It's nearly impossible to watch the New Orleans Saints' state-of-the-art offense operate and not be impressed by its production and precision.
The Saints scored more points and piled up more yardage than any team in the NFL this season, and they have ridden the league's best offense all the way to today's NFC title game. The triggerman of that explosive attack is quarterback Drew Brees, but the mastermind is head coach and play-caller Sean Payton.
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Sean Payton at a glance
Born: Dec. 29, 1963 in San Mateo, Calif.
High School: Naperville Central graduate, 1982
College: Eastern Illinois University, where he played quarterback and had 10,665 passing yards, the third highest in Division I-AA history. Inducted into EIU Hall of Fame in 2000.
Personal: Married to Beth, with two children, Meghan and Connor.
1987: Chicago Bruisers (AFL), Ottawa Rough Riders (CFL), Chicago Bears (NFL)
1988: Leicester Panthers (UK Budweiser National League)
College coaching career
1996: Illinois, quarterbacks
1994-1995: Miami University, offensive coordinator
1992-1993: San Diego State, runningbacks
1990-1991: Indiana State, quarterbacks/receivers
1988-1989: San Diego State, offensive assistant
NFL coaching career
2006-present: New Orleans Saints head coach
2003-2005: Dallas Cowboys, assistant head coach, quarterbacks
2000-2002: New York Giants, offensive coordinator
1999: New York Giants, quarterbacks
1997-1998: Philadelphia Eagles, quarterbacks
Source: NFL, news reports
The seeds of what has grown into the NFL's premier passing offense were planted 30 years ago at Naperville Central High School, when Payton was a sophomore and J.R. Bishop was the new head football coach. Bishop, who later coached at Wheaton College, has run passing camps for high school players in the Midwest for 35 years and is renowned for his expertise in directing aerial attacks.
But because Payton was such a student of the game, even in high school, Bishop allowed him to do things most NFL quarterbacks usually don't.
"As a senior, J.R. let Sean call his own plays," said Dave Dillon, who was just starting his coaching career at Naperville Central and is still a Redhawks assistant. "That was unheard of. But late in games, if we had a decent lead, he'd let Sean call his own plays. He knew the level of Sean's dedication, and the passion he had for the game."
That dedication and passion were as evident back then as they are now.
"Sean had a great football mind," Dillon said. "He took home film at night, that's how dedicated he was. I don't want to say he was obsessed, but he was really driven. You rarely see that type of dedication in a high school kid. Other kids would sometimes watch film at school, but he took it home and studied it. He led by example. Kids believed in him. He was just a natural leader."
Bishop is retired and living in Florida, but he still is involved with his passing camps. He thought enough of Payton's grasp of the game back in high school that he allowed him to have input into the offensive game planning. During Friday afternoon sessions in Bishop's office, Payton would flip through the playbook and pick the pass plays he liked and eliminate those he wasn't confident in running.
"It worked because he was always a student of the game," Bishop said. "He was pretty smart even back then."
His high school experience did much for Payton's career, and he has never forgotten that. He keeps in touch with former coaches, comes back to Naperville often, and still sees friends that he played with in high school.
"That was kind of a unique class for me, Sean's senior season," Bishop said. "It was a real close-knit team, and there were about eight or 10 of them, including Sean, who ran around together all the time. He still sees them, and you'd never know that he makes millions of dollars and is on top of the world. He's just like any other person."
Every year since 2006, when he became the Saints' head coach, Payton invites members of the Naperville Central coaching staff, past and present, to attend training camp, and he has donated equipment and gear to the school. Bishop spends a week every summer observing the operation that his former student presides over, and he's just as impressed now as he was 30 years ago.
"He does have a good offensive mind, and you can see his teams are sound in what they're doing," Bishop said. "He's always had a good head for calling plays. I just think he's smarter than most (NFL coaches). His players know he's smart, and they respect him for that, and he treats them right. He really relates to his players.
"He was like that back in high school. All our players liked him, and they respected him for all the work he put in."
At Eastern Illinois University, Payton threw for 10,665 career yards, the third-highest total in NCAA D-IAA history. He was a three-time all-America selection at EIU and had a brief professional career in Arena Football with the Chicago Bruisers, and in Canadian Football with the Ottawa Rough Riders. He played briefly in the NFL, with the "Spare Bears," the 1987 strike replacement team.
After nine years as a college coach, Payton made it back to the NFL as the Eagles' quarterbacks coach in 1997. He quickly advanced to become an offensive coordinator with the Giants and then the Cowboys before taking over the Saints in 2006 and becoming NFL Coach of the Year.
That all makes sense to the coaches who knew him as a teenager.
"I've been at the school 31 years, and he is one of the most competitive people I've ever seen," Dillon said. "He loved a challenge. He had that attitude that, 'I'm going to beat you,' but it was in a positive way, not arrogant.
"He's a perfectionist. That's why he was so successful. He did his homework. He wanted to win. He respected his opponent, but his level of preparation was unmatched. He's a winner, that's the bottom line."