The following begins a semi-regular Prairie State Pigskin feature that looks back on some of the all-time greats in Illinois Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), which was previously called I-AA football.
Prior to raising the Lombardi Trophy as the head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Sean Payton was a record-setting quarterback during the “Eastern Airlines” era of EIU Panthers football.
Payton, who became an NFL head coach at age 42, was recruited out of Naperville Central High School in 1982.
“I was recruited by Eastern, Southern Illinois, Southwest Missouri State and Northern Illinois,” Payton said in EIU Panthers Football, which chronicles the program’s history.
NIU, then under head coach Bill Mallory, offered Payton a partial scholarship.
“At that time there weren’t any parents along on recruiting visits,” Payton said. “It’s a hard decision to make at such a young age when you look back on it.”
Though he was recruited to EIU by Darrell Mudra’s staff, Payton spent his playing days under Al Molde, who took over when Mudra left Charleston for Northern Iowa.
“Al Molde was very studious,” Payton said of the man who would later become the all-time wins leader in Western Michigan University history. “He was a calming influence, which was very different from Darrell Mudra.”
Before he would go on to break passing records at EIU, Payton first had to win the starting job. And he had to win it from his good friend John Rafferty, now an executive with Arch Insurance Group in Western Springs.
“It was always challenging because John and I were roommates during that time,” Payton said. “It worked because we had a separate friendship away from football.”
Payton came off the bench to rally Eastern into overtime with highly ranked Indiana State in a 1983 playoff game. Eventually, the Sycamores prevailed 16-13 in double overtime.
“I threw an interception that sealed the game,” Payton said. “I can still picture that game to this day.”
By the following season, Payton was the starter and Molde installed a pass-oriented offense. Payton threw for 3,843 and 28 touchdowns, including a 461-yard, five-touchdown day against Western Kentucky.
In 1985, the Panthers became charter members of the Gateway Conference (Missouri Valley Football Conference today). Eastern led the league in passing offense and Payton set an EIU record with a 509-yard single-game performance.
In the summer before his senior season, Eastern lost a key running back named Bernie Holland, an Olympia Fields native who prepped at Thornwood High School, in a car accident.
“The coaches decided to go with a one-back offense. So, we ran out of a spread set,” Payton said.
Playing behind a veteran line that included future New York Giant Dave Popp, Payton picked apart opponents. He led EIU to the Gateway title, a top three national ranking and a berth in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs. Payton surpassed the 10,000-yard mark, trailing only two other players on the all-time list when he finished his collegiate career.
“Sean is an intense competitor, an infectious leader and one of the most confident players I had the pleasure of working with in my career,” said Molde years later. “He was a player who loved watching film and preparing for the next game . . . So many times I saw him check a play at the line, drop back and throw a strike to (Roy) Banks or (Calvin) Pierce for big gains and touchdowns.”
Praise from Others
“I knew he was smart, I told him, ‘Coach Payton, when you become a head coach, don’t forget about me.'” –running back LeShon Johnson, who played when Payton was New York Giants’ offensive coordinator
“You could see that Sean Payton was one of those guys who was just special. I was hoping that somehow he’d wind up as the head coach here (in Dallas).” –former NFL punter Jeff Gossett
“He’s a great coach. You can see his command of the football situation on the field as it happens. He’s developed a bond with Drew Brees that is unique.” –former Denver Broncos’ head coach Red Miller