NAMPA — Todd Cady was up to his neck on Jan. 4 coordinating the placing matches of the Rollie Lane Invitational — Idaho’s largest wrestling tournament with 127 teams.
But the Columbia High School head coach still took the time to watch what was transpiring with one of his kids in the girls 143-pound championship match.
Payton Lanningham, who survived a car crash that claimed the life of her grandfather and a potential career-ending injury, had top seed and unbeaten Hailey Say of Hanford (Richland, Washington) on her back.
The senior has done that to a lot of other wrestlers this season. She is 25-1 and arguably the best girls wrestler in the state — something Lanningham will look to continue to prove during the third annual Jaybird Memorial Tournament Saturday at Columbia. This is all after the two most trying years of her life.
“That resiliency is so admirable,” Cady said. “A lot of kids can find excuses, but she’s using her experiences to write a story about who she is and I couldn’t be more proud of her just persevering.
“We tell our kids all the time that wrestling prepares you for life, and she absolutely defines that. I think she’s using this as a foundation to live a really successful life.”
NO. 1 FAN
Jay Lanningham — Payton’s grandfather — was, in a lot of ways, her biggest fan. So when she started wrestling in the sixth grade, he was all for it. Jay attended nearly every tournament or dual meet and made his presence known. He cheered — even if he didn’t exactly know what he was talking about. He always yelled, “Cradle!”
“He would shout it out even if both of us were standing straight up,” Payton said while laughing. “That was the only move he knew.”
Jay also gave the boys who forfeited instead of wrestling Payton a little piece of his mind and was seemingly always in charge of supplies. Jay didn’t go anywhere without a backpack full of jerky, trail mix, tape and Band-Aids. He also carried around a little cooler stuffed full of mini Gatorades.
He even went so far as to help coach Payton at East Valley Middle School in the eighth grade without any experience whatsoever. But that didn’t matter according to his son and Payton’s father, Jamie.
“I remember in his Suburban he had a rule book so he could know what things like a nearfall were,” he said. “He was always right there in her corner.”
Jay’s support of his granddaughter’s new endeavor continued into high school.
Both of Payton’s parents worked full-time. So Jay always volunteered to take her on wrestling trips. This included to Pocatello for the Western State Championships in the summer of 2017.
A FATEFUL TRIP
With her grandfather testing out his new smartphone at mat side, Payton went undefeated in team duals against California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington at Turf Wars, part of the Western State Championships. While her parents and siblings headed back home, she and Jay stayed to prepare for the individual portion of the tournament.
It was June 18 — Father’s Day. Payton didn’t have to weigh in until later that night. So they planned a 35-mile drive south to Lava Hot Springs. It was around 11 a.m. and Jay was driving with Payton in the passenger seat. He was telling her an old work story when Payton looked down at her phone — and then ceiling tiles and lights. It’s what Payton woke up to in a 300-square foot room at Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello.
“Where’s my grandpa?”
Payton kept repeating the question until she passed out.
She and Jay had been involved in an accident.
Eric Neibaur, 15, and his 13-year-old sister, Lauren Neibaur, were trying to pass a tractor-trailer in a construction zone on I-15 in their pick-up truck. But they ended up in oncoming traffic, striking the white Suburban Payton and her grandfather were traveling in near McCammon — 11.1 miles from the hot springs.
First responders initially thought there were no survivors — until Payton suddenly took a deep breath and started complaining about her neck hurting while being cut out of the vehicle.
Payton screamed, “Get off of me” while being put in the back of a life-flight helicopter.
“Where’s my grandpa?” Payton asked as she awoke the second time. Doctors finally told her. Jay was 70.
“I couldn’t control the tears coming out of my eyes,” Payton said.
She was released from the hospital after just a two-hour stay to another set of grandparents, who were in the area on their way to Yellowstone. Payton only suffered a broken big left toe, scratches on her left leg and thigh along with a slight concussion.
“It was a miracle,” Jamie said.
Payton and her grandparents stopped at Arctic Circle for milkshakes and fries.
“I don’t think I ate any of them,” Payton said. “I didn’t want to be in a car.”
She slept the entire way home.
Her thoughts, even subconsciously, kept going back to that day.
Payton was running late. She was still packing her bag for the hot springs while Jay was waiting in the car.
“I blamed myself,” Payton said. “The only thing I thought about that entire summer was, ‘If only I had been ready just a minute earlier.’ I just felt so bad for the other family too. My parents got their kid back, and they lost two.”
White Suburbans were also difficult to see. She broke down at the sight of them for a while.
Returning to wrestling in the fall helped. Although it wasn’t the same without Jay calling out for her to hit a near impossible cradle.
