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Chuck B.

Eastern Illinois "Ain't" All About Romo No 'Mo

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You can make the case, of course, that any number of New Orleans Saints would get the credit for their victory in Super Bowl XLIV this past Sunday. You could start with the MVP, [B]QB Drew Brees[/B], and rapidly go to [B]CB Tracy Porter[/B], Hofstra football alumnus [B]WR Marques Colston [/B]or even K[B] Garrett Hartley[/B]. But the guy who's getting the most love? The [URL=",CST-SPT-sean08.article"]pride of Eastern Illinois[/URL], [B]Sean Payton[/B].

[QUOTE]''He doesn't care what anyone thinks,'' Saints running back Mike Bell said. ''He's all man. It's good to see someone break the mold and isn't just another cookie-cutter coach.''

Added Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey, [B][I]''Sean's got big gonads.''[/I][/B][/QUOTE]

The man with the big gonads - you know, the guy who calls an onside kick on the kickoff to open the second half, the guy who goes for it on 4th down at the 2, the guy who blitzes more than any other NFL coach - is a legend in these here FCS parts. Not to take away from that other famous NFL Panther alumnus - that would be Jessica Simpsons ex, [B]QB Tony Romo[/B] - but Charleston has always been, and will continue to be, Payton's place. (With an 'a'.)

A recent article [URL=""]from the [I]Charleston Times-Courier[/I][/URL] talks a bit about his days as a Panther, and the loyalty he has from former teammates to this day:

[QUOTE]A good portion of Clark County is Colts country, an alluring choice because this part of Illinois sits so close to the Indiana border. It has been a siren song for Barry Wolfe, a Martinsville grad who coaches in the Casey-Westfield school district. He won’t be rooting for Indianapolis this weekend, though.

“I guess I can’t lose as far as personally,” Wolfe said. “But I’m cheering for New Orleans this week.”

Wolfe’s shifting loyalties actually make perfect sense. During his last three years as Eastern Illinois’ center, his job was to snap it to Sean Payton. And his job was also to block for one of the biggest headaches for opposing coaches in the Gateway, the quarterback who eventually led the Panthers to the conference title as a senior.

John Smith, the defensive coordinator at Western Illinois before coming to EIU in 1987, coached against Payton in college. What he remembers is a big-time brain to go with a big-time arm.

“Sean could make adjustments,” said Smith, the associate athletic director at EIU. “I remember his senior year we thought we had a great game plan against him and he just lit us up — the audibles, checking up on our defense and hitting passes.

“I think that’s probably the way he’s coached Drew Brees. I think you see how Drew Brees leads the Saints. Not just his ability to lead them, but the ability to make the right plays, the right checks. But also through the emotional leadership. They say the players emulate the head coach. [B][I]Drew Brees emulates Sean Payton like nobody I’ve ever seen.[/I][/B]”[/QUOTE]

Payton's biography, helpfully [URL=""]recounted by ESPN this week by Melissa Issacson[/URL], reads out of a novel. Growing up outside Philadelphia, his late father used to "send little Sean up to his room so he would stop embarrassing all the men by beating them in pool on his tiptoes."

After moving to the Chicago area and Napierville High school, the 5'11 QB already was calling plays for his head coach. He then took his skills to Eastern Illinois:

[QUOTE]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."[/QUOTE]

As a Panther, he did win one playoff game, a 28-21 win over Murray State. Even back then, he knew something about [URL=""]comebacks and patience[/URL]:

[QUOTE]Eastern Illinois quarterback Sean Payton wasn't about to sweat the small stuff, which in this case was a 21-20 deficit with 8:43 to play.

"We've scored three touchdowns in that time," said Payton, a senior from Naperville Central who holds 14 of Eastern's passing and total offense records and is No. 3 on the all-time NCAA passing yardage list. "We're averaging 37 points a game and we're the No. 1 passing team in the nation at all levels. We just have to be patient and things will work out."

In this case, patience was translated into a whirlwind four-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that enabled the Panthers to defeat Murray State 28-21 Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs.[/QUOTE]

The Panthers, rated No. 3 in the nation, ultimately fell the following week to Eastern Kentucky 24-22.

After college, teammate [B]DT John Jurkovic[/B] got some interest from pro scouts, but Payton didn't even get invited to the NFL combine:

[QUOTE]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."[/QUOTE]

Funny how Ditka's goofs - who very nearly ran the Saints into the ground with his boneheaded moves like trading his entire draft for mercurial [B]RB Ricky Williams[/B] - were what Payton ended up cleaning up in New Orleans, cumulating in his Super Bowl victory yesterday.

His road to NFL head coach wasn't easy, either:

[QUOTE]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."[/QUOTE]

Ultimately he would work his way up the coaching ladder, earning everything he got - from being in the staff of the New York Giants, under [B]Bill Parcells[/B] at Dallas, and finally getting a chance in New Orleans, even taking a pay cut to make sure that he'd get the right defensive coordinator.

And some Cowboys beat writers [URL=""]has deep regrets about it, too[/URL]:

[QUOTE]"A former employee, Sean Payton, outlined what Jones once had in Dallas. And what he doesn't have now. During the 2003 draft, Payton did everything but demand the Cowboys take an unknown quarterback from Eastern Illinois named Tony Romo.

"The Saints became the first Super Bowl team to try an onside kick before the fourth quarter. (Wade) Phillips showed the Cowboys the opposite last month. Then, in Minneapolis, the Cowboys faced an early fourth-and-1 at the Minnesota 30-yard line.

"Jones saw what happened then, too, and he saw the opposite Sunday. He saw what happens when a franchise makes the right hire. He saw a coach playing every angle and inspiring his players, and he saw him win a championship for a franchise that had rarely won anything before. Jones saw a former assistant, too."[/QUOTE]

But maybe it takes a former FCS player (Saints [B]FS Darren Sharper[/B], out of William & Mary) to really put things in perspective, talking about his "big gonad" play to call the onsides kick:

[QUOTE]''A lot of coaches would have been scared to make the call,'' Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper said. ''That's gutsy. But that was the right call at the right time.''[/QUOTE]

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Updated 02-09-2010 at 09:31 AM by Chuck B.