Oct. 26, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON – This used to be Payton’s Place. This weekend, it will be that again.
Michael Payton headed here from his Harrisburg, Pa.-area home today, looking forward to the 20th anniversary reunion this weekend of Marshall’s 1992 NCAA Division I-AA football championship team.
And 20 years later, in one way, he’s not much different.
He was No. 14, the Thundering Herd’s starting – and star – quarterback then. Now, he’s still showing the way, whether it’s in his disadvantaged-youth social services job in Dauphin County, Pa., or as coach of the Linglestown Colts, who went undefeated and won the Catholic Football Association’s Midget League Super Bowl last season.
“I got back to Marshall for two or three games last year, but my weekends now are tied up working with the kids,” Payton said Thursday. “It’s going to be great to see everyone again. Some of us from that team keep in touch on Facebook and message back and forth.
“Troy Brown and I keep in touch on a pretty much regular basis. Troy and I are good friends. He tells me that I made him the player he was, helped him get where he did (the NFL; Brown is now a New England Patriots Hall of Famer). He’s always done that. I tell him, ‘No, you did that on your own.’”
Payton, 42, remains a nominee for the College Football Hall of Fame. He is on the Mount Rushmore of Herd quarterbacks … Payton, Pennington, Leftwich … and talk about starting an argument, trying to pick a fourth.
He was a junior in 1991 when the Herd lost a 17-3 lead and fell 25-17 to Jim Tressel-coached Youngstown State for the I-AA title in Statesboro, Ga. The first of getting back to the title game and winning could have been rooted in that loss, but Payton says for him, that wasn’t the case.
“I don’t think it was,” he said. “If you think about it, we lost the lead (to the Penguins) in the ’92 game, too, so it was almost a repeat performance, and that wouldn’t have been good. I think it was something else that drove us.
“As seniors, we wanted to leave a legacy. There were a lot of emotions there in Huntington. People still hurt after the (Marshall team) plane crash in 1970. I still remember talking to Troy and Bart (tight end Mike Bartrum) that if we could win the championship, it would mean so much to the school, to the city, to the fans.
“It was something we could personally do for people who had supported us, had loved us. We couldn’t reach the pinnacle in ’91, and when we did the next year, in our stadium, people were hugging, kissing, crying. We brought the program to the top, to the pinnacle, coming from the lowest point at the plane crash.”
The ’92 team – its roster included 10 players already in the MU Athletic Hall of Fame – went 9-3 in the regular season and was one of three Southern Conference teams in the 16-team bracket. The second-place Herd finished behind The Citadel, which fell in a playoff quarterfinal to Youngstown State.
Marshall received an at-large bid into the 16-team field, and then four home games later won the title on Willy Merrick’s only career field goal, a 31-28 triumph over Youngstown.
Payton’s 9,411 career passing yards were a Herd record at the time, since surpassed by Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. And for the ’92 title season, Payton won the sixth Walter Payton Award, presented in honor of the late Jackson State and Chicago Bears’ legend to the top offensive player in Division I-AA (now FCS).
Payton’s coach of that ’92 title team at Marshall, Jim Donnan, is enshrined in the college Football Hall of Fame, as is Brown, the QB’s top receiver. Payton hopes he can follow in their footsteps.
“I’m still on the ballot,” said Payton, who works as a counselor with Alternative Rehabilitation Communities, a social services agency for troubled juveniles in Harrisburg. “Just getting that far, to me is a great thing, and people have told me to be patient. Troy is in there, Coach Donnan is in there.
“People say I have the stats. We won a championship. I won the Walter Payton Award, which was great. I think it’s all there. You just have to be patient.”
So, is he?
“No doubt. When you’re a father (son, Donovan, is 10), you have to be patient,” Payton said, laughing, “That, and when you’re coaching Midget football.”
Payton’s NFL bid with the Dallas Cowboys was ended by serious illness and injury. He played in the CFL for the Saskatchewan Roughriders and in Arena Ball in Florida. One of the peaks of his football career was that ’92 championship in his home stadium.
“I’m really looking forward to the reunion, having us together again,” Payton said. “That’s one of the greatest accomplishments in Marshall Football history, and when we walk into that stadium again as a group, it’s going to be very special.
“I would imagine when our names are introduced again, there are going to be a lot of heartfelt emotions to go with the cheers like there were back in ’92. There might be a few tears even shed.
“By me, too.”