WORCESTER — Anthony Payton thoroughly enjoyed his first year working on the coaching staff of the Massachusetts Pirates and making himself at home in New England’s second-largest city.
So when Payton recently returned here to begin preparations for the Pirates’ second season of indoor football, he couldn’t wait to resume walking around town, chatting with the team’s fans and sitting down for some seriously satisfying comfort food at the iconic Boulevard Diner.
“I love Worcester; fell in love with it last year,” Payton said in typically enthusiastic fashion during a meet-and-greet with season ticket-holders last week at the DCU Center.
The Pirates open the 2019 season at 7 p.m. Saturday at home against the defending National Arena League champion Carolina Cobras.
Payton again will coordinate an offense that averaged a league-leading 58.5 points a game, but he has added head coach to his duties after serving in an associate role last season.
He replaces Ameer Ismail, who couldn’t come to contract terms with the team after being named NAL Coach of the Year for guiding the Pirates to an 11-5 record and the regular-season title before losing in their postseason debut.
Payton believes success and not slump will define the Pirates’ sophomore season.
“I expect us to be great,” he said, repeating himself for emphasis.
In a pass-happy league — the Pirates threw 81 percent of the time — the return of quarterback and reigning league MVP Sean Brackett, along with a trio of terrific receivers in Devonn Brown, Mardy Gilyard and Lavon Pearson (69 total touchdowns) is reason enough to be overly optimistic.
Payton, 44, set out on a collegiate journey in 1993 that took him to East Mississippi Community College — or “Last Chance U” to Netflix viewers — Austin Peay State University and Kentucky Wesleyan College.
The quarterback-turned-receiver played football and graduated with a degree in music from Kentucky Wesleyan before embarking on a nine-year career in arena football that ended in 2006.
Payton’s experience as a player combined with some mother’s intuition led him to get into coaching.
“I was so hungry for knowledge, and I didn’t have the coaches that I wanted, that I felt I needed,” Payton said. “So I made up my mind that when I was done playing football I was going to be a teacher.
“My mom’s always saying it’s been in my blood, been in my DNA, ever since I was a little kid. So I trust her when she says that. You know, it comes easy for me because I love teaching, I love being around people, and I love football. So I think it kind of lines up.”
Payton also loves music and spent most of his offseason working in that field back in his actual hometown of Shelbyville, Kentucky, a city of 14,000 located about 30 miles east of Louisville.
Payton owns Southern Soul Records and is a music composer — “jazz, hip-hop, R&B, whatever the networks want” — who can play the piano, guitar, bass, saxophone and trumpet.
He started playing the piano when he was 7, following the lead of his mom at the church they attended.
“She used to drag me to church, and she would be up on the piano, and I’m trying to bang on everything, and she’s slapping my hand away,” Payton recalled. “When my mother was in back talking to all the other elders and things like that, I’d be bored, so I’d go up and start playing on the piano.
“So it became one of my habits. We were in church all the time, so therefore I was always around the piano. Then when it started making sense to me I couldn’t walk away from it.”
Told there’s a baby grand in the lobby of the Mercantile Center, which sits across Worcester Common from the Pirates’ headquarters on Franklin Street, Payton was ready to head over and start unlocking the 88 keys. Don’t be surprised if you see him doing just that from time to time in the coming months.
It’s just another reason why Payton finds Worcester to be so thoroughly enjoyable.