Naperville Central answers the call in Kenny Chesney video

by Alison Bonaguro

Special to the Tribune

Published: September 24, 2010


At the start of last year's high school football season, Naperville Central was losing to visiting Neuqua Valley at halftime, 17-0. Things weren't looking good for the Redhawks. But then country superstar Kenny Chesney turned everything around.

Chesney's brand-new song, "Boys of Fall," was on all the Redhawks' minds that day, long before it was ever officially released. Of all the teams to bring that football anthem to life, Chesney chose Naperville Central.

The singer enlisted the help of his longtime friend Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints and a 1982 Central alumnus. Payton, once Central's starting quarterback, gave a rousing locker room speech to the team before the game, and it is now featured in the video for "Boys of Fall."

"Twenty-seven years ago, I sat in this locker room just like you guys," Payton recalled in the speech. "On a knee, getting ready to play a game. I would give anything tonight to jump in one of these uniforms with you guys."

Apparently the speech was inspirational, even though it didn't seem like it at halftime.

"He felt terrible, like we'd put too much pressure on these kids with our cameras all over the field," remembered video director Shaun Silva, one of Nashville's most sought-after filmmakers. But in true Cinderella-story fashion, the team staged a comeback, winning the game 21-17.

It was nights like that one that inspired Payton's speech, in which he urged the players to cherish that Friday night feeling.

"That feeling goes away," he said. "It goes away, and it doesn't come every Friday night."

But it will come again, he said.

"It comes when you get married. It comes when your child's born. So you get it. You just don't get it every Friday night," he said. "You got plenty of time for tomorrow. But these tonights? They're going by fast."

By the time the video cuts away from Central's locker room, and Chesney starts singing, there are shots of the Redhawks in the school hallways, on the field during the game, and doing their ceremonial Hawk Walk with the cheerleaders and marching band. That's exactly what Chesney envisioned.

"After I recorded the song, I thought it would be great for kids to see Sean, and what could happen. To see the coach of the New Orleans Saints walk down the same hallways as them," Chesney said.

Other college and professional teams are featured on the video, as well as some legendary coaches and players. Even young kids are shown preparing for or playing the game. But Naperville Central gets a prime spot, mostly because of Payton's speech.

Payton said Chesney introduced him to the song in the summer of 2009, when Payton came to Chicago to see Chesney perform at Soldier Field. Chesney took his friend on his tour bus to play it for him.

"I could tell Kenny's heart was in it," Payton said. "And later, when he asked me to be in the video, I knew whatever I did had to be real. You can't script that. If it's going to move someone, it has to be from the heart."

Payton grew up in Naperville near 75th and Washington streets, and he said he used to hang out at Centennial Beach and the Barn. He was starting quarterback at Central his senior year before going on to play at Eastern Illinois University. He did a stint in arena football and was a replacement player for the Bears during the 1987 NFL players strike. His coaching career started in 1988, and he made stops all over the country before he landed with the Saints in 2006, leading the team to the Super Bowl championship earlier this year.

Silva remembers thinking that having Payton come home would be nice, but that no one in the group, including Chesney, knew how good it was going to be until they got back to Nashville to look at what they'd shot.

"Kenny gave Sean some notes, and I told him to talk about these moments in life you're always going to remember," Silva said. "But Sean was so incredible on his own."

Head coach Mike Stine, who has been coaching at Naperville Central for 25 years, said it was easy to say yes when he got the call from Payton.

"Sean called me and told me about Kenny's song," Stine said. "Then he said, 'They want me to come home.'"

He said the song alone gives everybody goose bumps, with lyrics such as "They didn't let just anybody in that club/It took every ounce of heart and sweat and blood" and "Mess with one man, you got us all, the boys of fall."

Nashville hitmaker Casey Beathard co-wrote the song with Dave Turnbull, and he said he was inspired when he was coaching his son's football team.

"I was trying to convince another dad to get his son to come back to the team. And he goes, 'Yeah. I miss the boys of fall.' It was like God dropped the song in my lap," Beathard remembered.

"This is about more than football," Chesney agreed. "The idea behind 'Boys of Fall' is about more than players and coaches. It's about the parents who drive those kids. The coach's daughters who come to every game. It touches everyone.

"This song is my life. My small town leaned on football. I played with the same guys since we were 6 years old. When it was over, we knew it was over."

"Boys of Fall" is on Chesney's new album, "Hemingway's Whiskey," out Tuesday. Chesney says this song set the bar high for the 10 other tracks on the album.

"We write songs every day about love and the loss of," he said. "But this is probably the most generational song I've ever made."


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