In his blood
It wasn't hard to spot the coach in Sean Payton from an early age
Sean Payton likes to dole out credit to those who have influenced his career, from Randy Walker to Bill Walsh to Jon Gruden to Bill Parcells.
He gives his old high school coach a headset on the sideline of training camp for a few days each year and lets him sit in on quarterback meetings.
Payton even threw a shout-out to Mike Ditka recently for the three weeks or so the coach abused him as a Spare Bear in 1987.
"He valued confrontation," Payton said, making it sound like a gift Ditka bestowed on him.
But his older brother, Tom, remembers how it started, and it wasn't the influence of Gruden, and it wasn't Parcells back when Payton could have used a pair of shoulders to see above the family's bumper pool table.
Those were the days when Tom remembers their late father, Thomas, who would often hold business meetings in the basement of their Delaware County house outside Philadelphia, sending little Sean up to his room so he would stop embarrassing all the men by beating them in pool on his tiptoes.
By then, the competitive drive had taken root. But Sean had also found football and was so obsessed by it, that he did the unthinkable.
"My brother wanted to watch 'Monday Night Football,' but it was on so late and my parents were very strict about doing homework," Tom recalled. "But he wanted to watch so badly, they said fine, but he would have to do his homework right after school and then take a nap.
"Can you imagine a 9-year-old kid telling his friends, 'I have to go home and take a nap,' but that was the only way he could watch. So he'd look forward to doing his homework, going to bed and waking up at 8 that night to watch the game."
Thomas Payton was a good high school athlete and a Pop Warner coach. But Sean wasn't weaned on endless nights before a projector or poring over plays at the kitchen table. Rather he was a kid who liked basketball but loved football, exceeding his physical abilities with an innate understanding of the game.
"Why and where that came from, I do not know," said J.R. Bishop, Payton's coach at Naperville Central from 1979 to '81, after the family moved to the Chicago area for Sean's high school years. "I'd like to take credit for it, but I can't. I think it was just there."
During Payton's junior year, Bishop began noticing that his 16-year-old quarterback was always right beside him on the sideline.
"Sometimes he'd want to call a play, and I'm telling you, he knew what he was talking about," recalled Bishop, 71, who went on to coach at Wheaton College. "I knew his eyes saw something on that field that no one else was looking at. I'm not going to say every play was a great success but at times he would suggest something to me, and I would go with it, and more times than not, it was good."
At Eastern Illinois, where Payton led "Eastern Airlines" to the quarterfinals of the Division I-AA playoffs as one of the NCAA's top-rated passers, then-head coach Al Molde remembers kicking his quarterback out of the film room at 10 each night so the staff could go home.
"He really wanted to know everything there was to know about the defense he was going to face," Molde said. "We were in an offense that was a one-back passing scheme, and Sean mastered checking plays at the line of scrimmage and avoiding the blitz. He came away from games without a spot on his uniform."
Just as important, said Molde, were Payton's leadership skills.
"He just had an outgoing, bubbly personality," said Molde, "and coupled with his knowledge on the field, the team would follow him anywhere."
Among his very first memories upon arriving in Charleston in the summer of 1985, John Jurkovic, now a co-host of ESPN 1000's "Afternoon Saloon," remembers seeing Payton lead a group of 20 players on a grueling conditioning regimen.
"I sat and watched them and was like, 'Sweet mother of god, this is serious. There's no joking around anymore,'" Jurkovic said.
Jurkovic also recalls Payton's "unique talent and ability on the line of scrimmage to handle whatever needed to be done," and a bond with his receivers that required only a glance to communicate.
Tom Payton describes his brother's heartbreak after an agent's guarantee of an invitation to the NFL combine never materialized. Stints followed with the Chicago Bruisers in the Arena League and in the Canadian Football League before Sean got a chance to play for the Bears during the '87 NFL strike.
Alternating with Mike Hohensee and Steve Bradley, Payton had a forgettable NFL career, as evidenced by the lack of mention in even the Bears media guide. Tom Payton remembers Ditka's exact words when asked about Sean after the game.
"He said, 'Payton doesn't know the difference between a coat hanger and a wishbone offense,'" Tom said without a chuckle. "But my brother respected him."
Payton's first unofficial coaching job was with the British League's Leicester Panthers, when the head coach's wife became homesick and Payton became the player-coach. There was also a brief turn painting houses while he tried to sort it all out.
"You've got to make money somehow," Jurkovic said. "He had a great name at the I-AA level, but that will only take you so far. You still have to massage shoulders and network because as good as you are and smart as you are, doors don't just open like they do for guys coming from Penn State and Florida and Florida State."
Officially, Payton's coaching career began at San Diego State as an offensive assistant, followed by Indiana State, San Diego State (again), Miami (Ohio) and Illinois before he broke into the NFL as the Eagles' quarterbacks coach.
Bishop remembers calling his pal Terry Hoeppner when Hoeppner was head coach at Miami and asking him to interview Payton.
"Terry said, 'But I really don't have a position open,'" Bishop said. "We were at a coaches convention, and I said, 'Just talk to him.' Terry called afterward and said, 'That was unfair. You knew I'd want to hire him.' And he did. Anyone could tell coaching was in Sean's blood."
Sometimes, there is no better explanation.
Tom and his sisters, Patrice and Molly, their husbands, and assorted nieces and nephews will be in Miami for a family dinner Thursday night. Sean already apologized that it would be the only time he could see them this week.
Tom is counting on celebrating with his brother after the game. But even a Saints victory won't be their best moment.
That happened after Sean left Illinois for the Eagles job in 1997. It was a return home, a job with the team he and his brother bled for, the place where their father took them to games and where Sean fell in love with football. The city where Sean and his wife, Beth, would start their family.
They were staying with Tom's family in Philly when Beth went into labor.
"I went to the hospital with milk shakes because my dad taught us to make them when we were kids and Sean loved them, and Tastykakes cupcakes because that was Sean's biggest downfall," Tom recalled.
"My brother and I were sitting on the edge of the bed when he asked me to be Meghan's godfather. So there we are, with tears rolling, sitting there with our Tastykakes and milk shakes, and I'll never forget it. Sean says, 'Life doesn't get any better than this, does it?'
"And that's really what Sean is all about."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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