Getty Images

Panthers rookie Cameron Artis-Payne ready for NFL opportunity

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It hasn’t been an easy journey to the NFL for Cameron Artis-Payne.

The former Auburn running back was out of football for two years after high school before winding up at a junior college.

Despite a stellar senior season at Harrisburg High School in Pennsylvania, Artis-Payne did not have any offers to play in college. For the next two years, he did not play football and was working at a lawncare warehouse.

Getty Images

Former Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne at the NFL Combine in February.

“It made me want it more. I knew I didn’t want to live that lifestyle,” Artis-Payne said Friday. “I didn’t want to be working 9 to 5, doing something I don’t like to do just for money.”

But then he got a phone call from one of his former high school coaches, who was working at Allan Hancock College near Santa Barbara, Calif.

After two years there, he found his way to Auburn, where he sat behind current St. Louis Rams running back Tre Mason for a season. The 5-10, 212-pound Artis-Payne broke out last season – rushing for 1,608 yards to lead the SEC with 123.7 yards per game. He recorded the third-best rushing season in Auburn history and was a first-team All-SEC selection.

That earned him an invitation to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, where he ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash to show decent speed for a stalky downhill runner. The Carolina Panthers then selected him last Saturday in the fifth round of the NFL Draft.

“I knew it was possible, so I just tried to stay in the best shape I could for the next opportunity,” Artis-Payne said Friday following the first of four practices at the Panthers rookie minicamp.

Artis-Payne, who was given the No. 34 – the number worn by former Panthers back DeAngelo Williams – is expected to contribute right away for a Panthers running back group that includes starter Jonathan Stewart, third-year player Fozzy Whitaker and second-year back Darrin Reaves.

“It’s definitely real,” said Artis-Payne, who will be 25 in June. “It just hit me coming out here. It’s time for the NFL. You dream about this as a kid, but now it’s really here.”