SUPER POLL 50 | 31: Sean Payton answered ‘Who are you?’ emphatically in Super Bowl XLIV

Our series on ASN’s 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 31 Sean Payton, originally published on Jan. 21.

31-Sean-PaytonIt’s funny that Sean Payton made one of the most cold-blooded decisions in Super Bowl history while The Who was rocking the Super Bowl XLIV halftime show.

Payton, who threw for more than 10,000 yards as quarterback at Eastern Illinois, helped the team reach the 1986 NCAA Division I-AA quarterfinals.  He went on to a pro career filled with trivia-question teams: Who were the Chicago Bruisers, Pittsburgh Gladiators, Ottawa Rough Riders, Chicago Bears replacement squad (the 1987 Spare Bears), and a semi pro club in England named the Leicester Panthers of the Budweiser National League.

The Who indeed.

Twenty-two years later, Payton head coached the New Orleans Saints to the NFL title game, where his team trailed Peyton Manning’s Indianapolis Colts 10-6 after two quarters. The Saints opened the second half with an onside kick, nicknamed Ambush, which they recovered and turned into a touchdown that brought them the lead and new life on their way to a 31-17 win.

“Somewhere between ‘Teenage Wasteland’ and ‘Pinball Wizard,’ we decided that this was going to be the time to run this,” Payton said on the NFL Network’s series “America’s Game.”

Saints GM Mickey Loomis recalled to The Advocate that he knew Payton had the team practice Ambush but didn’t know if or when he’d use it.

“I thought he might do it after our first score and then we had that long halftime, and I remember thinking, ‘Hell, he might come out and do this onside kick,’” Loomis said. “I didn’t know for sure, but, look, you know Sean is aggressive, and I expected it at some point in the game.”

The day after the championship, Payton told the traditional winners’ Monday morning news conference he’d slept a few winks with the Lombardi Trophy.

“This thing laid in my bed next to me last night,” he said. “Rolled over [it] a couple times. I probably drooled on it. But man, there’s nothing like it.”

After all the on-field memories, Payton told the gathering of a special off-field moment in a hotel room.

The Saints quarterbacks coach was Joe Lombardi — Vince’s grandson — and he posed for pictures along with Joe’s brothers and father, and the prize named for his grandfather.

“I just thought to myself, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. If you believe in heaven, and you believe Vince Lombardi’s there looking down on his grandson, it doesn’t get any better,’” Payton said.

“[Lombardi] is a guy who coaches our quarterbacks, coaches Drew Brees, and here’s a trophy that’s named after his grandfather. So you can’t get enough of this.”


Above: Sean Payton set Eastern Illinois career passing records that went unsurpassed until Jimmy Garoppolo in 2010-13. Garoppolo is now Tom Brady’s backup with the New England Patriots, and both he and Payton have won Super Bowl rings. (Photos courtesy of EIU Athletics)

Joe Bush

Joe Bush is a freelance writer based in Naperville, Ill.