JT Payne uses a level to check for any imperfections in his practice wall at Foeste Masonry while preparing for the 2020 SPEC MIX 500 Bricklayer Championship on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Cape Girardeau.

A brick wall stands between J.T. Payne and career glory.

Payne, of Jackson, Missouri, is arguably the best mason in the state. On Wednesday, he will compete in Las Vegas against the best in the U.S. and Canada, in the annual Spec Mix Bricklayer 500, a contest to build a 26-foot-long monument to master masonry.

If all goes well, Payne, 27, will lay upward of 800 bricks in one hour, about the number he puts in during a solid day’s work at Foeste Masonry in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Speed is not the only criteria, though. The quickest mudslingers can be toppled by angles that aren’t true and joints that aren’t plumb.

The Bricklayer 500 is the headliner attraction on Masonry Madness Day, part of the World of Concrete trade show. The annual event, first held in 1975, is the largest in the construction industry and draws more than 60,000 visitors.

Two years ago, Payne was cheering in the stands. Last year, he competed in the brick brawl but failed to crack the top 10.

“I was a nervous wreck. I’m more confident this year,” said Payne. “I got my crash course out of the way, and I feel more smooth.”

That newfound finesse has been hard-won. Months before the Missouri Regionals qualifying round in September — where he earned a brick count of 692, besting the next closest competitor by more than a hundred — he started honing his technique.

On Sunday afternoons, Payne and his brother, Jakob, rehearse each step of the contest using leftover materials from the week’s work.

Jakob Payne is the tender, the one-man pit crew who will keep J.T. in chip-free bricks and perfectly tempered mortar. Jakob carefully stacks the bricks into five maroon towers overlooking five piled-high mortarboards.

“Once we get going, Jakob can kind of read what I’m thinking,” said J.T. “It’s definitely a team effort.”

First, J.T. builds up the leads — the wall’s ends — and then connects them with a string line pulled tight. His pace quickens as he closes in on the middle of the wall. Jakob feeds him a brick. J.T. adjusts it, slaps on mortar, spreads it smooth, tamps it level. Adjust, slap, spread, tamp. Over and over.

It’s an exacting, exhausting dance.

A 4-pound brick barely registers on its own, but as the count creeps into the hundreds, J.T.’s forearms and shoulders burn.

The brick’s rough edges etch lines into his fingers, but gloves rob him of dexterity. So his left hand gets taped, protecting his worn fingertips. His right wields the trowel; when he’s in the zone, he can’t tell where his hand ends and the tool begins.

Ashley Sparkman, left, Judy Foeste,and Skip Stroder look on as Jake and JT Payne, third-generation bricklayers, carefully assemble a brick wall at Foeste Masonry, at their grandfather’s shop, while preparing for the 2020 SPEC MIX 500 Bricklayer Championship on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, in Cape Girardeau.

The brothers are the third generation working for Foeste Masonry. Their grandparents, Kenny and Judy Foeste, started the company in 1973. At last year’s World of Concrete, Kenny Foeste was inducted into the Masonry Hall of Fame.

Their son, Mark Foeste, is himself a competition veteran, twice earning the “Best Trowel on the Block” title in the 1990s. He serves as his nephew’s unofficial coach, recording each practice session to pinpoint time-wasters and missteps.

“I’m right there yelling at him, if there’s a lead that needs to be redone, a brick that needs straightening,” said Foeste. “You can’t just slop it up.”

At the competition, 30 judges watch the rising walls, which are two bricks deep and 80 bricks long. Infractions and imperfections count against a contestant’s total brick count: A variance of a quarter inch from the leads to the middle means a 25-brick deduction. Mortar joints that are too thick or too thin can cost 50 bricks.

At stake is a Ford F-250 pickup, $5,000 in cash and new tools for the mason who tallies the highest brick count, plus the yearlong possession of the traveling first-place trophy.

Last year’s champ, Mario Alves of Ontario, Canada, won with a brick count of 760.

“He came out of absolutely nowhere. We didn’t expect him to be a top finisher,” said Greg Hutchinson of Spec Mix, the mortar-maker that sponsors the contest.

The World of Concrete and its competitions play an important role in the trade:

“It’s exposing what we have available to a younger generation,” said Brian Jennewein, with the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers of Eastern Missouri.

The skilled trades are facing a shortage of workers, but job fairs and other recruitment efforts have bolstered local apprenticeships to a 10-year high. The average age of the 800 members of the Bricklayers Local 1 of Missouri — of which Payne is a member — has dropped to 40 from 52 in the past six years, Jennewein said.

On Wednesday, he will be in the stands with about two dozen of Payne’s relatives and co-workers, all wearing red “Team Payne” T-shirts, straining to be heard over the thousands of others packing the bleachers outside the Las Vegas Convention Center.

“We have the loudest cheering section. They really go after it,” said Payne. “You’re pushing as hard as you can, and any momentum helps.”

Payne will rely on that — plus the muscle memory he has developed through months of practice, seven years in the field and a family masonry legacy that stretches back decades.

When it comes down to it, the wall will go up the same way a wall always does:

Brick by brick.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

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