Central Minnesota native reflects on career before final football game with the Gophers
PERHAM, Minn. — When University of Minnesota long snapper Payton Jordahl was 3 years old, his daycare would tell his mother, Kim, they were going to have to start charging her extra because he kept bringing his imaginary football team with him.
Some years later, about six miles south of Ottertail, Minn., Kim found herself singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in her backyard multiple times, as Payton and some kids in the neighborhood stood with their hands over their hearts. A goal post made of old telephone poles built by Payton’s grandpa served as the backdrop.
Occasionally, Payton would put on full pads and play imaginary games in the backyard by himself, taking hits from invisible defenders and flipping to the ground or delivering big tackles to the wind.
"It's not like I didn't have any friends," Payton joked. "It's just all my friends would get tired of playing football."
Payton's grandpa even stapled flags at the top of the goal post, so Payton could see the direction of the wind. Payton's dad, Mike, was a football coach, constantly mentioning how he wished he had a kicker to make field goals. His grandpa made the goal post and told Payton he needed to learn how to kick so his dad would stop complaining.
Payton didn't end up kicking the ball, but instead delivering the snaps to kickers and punters. He will play his final college football game at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 26, at Ford Field in Detroit in the Quick Lane Bowl against Georgia Tech . It will be his 51st consecutive start, the most of any Minnesota football player.
"Football has taught me that I'm resilient, it’s challenged that and given me opportunities to build the resiliency," Payton said. "It’s made me super humble because I used to view people like professional athletes as having high status and having it all and always being happy. They are normal people with families and issues. If you don't think you have something in common with a human being, you do because you both are human beings with a story to tell.."
Growing up on the sideline
Mike Jordahl was a football coach before Payton was born, coaching seventh and eighth grade, while also being an assistant on the varsity team in Perham. By the time Payton was playing varsity, Mike was the head coach of the Yellowjackets.
Payton was always on the sideline with him.
"He would come out on the field after the game sometimes and rub elbows with the players, and they treated him very well," Mike said. "He had this positive attitude. Even when we were down a couple touchdowns, he always believed we'd finish on top. He's just that way."
When Payton was a young ball boy, former North Dakota State and Buffalo Bills defensive end Phil Hansen would always give him a 50-cent piece and say thanks when he was working as a side judge. Payton had no idea who Hansen was other than what seemed like a giant.
The large man may have thought it was a small gesture, but it began a love of football for Payton.
"That got me hooked," Payton said. "I was growing up around it, seeing the friendships forming between teammates and everyone on the field. In my high school years, I loved the physicality of it, I loved the contact and the excitement and the fun. But I've learned to appreciate the lifetime friendships and the bonds. I joke that the day I get married I'll have 45 groomsmen because that's how many friends I have through football that I consider brothers to me."
Payton would later find out about Hansen's football career. He currently has his NFL rookie card kept in a safe place.
A tough transition
Payton always wanted to play linebacker in college. He wanted to be the guy who hit his helmet and yelled to get ready to go out and deliver big hits. He never imagined he'd be taking deep breaths and bringing his blood pressure down before running on the field.
Payton rushed for 1,605 yards and 19 touchdowns on 298 carries at Perham. He recovered two fumbles, both of which he took back for touchdowns, and had 265 tackles, fourth highest in school history, with the Yellowjackets. But before he was a fullback, long snapper, punter and linebacker for the varsity team, he was a freshman trying to find his way on varsity.
He did that by just giving long snapping a try at practice.
"I saw some guys doing it before practice, I tried it and I guess it was a good snap," Payton said.
That got him on varsity and added another position for college coaches to ponder. Payton had offers from North Dakota State, the University of South Dakota, the University of North Dakota and Minnesota State Moorhead. Coaches were scratching their heads trying to figure out if Payton was a halfback, fullback, tight end or linebacker.
Minnesota saw him as a long snapper. Payton saw an opportunity. In the car on the way home from his last recruiting trip to Minneapolis, Payton told his parents he wanted to play for then-Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. He decided to be a long snapper and a Gopher.
" It was a tough transition for me because it was hard to me to change positions," Payton said. "It’s a complete 180, linebacker to long snapper. ... I felt like I wanted to do something different and go somewhere unique. I love my hometown, but I wanted to go out and meet new people."
It's difficult to find someone in Perham who doesn't know Payton. He may have left Perham for college, but it was never a place he forgot. When he was in high school, he befriended the lunch ladies, who he said he feels are underappreciated. They'd call him when shipments came in and he'd help them unload trucks and they'd slip him some extra treats.
One of those lunch ladies was Tammy Palubicki. Nicknamed "T-Bone," she died of cancer in August after 25 years working at the high school. Payton sent the family an oar signed by all the players on the Gophers and a letter he had written stating what she meant to him.
Perham athletic director Erin Anderson said Payton's kindness and humility stood out.
"What I remember most about Payton was his character," Anderson said. "He always strove to be a person of high character, a person who unapologetically wanted to be a difference-maker in the lives of others."
Payton graduated with a degree in youth studies in 2017 and will get his Master's degree in youth development leadership this spring. His dream job is to open a restaurant or food truck that hires inner city youth and teaches them money management.
"I have a lot of teammates that come from rough backgrounds that some would think are bad or deviant," Payton said. "I've tried to teach myself to learn about people before judging. I just want to make the world a better place. I want to say I made an impact when my final day on earth comes."
Some have told him the NFL is a possibility, but Payton believes the game on Dec. 26 will be his final football game.
"I feel like I'm getting pulled to do something else," Payton said. "Being in education and going around and working a job and helping people excites me more than playing football at a bigger level."
A new chapter
So the 51st college football game of Payton's career will be his last. He enters Wednesday's game with 498 snaps, 10 tackles and one fumble recovery. He was a walk-on in 2014 and got a scholarship from then-Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys after the 2015 season.
"Payton is an elite young man who represents the absolute best in collegiate athletics," said current Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck. "He is an academic All-American and all four phases of his life — academics, athletics, social and spiritual — are extremely important to him. ... His legacy of doing things the right way on and off the field will have a lasting impact on our program. I could not be prouder of what he has accomplished during his time as a Gopher."
His first game was against No. 2-ranked Texas Christian University on national television. Payton will always remember his first game against TCU, games at Ohio State, the double-overtime loss to Penn State when Payton said, "This fella named Saquon Barkley was pretty good," and the win over Wisconsin this season in what could've been Payton's last game.
Before the next chapter begins, there's one more game of football and Payton will play it as he has every snap.
" I’m gonna soak it in, enjoy the moment and play this game like I’m a kid in the backyard one last time, playing with my buddies," Payton said. "It’s gonna go fast and I’m gonna make sure I don’t take it for granted."