Payton Crews has been here before and knows the drill, but there’s something different this time.
It’s her senior year, and her team looks sharper than ever. In their biggest match of the season, though, she won’t be able to join her teammates.
Regardless, she steps onto the field for warmups, radiating positive energy. Not even the crutches and the brace on her left knee seem to slow her down.
It’s the Big 12 Championship game and, after another historic year for the Frogs, they have a chance to win the postseason tournament for the first time ever.
But after an injury in the last game of the regular season against Texas Tech, Crews will have to watch from the sidelines just like she did for the quarterfinals and semifinals.
It’s not easy to put on a brave face, but she appears unfazed, handling her situation with great humility and grace.
“It comes from loving my teammates so freaking much, that I would do anything for them,” Crews said. “I care so much about them that I want people to be ready and excited and able to perform at their best.”
Before becoming the leader and college soccer star that she is today, Payton Cruz’s journey had to start somewhere, and since then, her life has come full circle.
Becoming a Horned Frog
Crews was born in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, but her family moved to Jacksonville six years later. At the time, she had no idea that she would eventually come back and make herself a home in Fort Worth.
No matter where she was, there were two constants: soccer and family.
She remembered begging her dad to go outside to do agility drills in the slanted driveway at their house in Mansfield. There, she played with a local team, the Ravens.
“That was the start of my soccer career and my crazy soccer parents who have toned it down in the last four years,” Crews said. “They were the psycho sports parents that ran up and down the sidelines.”
Crews said that without their support she would not be where she is today.
“My parents are my best friends,” she said. “I always wanted cool parents, and they are cool parents.”
With both her parents graduating from Baylor, TCU was not always her first option. It wasn’t until her first year of high school that she started to get serious about recruiting.
Crews was looking at schools, but not knowing what she wanted to study made the initial stages of the process difficult. It wasn’t until her dad suggested a degree in business that TCU showed up on her radar.
Despite not being initially recruited to become a Frog, she did a camp at TCU in February of 2015, and by October of that same year, she had committed.
“I walked on campus and knew this is where I’m supposed to be,” Crews said.
Almost seven years later, she has set business aside — majoring in sociology and minoring in psychology, more in tune with who she is, fueled by her desire to help others.
Despite the change of heart, she’s glad the path led her back to Texas.
“I love it here,” she said. “It just feels like home.”
This year, she got to combine her two homes. During games, her parents, who recently moved to Fort Worth, could be seen cheering for her from the bleachers at TCU’s Garvey-Rosenthal Soccer Stadium.
Crews also was able to play with her younger sister Paige, who is a first-year midfielder for the Horned Frogs.
“It’s something special that not a lot of girls get to do,” Paige Crews said. “I’m really thankful that I did because now we’re tighter than ever. She’s my best friend.”
Caring with tough love
As someone well-known around campus, it is easy to get wrapped up in the recognition, but not Payton Crews.
“She’s a great kid, a great human being,” said head coach Eric Bell. “She is very thoughtful, giving, caring.”
Caring. That word carries a special meaning to Payton because that’s how she wishes everyone would describe her.
“I care about people a lot. I care about people’s happiness, and I care about their hearts,” Payton said. “I think a lot of what I do is aimed towards helping people be comfortable and be happy.”
Senior midfielder Tatum Condrey, Crews’ best friend, roommate and teammate, knows just how big Payton’s heart truly is for those around her.
“Whenever I need her to be someone who can listen and someone who I can be vulnerable to, or just a friend to lean on, I can count on her for that,” Condrey said.
Be it watching Payton sing “What We Doin’” by the City Girls in the locker room before games, or all the times Condrey has felt a breath of fresh air returning home to her best friend after a tough day, Condrey knows her college experience has been so much better with Payton in it.
“She’s a well-rounded, beautiful girl, inside and out,” Condrey said of her best friend.
But one thing that makes Payton unique is how she shows her love. She holds those she loves accountable through what Condrey described as “tough love.”
