The suburban Chicago native starred at Eastern Illinois University. Despite finishing his collegiate career with the third-most passing yards in NCAA Division I-AA history, the NFL was not begging for his services. Payton did score a one-day tryout, albeit an unsuccessful one, with the Kansas City Chiefs.
With the NFL out of the immediate picture, he explored the wild frontier that was the fledgling Arena Football League.
In 1987, he played quarterback for the Chicago Bruisers, one of four teams that participated in a demonstration season. Payton also spent a month with the Canadian Football League's Ottawa Rough Riders and was released.
He finally got his shot in the NFL, but the reality was far different than his boyhood dream. Payton was a replacement player, a scab, for the Chicago Bears during the NFL strike season of 1987. Coincidentally, his final NFL game as a player was a 19-17 loss to the Saints.
His professional odyssey took one last, bizarre turn when he crossed the Atlantic to play American football for England's Leicester Panthers in 1988. It was while playing quarterback in one of professional football's most remote outposts that Payton realized coaching was the best way to stay involved with his passion.
Payton was never a coddled star, and he rejects the notion that certain players should be afforded different treatment because of the notoriety of an alma mater, the status of a high draft pick or the size of a signing bonus.
"There's certain things that we expect," says Payton. "There are no fixtures, position-wise, on this team. There are no staples -- especially on a (Saints) team that was 3-13."
Safety Steve Gleason, who's entering his seventh season with the Saints, says it didn't take long for the players to pick up on Payton's no-nonsense approach.
"I think the biggest difference is the discipline aspect, at this point," says Gleason. "Which I think is sort of expected with a new staff. There's always a new discipline that comes in. I feel like Coach Payton is pretty strong about doing what you're told when you're told regardless of who you are."
Katrina made sure the Saints experienced the most tumultuous season in the history of the NFL. Last fall, the team displayed a lack of focus and continuity that was as much a Sunday certainty as weekly church services. New Orleans committed 43 turnovers, second most in the NFL. Only two teams accumulated more penalty yards than the Saints.
Payton believes that eliminating those mistakes will lead to more victories.
"I think these players, not just our players, but the players today understand here are the things that keep you from winning games," says Payton. "I said it in the very beginning. The slate is clean with this team -- whether the player has been here or it's a new player that we brought in. We're just looking for, when it's all said and done, the best 53 guys that we think give us the chance to win regardless of how we acquired them."
One Saint who is looking to prove that 2005 was an anomaly is Pro Bowl receiver Joe Horn, who last year had the least productive season of his six-year tenure in New Orleans. The normally garrulous Horn had a lot less to talk about last season -- he caught only one touchdown pass.
"That's what everyone was talking about," says Horn. "'They weren't disciplined. They were not focused.' And to be honest, we weren't at times. The eye in the sky doesn't lie. The film showed that. I'm sure that's what Coach Payton wanted to instill in us, to have the discipline to do things right."
Payton also learned at the right hand of one of the NFL's most stern, and most successful, disciplinarians. After serving as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, he spent three seasons in Dallas under Cowboys head coach Bill Parcells. Payton began as assistant head coach and quarterbacks coach. He was later promoted to passing game coordinator and was in charge of the Cowboys' play calling.
Payton says while his personality differs from that of Parcells, he did adopt some tenets from the two-time Super Bowl champion coach.
"He understands the preparation and the commitment to details and how that has to work better than anyone I've been around," says Payton.
THE SAINTS HAVE HARDLY SERVED AS AN incubator for star players in recent years. That changed on April 29, 2006, the first day of the NFL draft. Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush, who was passed over by the Houston Texans, fell to the Saints with the second pick in the draft.
Bush was manna from heaven. Fans believed he would be the spiritual sustenance divinely supplied to the franchise to ease 39 years of suffering.
In Bush, Payton will coach the biggest star in team history. The former Heisman Trophy winner had already lined up several lucrative endorsement deals before the draft. But Payton seems to think Bush will be unaffected by the pressure of being the new face of the franchise.
"He's a sharp guy," says Payton. "He's been in this fishbowl throughout his college career. He's played for national championship games in front of 100,000 people in L.A., so I think the transition for him will be just fine."
The two will make an intriguing pair. Bush is the megawatt superstar who, without playing a down in the NFL, is already a magnet for national media coverage. Payton is the first-time head coach eager to inculcate his new disciples with a sense of discipline and egalitarianism.
Payton's treatment of Bush will be an early indicator as to whether the coach will stick to his principles. Allowing Bush to play by a different set of rules would immediately undermine Payton's credibility.
Making Bush fall in line with the rest of his teammates wouldn't make him any less of a player, but in the eyes of his teammates, it would make Payton more of a coach.