Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Gambler

Sean Payton was being himself when he called for a daring onside kick

Sean Payton couldn't take his hands off the Vince Lombardi Trophy as Sunday night turned into Monday. While answering questions at his press conference after the Saints' 31--17 Super Bowl victory over the Colts, he kept running his hands up and down the 22-inch-tall, seven-pound silver trophy. He did the same thing in the stadium parking lot, then on the bus back to the Saints' Miami hotel, and then at the deafening team party in a series of ballrooms at the InterContinental Hotel. Staring at the trophy well after midnight, Payton kissed it, then asked his 12-year-old daughter, Meghan, if she wanted to do the same.

"No, Dad! That's gross!" Meghan said, but she was probably alone in that sentiment among the estimated 3,000 who crammed the party. Just then, one of Payton's good friends—an older man with gray hair, black glasses, Saints beads draped around his neck and a huge smile—found him. Payton held the trophy out, they both giggled like kids and embraced with the trophy between them.

"Pretty ballsy move!" Jimmy Buffett said to Payton.

Payton called for that move on Sunday night as he walked through the locker room at halftime, down 10--6. He calmly gave kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead a one-word directive: "Ambush." That's the team's code word for an onside kick. Payton was asking a 23-year-old rookie, who until 12 days earlier had never even practiced an onside kick, to try one in the NFL's biggest game.

But Payton is used to rolling the dice. He turned down the Raiders' head-coaching job in 2004, even though he knew he might never get another chance at a top spot in the NFL. He then took the Saints' job, even though the team looked like a guaranteed loser five months after Katrina. And in four years he has turned America's lovable losers into Super Bowl champions.

Late on Sunday, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis pondered a question: What was his most important move in turning around the franchise? Luring quarterback Drew Brees in free agency? Drafting running back Reggie Bush? He took about a half second to answer. "Hiring Sean," Loomis said. "If we don't sign Sean, then we probably don't get Drew to come. In hiring Sean, we got the best offensive mind in the NFL, and we got one of the best quarterbacks. He's made all of this work."

The onside-kick call was pure Payton. During film study his coaching staff had spied two members of the Colts' return team "bailing before the kick," as special-teamer Chris Reis called it—leaving the front line to set up their blocks before the ball was booted. "I thought it was 60 to 70 percent that we'd recover," Payton said, "and keeping the ball away from Peyton Manning one more time is huge in a game like this. Once I decided we'd do it, it was just a matter of when."

At the team party, childhood friend Joey Imparato from Naperville, Ill., said the call didn't surprise him. In fact, he expected something bold. "Since we were kids," said Imparato, "he's always had a riverboat gambler mentality. You play poker with him, he's always all-in. He ain't afraid of anything."

"We in New Orleans love his style," said political analyst James Carville, who lives in the city and was hoarse from the game. "He goes for it. This city takes to that."

A few months after Payton took the Saints' job, he went to a Habitat for Humanity site to thank the workers for their efforts in rebuilding the area. It just so happened that President Bush was there, and the two fell into a conversation, mostly about sports. Bush got a kick out of Payton's enthusiasm and moxie. "How about this?" Bush mentioned to the folks on hand. "A 42-year-old guy from Eastern Illinois, living his dream!"

He still is. Now he's got a shiny trophy, with fingerprints everywhere, to prove it.

"We in New Orleans love his style," Carville says of Payton. "He goes for it. This city takes to that."



PILES OF FUN Executing Ambush perfectly, the Saints came out of the heap with the momentum, making a genius of Payton (left).



[See caption above]