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In the Spotlight

Russell Payne

Ellis Unit employee hits bull’s eye with national archery title

Russell Payne has been on target with his archery ever since his father bought him his first bow and arrows at age 10. But it wasn’t until recently that he really hit the bull’s eye.

Russell Payne holding trophy while posing next to target
Hours of practice at his home near Huntsville paid off for Russell Payne in April when he won the National Field Archery Association National Indoor Championship trophy in his class.

Photos by David Nunnelee

In April, Payne, a 35-year-old industrial specialist at the Ellis Unit furniture factory in Huntsville, walked away from the National Field Archery Association National Indoor Championship in Louisville, Kentucky a sure-shot winner. By stringing together a perfect score on the first day of competition and a near-perfect score the next, Payne went on to beat four other competitors in a shoot-off for the silver bowl trophy in the adult male freestyle division. It was his first attempt for the national indoor title, and his unexpected triumph was enough to make him, well… quiver.

“I was surprised,” he said. “When I shot that last arrow, my mental focus was such that when I fired and the arrow hit, and I had won, I didn’t know. I didn’t know until the last guy I had to shoot against came over and shook my hand.”

Payne has won a long list of tournaments since he started competing in archery events more than 15 years ago. Last year he finished first in the Texas Field Archery Association State Outdoor Tournament in Dallas and set two records in his class for points. He went on to compete in his first national outdoor shoot in Yankton, South Dakota and finished in a tie for fourth. In addition to this year’s national indoor championship, he took first place at the International Field Association North American Field Championship in Houston, and also won the National Field Archery Association Southern Sectional Outdoor Tournament in Longview.

In fact, as a top amateur, Payne has gotten so accurate with his arrows that he’s seriously thinking about turning professional.

“I think it’s going to be next year,” he said about the prospect of going pro and competing in tournaments for prize money put up by the manufacturers of archery equipment. “If I do that, I have the opportunity to make a substantial income from it.”

Archery came naturally to Payne, whose father, an avid bow hunter, taught him the basics of shooting. He entered his first tournament in Jasper County at age 15.

“I didn’t win my first tournament,” he said. “I think I lost more arrows than anything else. But when you’re young, I think it’s just seeing the arrow shoot out and hit whatever you’re pointing at. It’s a thrill. It’s still a thrill.”

In tournaments, Payne now competes in the adult freestyle class which is reserved for shooters with high-tech equipment. He uses a shiny-blue compound bow strung to 58 pounds and arrows that are made of carbon fibers wrapped in fiberglass around an aluminum core. With all its wheels, pulleys, precision optics, and other space-age gadgetry, his bow alone runs about $1,400.

Still, Payne said archery is mostly mental. He, in fact, runs through a mental checklist before each and every shot.

“In archery, it’s all about the arrow,” he said. “It either hits the mark or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, it’s not the equipment, it’s the person shooting. I have some natural ability, but to repeat the same kind of shot time after time after time, you have to control the shot mentally as well as physically. My mental focus is such that I block everything else out. It’s like I’m standing on the line by myself.”

closeup of payne ready to release arrow
Payne takes aim.
Payne and his fellow indoor tournament archers shoot a total of 60 arrows (five per rotation) at a paper target 20 yards distant. Hitting any part of the white circle at the center of the target earns the archer five points with 300 points being a perfect score. But shooters of Payne’s caliber aren’t aiming just for the white spot on the target. They’re shooting for the little X within an inner circle on the white spot. That’s because in their class, the competition usually comes down to not who shoots a perfect score (practically all do), but who hits the X most often.

“You try to be as perfect as possible,” Payne said.

It’s practice, of course, that makes perfect. Payne now practices practically every day while preparing for turning professional. To that end, he traveled to Washington State in July to try to add the national outdoor championship to his resume. Tied for first place after the first two days of competition, he was disappointed to finish fourth out of the 42 shooters in his class.

“For me wanting to go pro, I have to be able to execute 100 percent of my shots,” he said. “It’s just like any other sport. If you’re going to play golf, and you expect to win, you’ve got to practice.”

While acknowledging the risk of going professional, Payne, who started with TDCJ 14 years ago as a correctional officer, said he and his wife Natalie believe he has progressed to the point where he can pull the string and let his ability fly.

“I love it,” he said about archery. “I’ve got my family, and then I have archery. When I’m not tending to my family, I’m doing archery. I have such a love for it that I’m willing to put everything I’ve got into it to make it the way I want it, and that’s to do it professionally.”

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