But that all changed on Feb. 10, 2018.
Cady had already planned on putting on the state’s first all-girls wrestling tournament — it just needed a name. When Cady found out about what had happened to Payton and her grandfather, he paid the family a visit.
The Jaybird Memorial was born.
“Everyone always called him Jaybird, even as a kid,” Jamie said.
Forty wrestlers from 20 schools made history at Columbia High School that day.
With her younger sister Brooklyn, who is a wrestler herself now, along with cousins Maya and Harper all holding signs that read, “Go Payton,” Payton pinned her first two opponents to advance to 123-pound final.
She suffered a 16-6 major decision loss to Idaho Falls’ Brigid Shannon in the championship. However, that didn’t matter.
“She had her hand raised on and off that year. But it was always kind of whatever to her,” Jamie said. “But when she was there, she was smiling again.”
It gave her the courage to go back to Pocatello.
She, Jamie, Brooklyn, mother Becky, younger brother McKade, along with former teammates Skylar Hughes and Kekana Fouret, who is now at Utah Valley, all headed down to the Western State Championships a year after the accident. Payton went undefeated in the team duals, was second in the folkstyle tournament, placed fifth in Greco-Roman and fourth in freestyle.
“I hated going into that arena. I still do,” Payton said. “All I could think about was my grandpa and that day. So all those emotions came rushing back. But it was important for myself and my family to go back and wrestle there, to get that sense of closure. It’s what he would have wanted.”
So with that finally behind her, Payton appeared poised for a big season last year. She did — for all of four weeks.
Payton was in the finals of the Tough as Nails Tournament at Capital High School on Dec. 13, 2018. As Payton went in for a shot, she pushed off with the right side of her foot.
It snapped in half.
Her foot was so swollen that it was purple and the trainer had trouble just getting her shoe off. She had to use crutches just to get back on the team bus. When Ibuprofen and icing it the next day didn’t work, Payton went to the hospital.
“I was just kind of expecting to hear, ‘Oh yeah you’ll be back by the end of the week,’” Payton said.
It ended up being far worse.
X-rays revealed a Lisfranc fracture, which occurs when one or more of the metatarsal bones are displaced from the tarsus. She had to have surgery. And just like she did 18 months earlier, Payton broke down in another hospital room.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to do it anymore,” Payton said. “I kept questioning why this was all happening to me? I thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t just meant to be.’”
But after talks with her family and Cady, she decided to stick with it. Payton attended every practice, dual and tournament, including Rollie Lane — as the stat girl.
“I hated it,” Payton said. “I hated sitting there being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I could beat the girl right there and she’s getting first place.’ But it allowed me to be around the sport and I really needed that. It also meant I could still be there to support everyone, so that was OK.”
A GRAND RETURN
After being cleared in May, Payton participated in several camps in the summer. However, she elected to not participate in any live matches as a precaution.
Her first match back was during October’s Freakshow in Las Vegas. She took fourth. Payton hasn’t lost much since. Her only blemish this season is against Marissa Jimenez, an All-American sophomore out of Caldwell. Payton pinned her in the first round during a dual at Caldwell earlier in the season before Jimenez beat her 6-0 at Columbia a few weeks later.
Payton won the Ardis Elizabeth Nash and Tough as Nails Tournaments in December before entering Rollie Lane as the second seed. Payton was up 7-0 before pinning Say in the second round at a tournament she hadn’t even wrestled at for two years. She recently claimed the Othello Lady Huskies Invite in Washington last weekend.
And with those accolades, Payton has inspired others. Columbia now has a full-fledged wrestling team of nine girls. Before Payton’s arrival, Cady had a girl or two every so often come through. But none of them really stuck it out until Payton.
Payton is also part of a growing movement around the state. Idaho had just 58 girl wrestlers in 2016. But according to IHSAA Executive Director Ty Jones, that number is now 250.
“It’s shocking,” Payton said. “I can’t believe that I was a part in starting all of this and all because I decided to stick with it.
“Those were the two hardest years of my life, but I pushed through it. That’s a thing we learn in wrestling. You gotta keep going. Everyone has things they go through. I’m not the only one, mine’s just a little more crazier than most.”
Payton will now compete at the place that means more to her than anything — the Jaybird Memorial. This one is expected to be the biggest one yet with invites out to teams from 10 different states, including California, Hawaii and Oklahoma.
So once again Cady is going to have his hands full running another tournament. But he will make time to watch Payton compete no matter what place she’s wrestling for.
“She is the reason that I’m pushing as hard as I am for girls wrestling in Idaho,” Cady said. “There’s been so many shining stars of Columbia wrestling and she’s definitely going to leave her mark as one of those shining stars that, year in and year out, we refer to.”