NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton played quarterback through high school, college and even as a replacement player during the 1987 NFL strike.
Yet it wasn’t until he was wearing a headset, not a helmet, and holding a flip card, not a football, that he was seriously injured in a game.
Now he is another casualty of sideline dangers during football games.
“I’d never really been hurt,” said the Saints’ head coach, who broke his left leg when he was caught in a tackle along the sideline last Sunday. “This is the first time I’ve ever been really injured at all. It’s just unfortunate when it happened.”
Now monitoring practice in a golf cart with his leg elevated, Payton is among many in football who can attest that it’s not always safe to assume the sideline is an injury-free zone.
“It is a very dangerous place,” former NFL coach Jon Gruden said, adding that his worst sideline hit came at a high school game.
“If you get too close to the fire, you will get burned and that goes for all of us,” Gruden said. “You have the headset on or you are looking at your sideline sheet and thinking about the next play and then, boom. You might not even know what hit you.”
Payton needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus and a fractured tibia on Monday morning. He remained in the hospital until Wednesday. When he finally got back into his office on Wednesday night, he found cookies, balloons and cards in his office, along with a fragile china doll on his desk.
It was a measure of good-humored payback for the coach’s use of the same motivational prop in the lockers of players who are rehabilitating injuries. With the doll was a note reading, “Return to sender.”
Payton was hurt on a passing play to tight end Jimmy Graham, who was tackled out of bounds by a pair of Buccaneers defenders during New Orleans’ 26-20 loss at Tampa Bay.
Punts have proved dangerous to sideline observers as well.
Gruden said that’s what he always worried about most because of the gunners on the coverage teams who are trying to use their speed to squeeze past blockers along the edges of the field.
“They are trying to beat two guys down the field and they are coming right down the sideline and it’s such a bang-bang play,” Gruden said.
That is precisely what happened last season at the Superdome, when a member of the chain crew, Al Nastasi Jr., was flattened by the Saints’ Courtney Roby during punt coverage. Nastasi initially was given intravenous fluids on the sideline, then was taken to a neuro intensive care unit, though he eventually recovered and returned to the chain crew late in the season.
In 2008, then Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis tore knee ligaments when a player was blocked into him on a punt. Weis is now the offensive coordinator at Florida, where his head coach Will Muschamp, said he, too, was once leveled on a punt, though lucky not to be hurt.
“They punted the ball, I looked back, I thought the gunner released inside so I quit watching,” Muschamp recalled. “I got clipped on about the 40 and I landed up underneath the bench.”
Penn State’s 84-year-old coach, Joe Paterno shared Payton’s fate back in 2006, breaking his leg on a short passing play very similar to the play on which Payton got hurt.
Colts coach Jim Caldwell, a former Paterno assistant, said he feels “fortunate by the grace of God that I haven’t sustained a significant injury” on the sideline. Caldwell said he has been “run over” while coaching, just not seriously hurt.
This Sunday night, when the Saints host the Colts, Payton expects to spend the game in the coaches’ booth near the press box and call plays down to the sideline from there. He also does not intend to go down to the locker room at halftime. That could also be the case for a number of subsequent games because Payton is not expected to be able to put weight on his injured leg for about eigh t weeks.
“I also have to be smart and realistic,” Payton said. “I’ve got to pay attention to what the doctors are saying and I don’t want to be stubborn or foolish. I don’t want it to become an issue that’s longer than it should be.”
With Payton in the booth, Saints players said they will miss his sideline presence, which they described as a combination of contagious intensity and a sharp sense of awareness that gives the rest of the team the impression that their leader is one step ahead of the game.
Former New York Jets and Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini said it is sometimes that same intense sense of involvement in the game that exposes coaches to injury.
“We all have a get-back coach who is always reminding you” to watch out for players barreling toward the sideline, Mangini said. “But you gravitate toward the sideline with the excitement and the pace of the game and your involvement.”
Colts owner Bill Polian said the odds of a sideline injury to coaches and others during NFL games have likely increased in recent years as more people have gained access to the areas around the benches.
“It seems to me it gets more crowded down there every year,” Polian said. “It used to be we had just the active players down there. Now we have the inactive guys and players from the practice squad and all the guys from the league. … So I’m not surprised it happened.”