SPRINGTOWN, Texas -- The stale word "surreal" long since passed its expiration date, but would you mind if I fetched it out of the attic and brought it back down here? Please? It's just that while rolling down Pojo Drive toward Springtown Middle School and glancing out the passenger-side window and through a fence, that man behind the bleachers among children in football pads and football helmets, well, he very much appeared to be Sean Payton.
Yeah, Saturday late afternoon, autumn in America, and the six active NFL head coaches who have won Super Bowls prepare. Mike Shanahan awaits the Atlanta Falcons, Bill Belichick awaits the Denver Broncos, Tom Coughlin awaits the Cleveland Browns, Mike Tomlin awaits the Philadelphia Eagles, Mike McCarthy heads for Indianapolis, and Sean Payton, he helps ready the sixth-grade Liberty Christian Warriors of Argyle, Texas, for their battle of 5-0 teams at Springtown, the home of the …
The home of the Fighting …
Wait for it.
The home of the Fighting Porcupines.
Excuse me if I think I'm in the REM stages of the morning here, because for one thing, Pojo Drive derives its name from a combination of -- oh, glory be -- "Porcupine" and "mojo." For another, yellow school buses have lined up over there across the road, primed for weekday action. For another, rather than an enclosed and populous Superdome, this setting affords an open view of the rolling green of North Texas, clumps of trees dotting the long horizon.
For another, there's a white, wooden sign on the chest-high fence around the field, its black letters reading: NO PETS ON FIELD. For another, rather than a booming NFL public address, there's a friendly sounding chap who concludes the preceding youth game by saying, "That's the ballgame, folks." And for yet another, a small concession hut in the corner sells hot chocolate for $1, a godsend on a frigid-gray Texas day with fans beneath blankets.
Maybe 200 fans take to the metal bleachers of the home side, with maybe 40 on the visiting. The field has four valiant light stanchions with 10 bulbs each, and one small scoreboard with three ads: for a dentist, a drugstore and a famous and typically deadly soda. The playing surface seems just about half-green, half-brown.
The Liberty Christian sideline has two rusted, orange benches.
One young fan on the visiting side has brought along an enormous chemistry textbook.
Behind the visiting bleachers, there's one of those classic American sights: a two-on-two football game among kids.
And the Porcupines have 16 or 17 or 18 cheerleaders with bright-pink pompons, and Liberty Christian has one cheerleader, a brave and promising little girl with a wide white ribbon in her hair.
Hurl Sean Payton into this setting where he helps coach his son's team of 11- and 12-year-olds during his year in emperor Roger Goodell's bounty banishment program, and you might start to revisit the power of television. A figure so often televised, including one extended scene holding a Lombardi Trophy, looks almost superimposed on the setting here where the PA man will say, "Introducing your sixth-grade Orange Porcupines" (as opposed to Springtown's other sixth-grade team, the Black Porcupines). In his white sneakers, black pants, gray sweater, lanyard with badge and gray visor, coach Payton here looks, all right, surreal.
You might think such surrealism wouldn't meddle in the football brains of Texas, where sixth-grade coaches study film between games, where the quarterbacks of the six North Central Texas Football League typically wear wristbands with playlists, where Springtown coach and former TCU offensive lineman Rob Adams runs the single wing and has read all the single-wing books from Pop Warner to Charles W. Caldwell's “Modern Single-Wing Football” to, he said, "a collection of manuscripts that are out there on the Internet, but you have to search pretty hard to find them.”
You might think Adams only fleetingly would have noticed Sean Payton while coaching last Saturday.
You might be overthinking.
Asked if he looked across at Payton and felt strange, Adams said, "Yeah!" in a tone that meant, “obviously,” and then he loosed a big laugh.
Two opposing coaches thus far have asked for photos with Payton. One ref asked for a photo. And when the game began last Saturday, Adams said, "It was completely surreal. To start the game off, I found at the time our kids just kind of standing there with their mouths open, looking at coach Payton, and so I turned them around and redirected them.
"I said, 'We're not going to measure ourselves against Sean Payton today. We're not going to measure ourselves against the Liberty Christian Warriors today. We're going to measure ourselves against the best the Orange team can do today. And we're going to accept the result as it comes.' We had a hard time getting them to focus. At the beginning of the game they were all, 'Whoa!'"
