His NFL sainthood on hold for a year, Sean Payton still walks on water in his hometown of Naperville.
From Mayor George Pradel to former Naperville Central football players who appeared with Payton in a 2010 Kenny Chesney music video, the city is lining up behind its fallen hero.
Payton, a standout quarterback at Naperville Central in 1982 who went on to coach the 2009 New Orleans Saints to the franchise's first Super Bowl title, this week was suspended from the NFL for one year for the team's role in an illegal bounty program that allegedly paid players to injure their competitors.
Pradel, who says he knew Payton as a teenager, was surprised to learn of Payton's involvement in the scandal but isn't about to revoke his Naperville card.
"He's such a smart and thoughtful young man that I can't see him getting involved in something that would hurt his reputation, the reputation of the Saints and his way of life. He's such a super guy to know," Pradel said. "We still hold him in high esteem and I'm not sure how he got caught up in it, but we're supporting him as a Napervilian in whatever he does. I just want the very best for Sean Payton."
Former Naperville Central High School Principal Jim Caudill also fondly recalls his relationship with Payton, whom he knew as far back as when Payton was a student at Lincoln Junior High School. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone with higher integrity, Caudill said.
Since news of the bounty scandal broke, Caudill said he knew its focus would eventually turn to Payton.
"As the leader in any organization, you are responsible for everything under you, but this has surprised me. I'm curious how much he knew about it," he said. "But in my eye, a single mistake doesn't take away from Sean being a good person because I know the complexity of running a big school or organization. I can't say I always crossed all the 't's and dotted all the 'i's. If something happens you just hope the mistake is not that big."
Not everyone is even convinced Payton erred in any way. Naperville Central Athletic Director Marty Bee, who called Payton a "very good person," said it's impossible to know Payton's involvement without having all of the facts.
"No one at Naperville Central knows all of the facts so none of us are in a position to judge the NFL, Sean Payton or the decisions that have been made," said Bee, who also said his coaches won't be discussing the situation with student-athletes.
"How can I justify using what is happening to Sean Payton as a teachable moment when I don't know the facts?" he asked. "Nothing that happens in the NFL has anything to do with what we do at Naperville Central because we don't know the facts."
Mike Stine, Naperville Central football coach, did not return several messages left for him since the scandal broke earlier this month. But several of his former players, many of whom appeared in Kenny Chesney's "Boys of Fall" ESPN video with Payton in 2010, lined up to support their fellow alum. In the documentary, Payton returns to his alma mater and gives an inspirational pep talk before one of their games.
Tyler Bell, a 2011 graduate, New Orleans native and die-hard Saints fan now attending Southeastern Louisiana University, said he'll never forget appearing in the video -- and he can forgive his favorite coach.
"I love my Saints, but what they did was completely illegal and a punishment certainly had to be handed down. Stopping this bounty thing is serious," Bell said. "But this won't sway my opinion about what a great guy he is. I love him to death. He brought a championship to my home city."
Kyle Cerchio, also a 2011 Naperville Central graduate, said he, too, was disappointed to learn the news.
"It's not OK what they did, but we have to stand by our alumni," said Cerchio, who is one of many members of his family to be a Redhawk. "I definitely have the same amount of respect for Sean Payton because he is and always will be a Central Redhawk. We've been as successful as we have because we always stick together. If he needs support, he's got Redhawk support right here."