michigan men’s lacrosse program. Payton, who grew up watching Michigan athletics along with her father, said she couldn’t have imagined leaving her home to move over five hours away. But after settling in and forming new friendships, Payton thrived with the wealth of resources at her disposal.

“My dad and I are huge Michigan fans and we watch all of their football and basketball games,” Payton said. “I never had the guts to email them because I didn’t want to get my hopes up, but when I learned they had an opening and I went through the interview process, I was in awe of the resources they had. Moving five and a half hours away was a big culture shock and Ann Arbor is a big city so it definitely took some time to adjust, but I quickly felt at home and I reached out to my peers and mentors so I could stay on track.”

Payton earned her bachelor’s degree from Northern Illinois University this past year before enrolling at Central Michigan University to begin her two-year graduate program in sport management. Although the football season has concluded, Payton has continued working with the team as the Chippewas prepare for spring practices. Payton has also begun working with the women's field hockey team. Despite the challenges of balancing athletics and academics, Payton has thoroughly enjoyed her graduate experience.

“I learned that CMU was going to have a graduate assistant opening so I reached out for an interview and I was able to get the position,” Payton said. “Being a graduate assistant is really difficult. It’s a beast in and of itself and there’s a lot of work to do with summer conditioning, workouts and fall camp. It’s tough to balance all of that with school, but I’ve had a lot of help and the other graduate assistants have been really helpful. I wouldn’t trade any day with the program for anything. We’ve all been through so much together.”

Payton said her goal is to complete her master’s degree next year and continue working in collegiate athletics. For current student-athletes looking to pursue athletic training after high school, Payton offered one important piece of advice based on all of her experiences as both a student-athlete and a college student.

“Never give up,” Payton said. “I’ve been through a lot of struggles and everybody has their own struggles. It can be hard and sometimes it can feel overwhelming or like you’re drowning, but it’s always important to remember what your end goals are and remember that there are people who have been through similar struggles. Being able to reach out to those people and share what you’re going through is what helped me the most and I received great advice from all of the people I’ve met throughout my experiences.”