“She [Crews] would yell at me when I was doing something wrong, but I wanted her to because I was learning how to play the position,” Condrey said, as she fondly remembered their sophomore year, where because of injuries, they both played next to each other on defense.
Paige Crews, who plays the same position as her sister, can’t put a number to the countless times her sister has corrected her on the field, but she expects it and even enjoys it.
For Paige, that guidance transcends the pitch as she sees her sister as an example for her personal life.
“My whole life, she’s been helping me find out who I am,” Paige said. “One thing I love about her is that she’s willing to do everything she can to help you.”
Payton said that she tries to be as selfless as possible but lets other people know how she feels about things.
“I don’t hide my emotions,” Payton said. “And I don’t think other people should either.
A process of growth
It has taken Payton a while to get to the point where she has been comfortable being herself.
“Her from high school and her now are two totally different people,” Paige said. “I like Payton now.”
The Crews sisters both recalled getting on each other’s nerves, like when Payton made Paige fall and bust her chin open or ripped her toenail off at a Target when they were little.
To them, those fights feel like a lifetime ago. For Paige, having her sister on campus has been a blessing, helping her transition smoothly into the life of a student-athlete.
“I’m really bad at change, and she makes me feel safe,” Paige said. “If I’m lost or stressing about something, I can go to Payton and feel comfortable. It makes hard situations easier being with her.”
Payton was ready to take over the world when she started her first 11 games her first year, but everything would soon change.
She was first relegated to the bench. Soon after, she suffered an ACL tear. When she finally recovered, she had to play out of position as she struggled to get back into the lineup. That was her story for the next year and a half.
It was a chain of events that could have easily broken anyone, but Payton used these setbacks as an opportunity to learn.
“I was really able to focus on my friends, my relationships, humbling myself, and figure out how I could be a good teammate while being injured,” Payton said.
“[Crews] really had time to take a step back and take a look at things and evaluate where she was as a player and use it as motivation,” Bell said. “Also, to come back and be a better player, and I think she did that.”
That growth has inundated so many areas of her life, with her magnetic leadership and kindhearted personality as proof of her ability to inspire others.
“I’ve enjoyed seeing her as a leader and seeing her grow from year one to year four,” Condrey said. “I see her being vocal and she makes me realize that I can be a leader too.”
For the last two seasons, Payton has been an undisputed starter.
Her solidifying herself as the team’s defensive midfielder coincided with back-to-back record-breaking campaigns in shutouts for the Horned Frogs, with 10 last season and 13 this year.
Despite playing a more defensive role than when she first arrived, she has maintained significant influence in the attack. Her ability to bring the ball out the back has been instrumental for Bell to successfully implement his possession-oriented system. She did all of this without forgetting to step into the final third with a goal and six assists in the last year and a half.
“We have her to calm our nerves, and she’s grown into that as she still continues to develop as a leader,” Bell said. “I’m very happy and proud of where she’s at from a leadership perspective.”
What the future holds
For Bell, not having the player who he considers as the best holding midfielder in the conference was a huge loss.
“Her range of passing is excellent. Her vision is excellent, and her leadership is second to none,” Bell said.
After winning the conference title, TCU ultimately fell short, losing to Rutgers University in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, but Payton Crews’ stint as a Horned Frog is far from over.
“Thanks, COVID, for bringing one good thing to college athletics,” she said on an Instagram post.
Indeed, the 2nd Team All-Conference midfielder will be returning.
“I’m really lucky that I said yes to coming back next year because this time being injured was really hard,” she said.
That extra year of eligibility will also allow her to prepare for her next steps going forward. After a lot of back and forth, she’s got her sights set on the 2023 NWSL Draft.
“I love this sport so much, and I wanna pursue it further,” Payton said. “I know I’m gonna regret it if I don’t. Now that my coaches have told me that I’m good at my position, why not?”
There is no doubt that Payton Crews’ excellence on the field can take her to great heights, but her electrifying off-the-field character is what she knows will live on in her legacy.
“People are hurting, and people need love,” Crews said. “You have a lot of it to give so give it to people and spread it as much as you can.”