It was surely a sign that Sean Payton is getting back to normal in his recovery from a bout with coronavirus – or certainly stir-crazy – when the typically fearless coach took to Twitter on Sunday night and posted a few plays from the New Orleans Saints playbook to engage in a group conversation.
A coach from the most paranoid sports league ever created?
“I’m scrolling and saw a (non-NFL) coach put up a play, saying, ‘Put up an empty play and tag it.’ So, I drew one up, took a picture and put it up in the conversation,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports during a phone conversation on Monday – two weeks after he was struck with coronavirus symptoms.
“That took off and led to another, then another, then led to a little history about Jerry Rice. For the better part of an hour I had some fun. Then it was like, ‘I’ve got to get off here.’ It was almost 11 o’clock.”
For years, Payton, 56, has been one of the most compelling and engaging figures to talk to in NFL circles, largely because he has a way of wrapping his candor with wit and panache. Yet hearing Payton declare that he is “100% recovered” (and cleared by doctors) from coronavirus provided another type of context as he detailed information from the Centers for Disease Control that he seemed as familiar with as, say, a play where Drew Brees has an option of throwing to Michael Thomas on a drag pattern or Alvin Kamara streaking on a seam route.
“I’m in that unique group that they believe can’t get it again this season and can’t give it,” said Payton, the only coach or high-ranking figure within the NFL known to test positive for COVID-19. “I’m waiting to hear if people like me are going to be able to give blood. I don’t know the specifics, whether that’s through a transfusion or plasma replacement. I know they’re looking to see if there’s a benefit to people who have had it and recovered from it and now maybe have the blood or the antibodies built up to help someone who has it. I’m waiting to hear if that’s the case and if it is, what’s the protocol and where do you go to give blood.”
Payton spoke after finishing a conference call with his assistant coaches and other staff. Monday was technically his first day back to work – remotely, of course, as NFL team headquarters remain shut down – and he needed to speak with 25 to 28 staff members to address specifics of an e-mail sent to the staff that outlined scheduling for their preparation for the NFL draft.
The draft meetings that teams typically hold this time of year to, as Payton put it, “stack the board,” will be conducted on the same timeline and extend for roughly two weeks. Rather than being held in the war room at the headquarters, the meetings will take place via conferencing. The Saints will begin those draft meetings on Wednesday.
“For every one of these teams, it’s obviously going to be different than what we’re used to,” Payton said. “We’re going to need to be more tech-savvy with the scouts.”
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Payton believes the Saints have done well in following up with draft prospects since the combine, with travel eliminated and the top-30 visits in which prospects visit team headquarters scuttled. They have leaned heavily on video conferences for follow-up interviews with prospects.
Summarizing his key message in an e-mail sent to Saints players, which also acknowledged an offseason timeline that doesn’t include the usual organized team workouts, Payton said: “First and foremost, take care of your families and yourself. That’s the message. All the other things are very small minutiae problems, compared to what we’re seeing on TV.”
Payton, engaged recently to Skylene Montgomery, said that no one else in his circle of family or close friends has been infected with COVID-19. His parents are deceased. Although he didn’t indicate whether his older sister and older brother had been tested, he said that they are “clean.” He also said there are no issues with either his daughter Meghan, who is living in Los Angeles after graduating from Pepperdine, or his son Connor, a freshman at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
“Each day we hear of someone else – an athlete, a politician, or someone who is ordinarily newsworthy who has contracted the virus,” he said. “Look, as this thing hit the world, it obviously doesn’t have any boundaries in terms of who it can affect.”
Payton felt good enough on Sunday to go for a three-mile run, and he planned to do likewise on Monday. He said the symptoms were at their worst two weeks ago, when he returned from a trip to Arkansas where he attended a racetrack and watched one of Bill Parcells’ horses perform. He had flu symptoms, chills, aches and for one day, he said, a low-grade fever. After being tested on March 16, he said the worst of his symptoms had subsided by the time he received confirmation of the test results on March 19.
“You fatigue real easy,” he described of the worst of his symptoms. “I’d be up moving around, doing something, then you’d want to lay down again. That lasted three or four days. By the time I got the test results back I had begun feeling better. I had my appetite back.”
Was there a particular go-to meal that got him through the 14-day quarantine?
Payton pondered the question and went in several directions, including Italian cuisine, sandwiches and the like, that were delivered to his home. As he listed foods, his fiancée chimed in.
“Mexican,” Payton added. “We were all over the board. But I’ll say that, unfortunately, ice cream was a go-to with most of those meals.”
During his quarantine, he spent a lot of time on FaceTime with family and friends and watched plenty of Netflix. He even participated in a conference call with the NFL’s competition committee in addition to tending to some organizational tasks. So, yes, he sprinkled in work. Having moved into his new home last fall, there was also a punch list of projects.
“You get a little stir-crazy, but really it was a lot of rest and recovery,” he said.
Payton knows. His condition and recovery is such a contrast to people who have suffered immensely and the many who have lost lives. It clearly resonates when he think of the crisis beyond his personal situation – which happens to be in the middle of a “hot spot” for the outbreak.
“These are very difficult times,” he said. “I think this month of April is going to be our most challenging. You’re listening to all the experts talk about it, and for this country, this is going to be an extremely difficult month, not just in New Orleans, but New York, California, Michigan, Washington. As we’re sitting here, just the rate this thing is accelerating is alarming. It’s unfathomable how quickly this thing can take a life of its own where there’s population.”
Payton no clue in narrowing down where he may have contracted the virus.
“Oh, my gosh,” he said. “Impossible.”
Still, in considering he had been in the weeks since the NFL combine, he clearly was in the vicinity of a few hot spots.
“If you didn’t travel and were in only maybe three controlled environments, it would be easier (to determine),” he said. “But shoot, I was at Mardi Gras. After that, I was in New York City for a week, then down to Florida for three days and then back to New Orleans. I have no idea.”
At least Payton has turned a corner and can resume his normal duties – even amid uncertain times.
In that regard, he’s one of the lucky ones.
Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.
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