The Payne Train: Missing football

Seth Payne
Shutdown Corner

Selected in the fourth round of the 1997 NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars out of Cornell, former NFL defensive lineman Seth Payne played five years for the Jags, and five more for the Houston Texans. Since leaving the game after the 2006 season, Seth has been honing his writing skills, and has proven to be a real treat on Twitter with his football knowledge and wicked sense of humor. He'll bring both to Shutdown Corner on a regular basis.

I've spent the last five days at the Houston Texans' training camp after five years away from the NFL. I'm writing for Shutdown Corner and I'm on the radio in Houston, so I'm out there as a member of the media, taking notes.  Some things have jumped out at me, several of which are more personal than I expected.

First, I wasn't prepared for the emotional response I had the first time I watched a 9-on-7 drill.  In the past five years I had convinced myself that I didn't really miss football that much, that it didn't define me as a person.  I never wanted to become the clichéd ex-jock, living in the past and boring everybody at the bar with stories about my glory days. Standing there, watching those guys hit each other in a very physical drill that was a staple of my life for so many years, and I realized how much I still miss all of it.  I miss the challenge, the misery, the victories and the losses.

I miss knowing myself so well.  I miss knowing that my legs will keep churning  long after fatigue has robbed me of the ability to feel them.  That I can still run fast when it feels like I'm in deep sand.  That no matter how long a drive or a wind sprint seems, it will all be over soon.

I miss being around defensive backs.  There is no more entertaining group on this earth than NFL defensive backs.  The position demands guys that can be selfless enough to work within a group but cocky enough to rally back from getting torched on a deep ball, and humor seems to be the keystone to those combined traits.  Whenever I started feeling sorry for myself during two-a-days I'd hang out with the DBs, and the problem was solved.

I miss working with rookies.  Watching the defensive line drills, I've had to fight a strong urge to walk over and give them some tips.  But I remind myself that I'm not a part of it anymore.  I'm an outsider.

I miss coaches like the Texans' defensive line coach, Bill Kollar.  Defensive line coaches are generally a little bit crazy.  They have to be because most good defensive linemen are a little bit crazy.  My first exposure to Kollar was when I was a young player with the Jaguars and we had a combined practice with the Falcons.  Kollar was the Falcons' defensive line coach and was wearing heavy sweats in 90-degree weather and running and screaming the entire session.  My own coach was John Pease, who was equally frenetic and would prove to be one of the most important influences in my life, shaping me as a professional and as a person.

I miss the crowds.  I especially miss the end zone crowds.  The ability to play hard when fatigued is amplified when you're in a goal line stand in your home stadium.  The shroud of noise that surrounds you is hard to describe.  It is physical and it envelops you.  It is silence and wailing all at once.  And when you stuff the offense, it is euphoria.

I miss working on my craft.  By the time I retired from football, I had been working in earnest on my craft for 19 years (I don't count youth league).  I had gotten pretty good at it, and then it was gone.  And that's the shame of it all.  By the time you're 30, you're really figuring the game out and coming into your own.  The game is slowing down and you start making some plays on savvy alone.  Your technique is more automatic, so you can focus on the complexities.  But your body doesn't know that.  Your body protests.  At least mine did.  And it was over.

When it was over, I told myself that it didn't bother me.  In 2006, my 10th NFL season, I tore my ACL while playing for the Texans.  I spent two weeks in training camp with the Jaguars the next year, but I hadn't recovered from my injury and I put a product on the field that I wasn't proud of.  The Jaguars cut me, and several weeks later, I called my agent and told him I was done. I told him I had no doubts and that I was at peace with the decision. And I really thought I was.  Then I called my Mom and left her a voice mail telling her the same.  My voice was probably strong on that recording, but as soon as I hung up the phone, I started crying.  I cried so hard that I had to laugh at myself while I was sobbing.  There I was, alternately crying and laughing, and it was probably the closest I've ever been to being bona fide crazy.

Then I stopped crying, told myself that my grieving was over, and went on about my life.

So here I am five years later -- 37 years old and finally coming to grips with the fact that no matter how much I want to say that football doesn't define me, in some ways it does.  It defines me because I care about it.  It defines me because I was good at it.  It defines me because some of the finest people I know,  I know through football.  It defines me because playing in the NFL was an incredibly unique and special experience that very few will ever have.   And it gives me some empathy for the people that are stuck in their high school glory days, the clichés. We're all grieving in some way for the better parts of our youth that we'll never get back.

So if you see me in a bar, buy me a beer and I'll tell you a few stories.

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