The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

The student news site of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

The Daily Eastern News

Payton retires No. 18 Eastern jersey

He won a Super Bowl in 2010, rewrote the Eastern record books in the 1980s, and led the Panthers to the 1986 Football Championship Series quarterfinals.

But he’s never been to a tailgate outside of O’Brien Stadium?

That was true, until Saturday.

Sean Payton, an Eastern Hall of Famer, returned to campus for the first time in around 20 years Saturday to get his No. 18 Panther football jersey retired.

Before the start of the Eastern football game Saturday, Payton roamed the tailgating area outside of O’Brien Stadium for the first time.

And the people he met were friendly, which made his return to campus even more special.

“When you come back home, some things have changed, but the people are very much the same in the way they handle themselves and welcome us,” Payton said.

Eastern fans were genuinely excited about Payton’s success and the success of his NFL team: the New Orleans Saints.

But it wasn’t only Eastern fans.

The Panthers’ opponent, Central Arkansas, had some fans from Louisiana, who were excited to see Payton.

Likewise, Payton was happy to see them on the day when he was

honored at halftime.

He was excited, but nothing prepared him for how he would feel when he first walked into the stadium.

Payton walked into the stadium and saw the curtain on the Eastern fieldhouse that covered his jersey’s banner. That’s when the moment hit him.

“When I first came into the stadium with John Smith and saw it, there was that gulp moment,” Payton said.

Not having been back on campus in a long time, but to come back for this, Payton knew the moment was special.

Payton holds five single-game passing records and three career passing records in the Eastern record books, but he never could have imagined where he would be today, especially in the NFL.

In fact, Payton wanted to be a college football coach.

“I spent the first early nine or ten years (coaching) in college,” Payton said. “I wanted to be a head coach in the Big Ten.”

Somewhere along the line, Payton said, he ended up as an assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles. Then, he was an assistant in Dallas. Finally, he landed in New Orleans.

“I’ve been fortunate to have that opportunity at a young age and be able to work with a lot of good players,” Payton said.

Now a Super Bowl champion head coach, Payton was excited when Eastern head coach Bob Spoo gave him the chance to talk to the Panthers before the game.

Before his number was retired at halftime, Payton said talking to the team was the best part of his day.

The opportunity to walk into the Eastern locker room and shake hands with the players, look them in the eye and offer words of encouragement was an honor for Payton.

He was honored by all of Eastern at halftime.

As the curtain fell, revealing Payton’s No. 18 jersey, many of his former teammates emerged from the Panthers’ locker room onto the field.

Payton’s reunion was completed.

Alex McNamee can be reached at 581-7944 or [email protected]

Payton retires No. 18 Eastern jersey

Payton retires No. 18 Eastern jersey

Eastern alum and the New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton peers out into the crowd as they cheer him on during his jersey retirement ceremony Saturday afternoon during halftime of the football game at O’Brien Field. (Audrey Sawyer


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