When Springtown didn't get a first down the first series, that rarity proved "a little bit disconcerting," Adams said, but after that they ceased what Adams called the "hyperventilating."
"They get freaked out when another coach is holding a clipboard," he said. "And when you see him standing over there with his badge and his visor on …" He paused. "I had my visor on, so I guess we went visor-to-visor!"
That I've-seen-him-on-TV moment felt this early season by North Texans from Decatur to Burleson to Azle to Boyd has come and gone in Argyle. A buzz among the kids did greet the news that Payton would help out, said Liberty Christian head coach Brenan Hardy, but then, "We passed that point back in summer. And really, before that. It's not surreal at all for us. We're just a couple of dads talking about our kids. He just happens to have stories where 'Bill Parcells taught me that,' or 'Jon Gruden was telling me this.' … That's everyday life for him. It's just like having a normal conversation."
Said Hardy, also a former TCU lineman, "It's like having another dad out there who just happens to know everything there is to know about the game of football."
"Is there a gate over there?"
The 5 p.m. kickoff has neared, so the Warriors needed to ask directions: Can they reach the field by walking around the right side of the visiting bleachers? They can. So here they come through the little gate, and the first striking thought goes like this: Man, they're small. They're smaller than the Porcupines, but that's not the point. They're small because they're 11 or 12. In a pregame huddle, some reach the armpits of Payton with his medium height. A few sprout up maybe just over his shoulders.
Amid the field the 20 Warriors do their calisthenics, and you can hear the boyish, waiting-to-change pitch of their voices as they count, "One! Two! Three!" and all the way to "10!" In their white jerseys and fuchsia socks and sleeves, they conduct some short-passing drills on the far sideline, with the winning coach of Super Bowl XLIV standing between them, bent over, hands on knees. They run an offense-defense kind of drill, with handoffs and pursuits from defenders, to the scrutiny of the man who helped nix the sturdy idea of the New Orleans Saints as chronically sad.
“He'll be walking kids through a drill and instead of saying, ‘Hey, pay attention,’ he'll say, ‘This is what Jimmy Graham does, and this is what Drew Brees does when he's looking for Darren Sproles,’” Hardy said. “Their eyes just light up.”
Payton coordinates the offense, and no, the head coach doesn't ever chew him out or anything. The plays come, Hardy said, "right out of the Saints’ playbook -- the same snap count, the same cadence, the same terminology," and that terminology needs translation even to an accomplished football lifer like Hardy.
One time Payton baffled the group with the NFL directive to watch for the opposing defense's "MDM," which turned out to mean "Most Dangerous Man." Another, he had to elaborate on the phrase "pizza block," which apparently happens when two blockers take different slices of a defender. "He speaks a football language that we're just slowly starting to learn," Hardy said.
That language includes the plays, 12 in all. They adorn Payton's black wristband, plus that of the quarterback. "Some of our plays, they're three sentences long," Hardy said, yet the players have grown fluent: "All the players know the plays by name, and they're understanding what we're doing, and some are understanding why we're doing what we're doing."
Quite apart from Washington or Foxborough or East Rutherford or Pittsburgh or Indianapolis, where the barks of a Shanahan or Belichick or Coughlin or Tomlin or McCarthy would go unheard in the commotion, the Porcupine paradise offers a spectator a listen at the voices of the various participants.
Adams: "Third down, boys! Come on, let's get a sack!" The PA guy: "That's the end of the first quarter, folks." A Liberty coach, reporting to the stands from an on-field injury: "He's not crying, just hurt his knee a little bit." Adams, toward a certain player: "You are Superman!" The PA guy: "Hit hard by No. 42, causing a fumble …" Adams, toward another certain player: "[NAME], come here!" Fans after a first down: "Way to block, boys! Way to block!"
And as the game begins, Payton, as he and Hardy and the players break their huddle: "Onside kick!"
It was an onside kick, and in letting it wobble out of bounds rather than fooling with it, Liberty Christian showed consummate discipline.
Payton (or a remarkable facsimile), pumping his arm on a stout defensive stop: "Go! Go!" Payton (or a remarkable facsimile), to the defense just before a snap: "Forty-four!" That play didn't work, so "44" must have meant something. "I'd see him making adjustments to what we did almost instantaneously," Adams said. "He's feeling the game like no other coach I've ever coached against [in 10 years]." Blitzes, guys in the gaps. … "He just sees the game. It just comes from years of coaching. That's a real challenge to coach against."
