From the St. Thomas graduation stage at the 50 yard line of Granger Stadium to the trophy stage at the 25 yard line of the Georgia Dome, Payton Pardee ’15 has had one heck of a last few months.
Pardee is a member of the University of Houston football team that went 13-1 this past season and finished the year with a huge victory in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl over ACC power Florida State.
“The very first Monday of June was the start of summer conditioning,” Pardee said, “I’ll never forget the first day when I showed up and had no idea what was going on.”
He felt like a true freshman just trying to get the hang of things. “What a lot of people don’t know is that in the summer we spend a lot of time with our strength coaches, because the strength coach is just as important to keeping the team in good spirits, disciplined, and ready for the season as the head coach. On my first day when I met strength and conditioning coach, Yancy McKnight, I found out very quickly that he had a policy, and that policy is if you are not 15 minutes early to a lift, to a run, or an organized team event then you are not allowed to join the event. He kicks you out and makes you come back at another time that is convenient to him,” Pardee said.
Pardee saw a teammate pay the price for not obeying the policy on the first day of conditioning. “I was there extra early, I think like 20 minutes early, and another freshman classmate of mine came strolling up 10 minutes in and he [McKnight] chewed him out and kicked him out, and like made him come back later,” Pardee said. He admits that this was an eye opener for him.
“The summer was very different from anything I’ve ever experienced,” Pardee said. Coach McKnight preached to Pardee and the other players that the summer workouts would pay dividends in the second half of the season, especially when it was the 4th quarter and time to get that second burst of energy. “The summer was a big key to our success in the second half of the season,” Pardee said, “they pushed us harder than I’ve ever been pushed before both physically and mentally.”
The coaches made the team very disciplined, and the details were important. For example, if a player did not have his foot behind the line during a drill then the coaches made them redo it. The summer was a grind, but by the end of the summer Pardee was in the best shape of his life.
“It was monumental, because it was the hardest thing I had ever gone through,” Pardee said. Through the intense heat and humidity, it was being with his “brothers” out on the field that helped Pardee get through the summer. As he learned to love every second of it.
Fall camp began for Pardee and the Cougars after their break at the end of July. “Fall camp was just as crazy, except we had more stuff going on,” Pardee said, “we would wake up at 6:30 or 7 in the morning and go to bed at 9:30 at night and we were busy every second of the day.”
Then the fun really began, football season. When the season started, Pardee and the Cougars knew they were good, but they didn’t know how good.
“We weren’t used to the kind of success that they were experiencing in the past,” Pardee said. Pardee emphasized that everything the team did was centered on dedication and determination, along with preparation and perseverance. “As long as we prepare the way we prepare, and play the way we need to play, then we shouldn’t have to worry about what they’re going to do,” Pardee said. “Coach Herman had a plan and he said that the plan is infallible.”
The plan got the team rolling through the season at 10-0 until Pardee and the Cougars hit a bump in the road at UCONN. “We came out flat in the UCONN game and didn’t stick to the plan,” Pardee said, referring to the team’s only loss of the season, which came on the road against the Huskies. Pardee credited head coach Tom Herman with keeping the team motivated and inspired, as well as focused on their goals. He would refocus and re-motivate the team each week.
Despite this minor setback, the team was drawing sellout crowds to TDECU Stadium. Pardee said the sellout crowds and sea of Cougar Red at home games was an unbelievable spectacle. Seeing and hearing the fans from the sideline made Pardee feel a sense of disbelief. The Memphis game was their first sellout, giving out over 40,000 tickets.
Coming off the UCONN loss, the Cougars hosted Navy in their first of a string of meaningful games with bowl implications. The winner would go to the American Athletic Conference Championship, and it was the first year that the conference would have one true champion. Pardee and the Cougars got the job done, beating Navy and securing a birth in the conference championship. The navy game was also the first game in which Cougar fans stormed the field. Their next opponent would be Temple, and they would be playing for the conference title.
“We wanted to beat Temple in the conference championship to send the seniors out on a high note,” Pardee said. Pardee and the Cougars would go on to beat Temple to win their conference and secure a spot in a New Year’s bowl game.
I tried to pick up the trophy with Pardee and the team had one more game left though, and it was a big one against Florida State in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. The team prepared for Florida State for two and a half weeks. During this time, Pardee and the Cougars enjoyed the “Season of Swag” in which the Peach Bowl gave the team sweet gear, including t-shirts, shorts, and other cool accessories.
The team then flew to Atlanta in a charter plane and when they got off the plane there were a couple of coach buses decked out in Cougar regalia and pictures of UH players. There were Georgia state troopers there to escort them to their team hotel in Atlanta. Payton and some teammates visited a local hospital in Atlanta a few days before the game. There, they got to meet with kids whose faces lit up when they saw the players walk into their rooms.
The morning of the big game against the Seminoles, the Cougars participated in their “Cougar Walk” where they enter the stadium, in this case the Georgia Dome, high-fiving and greeting Cougar fans. Then, Payton and the Cougars got their first taste of being on the field in an NFL stadium. You don’t realize how big an NFL stadium is until you’re standing in it. Payton took a special pride in wearing the Peach Bowl patch on his jersey. Before the Coogs hit the field, Payton soaked up the environment and hype. Standing in the entrance tunnel it was complete pandemonium before the team ran out. “I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying, it was that loud,” Payton said, “I couldn’t see in front of me with the fog machines going off, but could hear the Cougar fans going crazy.”
The Cougars handed it to the Seminoles, beating them 38-24 to cap off one of the most memorable seasons in the school’s history, and Payton was right in the middle of the celebration. “We were taking selfies while confetti was hitting us in the face,” Payton said. The party did not stop on the field. When Payton and the team got back to the locker room, it was not long before “Commas” by Future, the Cougars’ theme song, was blaring over the loud speakers sending the players into their victory dance. “I didn’t want to leave the locker room, because I didn’t want to leave the moment,” Payton said. It only got better when Z-ro, the rapper from Houston, showed up to congratulate the team, before Payton got to snap a selfie with him.
Payton has four years of eligibility left after redshirting his freshman season. Payton could not have dreamt of being part of a more special season. “It was the most memorable season I’ve ever had,” Payton said, and by the way the future looks for the Cougars, it certainly will not be the last.