It was back on the NFL season’s first Sunday that the Carolina Panthers featured Hilton Head Island’s B.J. Payne as the team’s first High School Coach of the Week for 2016.
Three months later, not to mention one transformative hurricane, the Seahawks’ gridiron leader is up for an even more prestigious honor.
Payne has been tabbed as the Panthers’ nominee for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year, recognizing leadership, integrity and achievement as exemplified by the Hall of Fame coach who won two Super Bowls in Miami and retired as the league’s all-time wins leader.
“To be honored like that is obviously a very humbling experience,” Payne said. “I always say it’s for the kids and the work they do, and doing things right. It’s believing in the work and the vision.”
Each NFL team puts forth one Coach of the Year nominee, and the list may grow via nominations from NFL players. A blue-ribbon panel, including Shula, narrows the list to three finalists who will be invited to Super Bowl Week festivities.
The 2016 winner will be announced during the NFL Honors gala in Houston on Feb. 4, the night before the Super Bowl. The award comes with a $25,000 award from the NFL Foundation — $15,000 for the coach and $10,000 for the school’s football program.
Past award winners include Summerville’s John McKissick, whose 621 career victories before retiring last year stands as the national record.
“I was just kind of taken aback,” said Payne, who received word from Panthers officials earlier in the week. “I know several people that have been nominated for that award before — and have won that award.”
Also among them: Steve Specht, the 2012 winner from Cincinnati St. Xavier who has captured two state championships in Payne’s home state of Ohio.
“When I was in Ohio,” Payne said, “I would take my staff over there to learn from them. So just to be nominated for the same award is an incredible honor.”
Payne owns a 34-22 record in five years at Hilton Head Island, reaching the playoffs each season. His 2015 squad went 11-2, reaching the postseason’s second round, as he was named the Class 3A Lower State Coach of the Year.
No less significantly, the Seahawks have raised their academic performance since his arrival and have been active in community service — never more prominently than after Hurricane Matthew, as the team gave up practice days to fan out and help fellow islanders dig out from yards full of debris.
“Coach Payne is a strong model of how a football coach can dynamically impact his school and community,” said Riley Fields, the Panthers’ director of community relations. “His exemplary leadership is a benefit to both his student-athletes and our region.”
Though Payne first was recognized largely for his on-field success, the Seahawks’ example as residents began to rebuild their lives after Matthew likely enhanced his portfolio. The team continued to break into work crews for weekend service even into November.
“There were so many people that were grateful for what we did,” Payne said. “I told them I didn’t think we were doing anything special. We were just doing what was right. We had the manpower to go out and help people.”
Athletics director Joe Monmonier also pointed out that in previous years, the team has raised more than $4,500 on behalf of breast cancer research through the Seahawks’ annual “Pink Out” game.
“His compassion for his players and his community is great,” Monmonier said. “It wasn’t just latching onto the hurricane. But when it hit, he just felt like he needed to get his players together and (see) how could they help.”