Many great athletes have donned the green and white at Marshall University before rising to NFL stardom. In recent years, names like Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich still elicit memories of bowl victories, conference titles and records broken. But football fans that have followed Marshall since the days before these great players are sure to remember another name with a less decorated professional career.
After four stellar seasons at Central Dauphin East High School in Harrisburg, PA, Michael Payton’s letter of intent was signed and delivered as he prepared to make the three-hour drive west to play for Coach George Chaump at Indiana University-Pennsylvania (IUP).
“To tell you the truth I had no intentions on going to Marshall University at all. I had a good friend going to IUP and we already had an apartment and everything,” Payton admitted.
Shortly after, as fate would have it, Coach Chaump accepted the head coaching position at Marshall University, and with him he took his most prized recruit.
“Chaump had called my father and said that he was going to Marshall and wanted me to come and visit the campus. Honestly, I told my dad I didn’t even want to go and he said, ‘No let’s go take a look at the campus. It’s DI-AA, a step up from D-II. You’re not going to know if you like it unless you go there and take a look at it.’
"So we went down there and we stayed four or five days. I absolutely fell in love with the people, the university, and the program itself.”
Chaump left after the 1989 season, but Payton would stay in Huntington to rewrite the record books.
While at Marshall, Payton broke every passing record in their program’s history while racking up numerous individual awards.
Those awards included: Two-time Consensus First Team All-American, Two-time Southern Conference (SoCon) Player-of-the-Year, Two-time First-Team All-SoCon, SoCon Male Athlete of the Year, West Virginia Amateur Athlete of Year, West Virginia Man of the Year and the prestigious Walter Payton Award, which is given to the most outstanding player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Thanks to his success on the field, Payton attained “rock star” status in Huntington. Off the field, Payton always made sure he was doing the right things and keeping his life in perspective.
“Obviously I was in the limelight and people treated me like I was a rock star, but I also gave back to the community every way I could," he said. "I worked with D.A.R.E, M.A.D.D, and I did a lot of speaking at the schools to give back to the kids and the community. I kept myself out of trouble, got educated with two degrees, but I also served as a role model to a lot of kids because they tend to look up to us (athletes) as role models."
"I always signed autographs. I tried to give every kid an autograph because I know how it felt as a kid trying to get an autograph and a guy will not take five seconds to sign his name on a jersey or hat.”
Almost 19 years have passed since Payton laid claim to his last football award, but now, in 2011, Payton can find his name on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame.
“This is truly an honor to even be considered," he said. "The Walter Payton award will always be a part of me, but being in the College Football Hall of Fame would be above and beyond any expectations I had for myself. I don’t even have words to explain what an honor this would be.”
In many ways, Payton set the bar for quarterback greatness during his time at MU. Not only did Payton lead the Herd to two consecutive national championship games (1991-92), winning one (1992), but in the process he managed to set the career mark for passing yards and touchdowns, throwing for 9,411 yards and 69 touchdowns. His record for career passing yards surpassed the previous record by over 2,300 yards.
“I might have set the bar for those guys but there were plenty of guys before me who set the bar prior to my arrival like (Carl) Fodor, (Tony) Peterson and (John) Gregory,” he said.
“I look back and laugh because Coach Donnan used me to help recruit his son, Todd, who was also a QB. We ended up getting him and he played behind me. When we were winning, coach would ask me ‘Can I put Todd in there?’ Looking back there were several games were I only played one half. One game I only played one quarter."
"Chamup would play his starters until there was very little time left in the game, so I look at what my numbers could have been if I would have played entire games. I probably would have had well over 12,000 yards. I understand his decisions, he wasn’t trying to risk injury or run up the score, while at the same time letting his son play a little bit and that was fine with me.”
Payton also recalls a 1991 game vs. VMI in which he threw for 383 yards in the first half, a SoCon record. Coach Donnan replaced Payton with his son Todd midway through the third quarter. On Todd Donnan’s first play from scrimmage he completed a screen pass to current College Football Hall of Fame member Troy Brown, who went 99 yards for a touchdown, breaking the SoCon record for longest play from scrimmage.