Watching this possible mirage, you might start wondering about humans, about how some seem to possess bloodstreams consumed with a thing they absolutely must do, something that makes them wake each morning with anticipation, be it painting or politics or piano. What gushes out of Payton is a love for football that clearly exceeds even the outsized love for football you would assume he has. In his gait and his presence, he's abuzz. He's everywhere. He's out on the edge of the field seemingly half the time, sometimes after each play on offense, giving instructions. He's standing over an injured player. He's standing on the edge of the offensive huddle, hands on two players' shoulders. He's calling a timeout at the five-minute mark of the first of the four, eight-minute quarters. He pats a player on Liberty's challenged defense, offering encouragement and then runs out to greet the entire unit upon return from a calamity. He pats the head of a player who just fumbled. He gives a swinging high-five to a player who made an outstanding block on a kickoff return.
He stands on the edge of the halftime meeting, which occurs in a clump in the end zone.
There are no sideline reporters.
Often, he's talking to the quarterback, checking his wrist on third-and-long, for they do play to win here. With a paucity of passing on a blustery day, the Warriors run a lot of sweeps to and fro. A receiver's sideline adjustment to catch a first-down pass warrants applause, and so does a receiver's sideline adjustment to almost catch a fourth-down pass. The quarterback performs a world-class fake on an end-around. In general, though, the Warriors have trouble moving against the Porcupines, and, really, who wouldn't have trouble moving through a batch of Porcupines? The Warriors score just once. The Porcupines run that single-wing, the players slapping knees while taking stances, the snap recipients disguised behind the large line, because apparently they manage to grow 'em large up here northwest of Fort Worth. Some fans grouse about the outlier nature of that single wing, even as Adams forecasts a single-wing comeback, maybe even in the NFL. Porcupines break umpteen tackles and run wild against the Warriors.
Amid all that do come reminders of the youth involved. One Warrior completes a futile chase of a runner on a long Porcupine touchdown by tumbling into a zany forward roll. One turns around from the bench in the second quarter for a brief conversation with his father behind the fence. The nine on the sideline sometimes jog to stay warm, and one does so with his arms folded as a shield from the cold. When the scoreboard begins to get lopsided, the organizers turn it off.
Oddly, over time, across the quarters, even with the small players and the big-big offensive coordinator, it all starts to look very much like football, just football, the coaches just coaching, even that one who looks a lot like Sean Payton.
So at the end, the Warriors skitter up the midfield line to shake hands with the victorious Porcupines. The offensive coordinator who helped Brees to a record 48 straight NFL games with touchdown passes says to Adams, "You have done a fantastic job with those young men. Congratulations. Well-played," and Adams just about blushes. "To have a coach of that caliber and that stature say that, I just looked at him and said, 'Oh, thank you so much, coach. We have a very special group of kids.'"
And then, a request, and an affirmative. "He took the time to pose and take a picture with me and my mother," Adams said, "when he had a plane waiting to take him to New Orleans" for Brees' Sunday night. Adams, continuing: "I'll never forget what happened on Saturday. It's something I'll treasure and something I think our kids'll treasure."
The spectators and the players and the cheerleaders and the coaches flood out to the parking lot, squeezing through the one little opening behind one end zone. "Y'all gonna go eat?" goes a voice. Right there in the thicket for a moment at the gate go a son and a father who appears often on TV but has declined all interviews this fall out of deference to the team and the age of its roster. Sometimes, when the coaches are hauling the 20-gallon water cooler or taping up kids themselves or bringing along a screwdriver for repairing helmets, Hardy finds himself thinking, "He's got an entire staff to do all this in the NFL."
But here, for this one fall, Hardy says, "I'm really happy for him and happy for his son, that they get to spend this time together. This is the only time he'll ever get to coach him" -- and then he rummages around for a caveat -- “unless he gets to the pros. It's his shot at being a normal dad, an opportunity to just kind of step out of the limelight and be a normal dad." Rather hurriedly the normal dad and son zip toward the car, and while this might sound strange, this particular normal dad very much appears to be Sean Payton.