TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It’s 40 minutes before another season-opening spectacle in one of college football’s celebrated outposts, and a crowd of nearly 81,000 is shepherded into the staggered bleachers, anxious for another Florida State season.
Florida State’s side of the field is absent any players, though. The Seminoles idly stand on the end zone’s boundary, leaving coach Jimbo Fisher and Payton Poulin alone on the greens of Doak Campbell Stadium. Poulin, his garnet book bag swinging from the back of his wheelchair, hurries toward the 10-yard line.
The band’s brass section strikes up the Florida State fight song, and Poulin uses his stronger arm to follow with the tune. He punctuates the finale with a series of right-handed fist pumps.
F-L-O-R-I-D-A! S-T-A-T-E! Florida State! Florida State! Florida State!
“Payton could go out there and make a tackle right now,” receiver Jesus "Bobo" Wilson said.
Poulin believes he’ll be able to do that someday, but the 21-year-old student suffering from schizencephaly, an extremely rare neurological disease, for now takes in games from his wheelchair on the sideline, embedded with Florida State in a role far more significant than as an extra tackler.
He’s a respected member of FSU’s exclusive football fraternity, initiated before the 2013-14 national championship season and an extension of both the coaching staff and student-athletes. He’s the Seminoles’ motivational speaker, conditioning martinet and revered teammate.
“Just to have him around is always an inspiration,” lineman Wilson Bell said.
Expectations were low for Poulin after his schizencephaly diagnosis as an infant. Patients with the disorder often suffer seizures, impaired motor function, partial or complete paralysis and cognitive impairment, according to the National Institutes of Health. As a child, Poulin tried physical therapy within Florida and in Washington, D.C. He underwent multiple surgeries at Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa and was fitted with leg braces, all with the hope he would be able to walk out of his wheelchair.
“There are a lot of times we lost hope,” Poulin’s father, Patrick, said.
So did Poulin. One night, as an insecure and vulnerable 8-year-old, he began planning his suicide for the next morning.
“There was a moment I felt I didn’t need to be here. I had no purpose,” he said. “I was 8 years old, laying in my bed. I was so overwhelmed with adversity. I was going to take my own life. I didn’t know how I would do it. I didn’t have a plan.”
Smiling as he offered an unobstructed view of his darkest hour, Poulin said it was at that same juncture he found the guidance he long sought. That night, he said God spoke to him, imploring him to use his condition to benefit others.
“I heard a voice, and I believe it was God,” Poulin said. “God said, ‘Payton, you have a purpose, and it is to inspire people and motivate people. I believe in you because you’re a strong person, and I wouldn’t want anyone else but you to be in this situation.’”
He inspires by sharing his story, one that is free of limitations in Poulin’s mind. His goal is to someday succeed Fisher as coach, and a teenage Poulin once told his idol Bobby Bowden he’d soon enough patrol the Florida State sideline on the field that bears his name. Bowden suggested Poulin channel his focus into becoming a team statistician, but Poulin rejects the notion of settling.
Preconceived notions have long been affixed to Poulin’s wheelchair like a brake handle. There are still misconceptions from strangers who through glimpses see him as a Florida State charity rather than a central figure. It used to bother Poulin, but he said it now reinforces the purpose he found as an 8-year-old.
“I view this as a way to reach people, to motivate them to reach their potential,” he said. “I believe I have a gift to inspire people.”
He wants to inspire football players among them, and in high school, he found his first chance to affect a team.
At Harmony High School in St. Cloud, Florida, Poulin has a permanent seat at the coaches’ table. Poulin has foundational football knowledge -- one of his play designs is dubbed “TD” because it comes with his six-point guarantee -- but Harmony coach Jerrad Butler said it is Poulin’s intuition that makes him indispensable to coaches.
Three years later, Poulin’s name and message still reverberate within Harmony’s locker room through a note to the team that hangs behind framed glass. The No. 44, Poulin’s number, is retired.
“His legacy continues to have an impact here,” Butler said. “I’ve never been around a kid who had more intuition, knowing what to say to a kid to pick him up or to give him some encouragement.”
Poulin hoped for a similar role at Florida State, a school and football team of which he’s been a lifelong fan. His father pushed hard for him to forgo college and undergo intensive physical therapy in Hungary to help him walk, but Poulin wouldn’t relent. He was determined to earn a place with the Seminoles.
In the fall of 2013, Poulin enrolled at Florida State. When he sat down in his Introduction to Short Stories class the first week of his freshman year and recognized senior receiver Kenny Shaw, he saw his opportunity to get close to the program. The two became fast friends, and Shaw extended a practice invite to Poulin days before the 2013 opener.
