HUNTINGTON — Michael Payton’s last drive at Marshall University could have been a “see, I told you so” moment.
The great quarterback, though, didn’t want it that way. Payton’s precision passing that took the Thundering Herd from its own 19 to the Youngstown State 5, setting up Willy Merrick’s game-winning field goal in a 31-28 victory in the NCAA Division I-AA national championship game was masterful. It also was vastly different to how many thought he would end his career.
The young quarterback from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, struggled his first two seasons at Marshall, which had become accustomed to a string of All-Southern Conference quarterbacks in Carl Fodor, Tony Petersen and John Gregory. Payton was athletic, sure, but did he have what it took to lead Marshall’s potent offense?
He did. The doubters bothered Payton, especially the handful knuckleheads who questioned whether a black quarterback could get it done. He was hard on himself and Jim Donnan was, too, as the veteran coach knew he had a premier talent under center if Payton could just cut down on mental lapses.
In 1992, Donnan changed Marshall’s offense to make Payton more effective. Donnan, offensive coordinator Greg Briner and Peterson, the team’s quarterback coach, established an attack that was less dependent on Payton and more on an impressive running back trio of Orlando Hatchett, Glenn Pedro and Chris Parker. The draw became a huge weapon, as did the screen.
Payton’s strong arm and scrambling ability were well-suited for the scheme and he proved he had more than enough smarts to run the offense. The result was a national championship, the Walter Payton Award and a slew of other honors few could have anticipated when Payton was a freshman.
Often found along the banks of the Ohio River fishing, he used rod, reel and water to escape the rigors of football.
“I love fishing, just sitting out there relaxing, catching those big fish,” Payton said in 1992. “Morning, evening, anytime during the day I’ll go and stay there all day. I don’t have to catch a fish, I don’t know what it is. I just love sitting out there.”
Payton became one of the more-beloved players in Herd history. In 2018, when Payton unexpectedly died of cancer he had appeared to have beaten, Marshall fans were crushed. They had made up for their doubts through the years, cheering Payton as he was elected to the MU Hall of Fame in 1999. He received hugs, hand shakes and warm smiles at every game he attended.
In his career, Payton completed 689 of 1,108 passes for 9,411 yards, all Southern Conference records, as were his 9,704 total yards. The numbers, though, couldn’t come close to telling the story of Payton. He had a big arm, a bigger heart and forever will hold a special place in the history of Marshall football.