During Marshall’s national championship season in 1992, Payton threw for an unprecedented 3,610 yards and 31 touchdowns while guiding Marshall to a 12-3 record. A favorite target of Payton’s that season was Brown. In 1992, he caught 101 passes from Payton for 1,654 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“Troy was unique in his style of play," Payton said. "He was one of the first guys I ever saw with what you would call ‘start-stop speed.’ When Troy started running, he was at full speed. When most guys start running it takes them about 10 to 15 yards to get to full speed."
"Troy would be running at full speed, stop, make a move on you and then start again at full speed. He also had the softest hands of any receiver I’ve ever thrown to. It was like throwing into tissue paper, no noise."
“When he came to Marshall from junior college he was a very nice young man, very athletic and we just took to each other. We stayed together for a while and discussed routes and packages; from there on we just bonded."
“Recently in an ESPN interview Troy mentioned me, among (Drew) Bledsoe and (Tom) Brady as the best quarterbacks he had ever played with. The reporter did a double take until Troy elaborated. He had that type of respect for me.”
During his junior campaign as Marshall’s signal caller, Payton had another remarkable season, throwing for 3,392 yards and 26 touchdowns. That season, Payton led Marshall to an 11-4 record before losing to a Jim Tressel-coached Youngstown State team in the national championship, 25-17.
The 1992 national championship meant a lot more to Payton than revenge on the same team that had beat him just one year prior.
“It was an array of emotions," he said. "Obviously when I was down there, there was still a lot of talk about the plane crash, and that’s something I held very near to me. One thing I told myself was that if I ever had the opportunity to bring a little justice back to the city of Huntington I would."
"I remember talking to Bart (Mike Bartrum) and Troy (Brown) as we got close to the championship game, and I said ‘this would really help give back to the city of Huntington, you can’t even put it into words what it would do for them.'
“So when we won the championship it was a feeling of awe. I was almost numb. I remember gazing into the crowd and seeing people up there hugging and crying, I can’t even put it into words. I was happy, I was sad, but I was proud that we could help bring the program to the pinnacle, coming from the worst possible position they could ever be in coming back from the plane crash.'
"I actually remember leaving the stadium about two-and-a-half hours after the end of the game and everybody was still in the stadium. It was completely amazing.”
After that season, Payton signed a free-agent deal with the Dallas Cowboys, before complications from compartment syndrome cut his NFL ambitions short.
“It was horrible,” Payton says now with a laugh. “It is a muscular disease and I didn’t even know I had it. When I was in Dallas (Cowboy’s training camp) my foot used to go numb, and I assumed that I was getting my ankles taped too tight, so I started getting my cleats spatted, but that still didn’t help."
“A couple months went by and one day I just collapsed. When they took me to the hospital, I had no feeling in my leg for about eight to ten hours. The doctors were concerned that the nerve running from my knee to my toes would become severed due to the grinding from the fluid buildup."
"If that were to happen then they would have to amputate my leg. That was Dallas’ main concern. Another three weeks went by and I returned to practice, a few more days went by, then after practice one day all my stuff was out of my locker.”
After numerous surgeries and procedures, Payton played three seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the CFL, and one with the Florida Bobcats of the Arena League before retiring from football in 1997. Today, Payton’s reflections on his playing days are both positive and without regret.
“I look at it like this," he said. "God has blessed me with a lot of talent, a lot of effort and a can-do personality. Life is very difficult. You’re going to get knocked down plenty of times in life, but you’re going to see the true character of a person by whether or not they stay down, or get back up and start fighting. I’ve always been a fighter."
“I always wanted to play in the NFL, but it didn’t happen the way I wanted it to. I don’t live life with any regrets and if I had it to do over again I wouldn’t change a thing.”
The 2011 Hall of Fame class will be inducted and enshrined on July 15th-16th in South Bend, Indiana.
Note: This interview was conducted by myself, Tony Sotelo, on 3/20/2011