“Some people come to practice and then stop,” junior lineman DeMarcus Walker said, “but he never missed a practice.”
Two years later, he still makes them all.
Poulin spends most of those practice days with head strength coach Vic Viloria, finding ways to help break up any monotony with their jocular antics.
At one practice during FSU’s national championship campaign in 2013, Viloria taped a PVC pipe attached to a boxing glove to the armrest of Poulin’s chair. Poulin barreled into players with the glove like a medieval joust. After a few laughs, Viloria’s attention was pulled elsewhere, and when he looked back, Poulin was sizing up Fisher just as the Seminoles’ mercurial coach was finishing blasting his players’ effort. Panicked, Viloria dashed across the field, but former middle linebackers aren’t known for speed. Poulin ran right up Fisher’s backside.
“I thought Jimbo was going to fire me,” Viloria said.
Instead, Fisher turned around ... and laughed. While most others would shrink away from Fisher during tense practice sessions, Poulin had a message he felt Fisher needed to hear. He wanted Fisher to relax, to keep football in the right frame of reference.
“It kind of puts it in perspective when you’re so intense,” Fisher said. “[Football] is big, but [Poulin] just makes you appreciate the real things in life.”
Poulin brought levity to an edgy situation, and practice immediately improved.
“That’s when I said Payton needs to be here,” Viloria said.
At that point, Poulin wasn’t just a favored visitor granted uncommon access to the Seminoles. Poulin earned his place at Florida State that afternoon, and he’s since developed a unique respect with the players -- one even the coaches can’t duplicate. Poulin goads slackers at practice. If he overhears complaints of sore legs, he offers to trade places. “All you have to do is sit in my chair all day,” Poulin will say, and the message lands like a heavyweight haymaker.
Bell, a 6-foot-5, 316-pound right guard, watched unabating offensive line coach Rick Trickett and Poulin take turns yelling at him one practice. Bell listened to Poulin intently. Why?
“Because he actually does what a football player should do: shows up on time, shows up to every game,” Bell said. “When we’re down, he’s always cheering us on to go fight harder. When we’re dying at practice, he’s talking us up. He’s an inspiration.”
At FSU’s final practice for the 2014 Rose Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal against Oregon, Poulin whispered his plan to Fisher. He wanted to walk in front of the Seminoles, a feat the team had never seen before.
He had done it twice in high school -- once at graduation and once when he sensed Harmony’s players were slipping away after an 0-5 start. A day before the sixth game, he told Butler to step aside and asked teammates to walk with him across the field.
“It was powerful stuff. Tears, goosebumps. It was a kid that can transcend,” Butler said.
The Longhorns finished that season in the playoffs for the first time in school history.
When Poulin told his plan to Fisher, he replied with a phrase special to Poulin and him.
“Man, that’s big-time,” he said.
Jameis Winston and Walker lifted Poulin from his chair, and the entire team escorted him 40 yards into the end zone.
“You couldn’t find a dry eye. Emotionally, it was overwhelming,” said Derek Smith, a former trainer and another close Poulin friend.
“It was kind of a tearjerker, just to see him fight through it,” Bell said.
Poulin had spoken to the Seminoles earlier that season before a top-five showdown with Notre Dame, but this Rose Bowl act was about more than trying to win back-to-back national championships.
“I love to teach and inspire,” Poulin said. “We lost, but it wasn’t about the game, it was about their life. I wanted to give them something they would always remember.”
His friend Viloria certainly won’t forget it.
“It’ll stick with you the rest of your life,” Viloria said.
According to Viloria, Poulin is “the definition of what we try to preach: toughness, effort, discipline, pride.” He remembers a time he watched Poulin test his limits with a lengthy army crawl across the weight room. The floor, a synthetic blend that looks like melded tires and tears like sandpaper, was ripping at Poulin’s elbows and knees as he crawled across both dumbbell racks, each about 15 yards long.
“Anything I ever felt like I accomplished isn’t worth a s---,” Viloria thought to himself as he watched.
Poulin was prepping his thank-you to Florida State, prepping for his Rose Bowl walk.
“I didn’t know what it means to be a part of a team. It’s amazing they are able to accept me and embrace me as family because I don’t have football powers but they see me as their peer,” Poulin said. “They don’t look down on me or put me down. They lift me up. The love they have for me really makes me want to give everything I have. You don’t hear about someone like me on a football team that often. What they’ve allowed me to do is unprecedented.”