NAPLES – Payton Gibbs stood at midfield wearing black pants, a red pullover, and a red ballcap emblazoned with the University of Massachusetts logo. From a distance, she looked like a football coach watching her team during pregame warmups.
From closeup, too, because on a brisk November afternoon in Amherst, Massachusetts, the 12-year-old from Naples served as an honorary coach for the Minutemen.
Payton and her family were guests of Coach Don Brown, who is a friend of the family.
“Coach Brown said he was going to put her to work, and he did,” said Payton’s dad, PJ, the defensive coordinator at Golden Gate High School in Naples.
Payton attended the pregame meetings and dined with the players during the pregame meal. She was in the locker room before Brown sent the team on the field and again at halftime. During the game, Payton walked the sideline with a graduate assistant coach and charted the defensive plays.
“It was a great experience,” she said.
Payton, who is on the autism spectrum and receives the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities (FES-EO) managed by Step Up For Students, wants to be a football coach. She wants to break down video of games and practices and devise game plans. On game day, she wants to wear headsets and signal in plays from the sidelines.
And, just like her dad, Payton wants to coach defense.
“Defense wins championships,” she said.
Payton uses her FES-UA scholarship to attend Royal Palm Academy Catholic School, where she is a sixth-grader. She impresses her teachers with her hard work in the classroom, her painstaking attention to detail on assignments and her upbeat personality.
Also, her football IQ.
“How many 12-year-olds can you talk to about a zero zone defense?” asked Andre Ghelman, one of Payton’s teachers. “Her knowledge of the game is outstanding.”
Payton has thrived academically since she began attending Royal Palm Academy as a fifth-grader. She is an honor roll student who was named the Santa King of December by her math teacher for being the only kid in class to get a 100 on a test.
PJ and his wife, Kristen, toured the school before the 2022-23 school year and knew it was the right academic fit for their daughter.
“The main reason was the small class sizes and that they pray and salute the flag every morning,” Kristen said. “The scholarship has been amazing. Thank goodness. I have to say the state of Florida has done wonders for us. It really has.”
PJ has coached football for 24 years, and for the last seven his daughter has been his shadow on the football field. Payton attended practices and reviewed the game film with her dad. She began the past season charting Golden Gate’s defense from the sideline until officials at the Collier County Public School district, citing a number of reasons including safety, banned her from the sidelines.
“I almost cried tears when I heard I couldn’t be on the sideline,” Payton said.
“That’s the only time I ever saw her unhappy,” Ghelman said.
Payton’s family tried to have the ban lifted to no avail. Payton’s mom said the family will continue to try to have the ruling overturned.
“We don’t want to stop, not just for Payton, but because there’s going to be another student who wants to coach,” Kristen said. “We want them to have the same opportunity.”
Payton’s plight gained attention from TV stations in Southwest Florida. It reached North Carolina, where North Carolina State University football coach Dave Doeren took note. PJ knows Doeren through coaching circles.
Last October, Doeren invited the Gibbs to attend a game against Clemson University. Payton was treated like part of the coaching staff, though she did not help chart the game. She participated in the pregame coin toss as an honorary captain and watched, along with nearly 57,000 fans, as the Wolfpack won 24-17 on a postcard-perfect autumn afternoon.
“It was actually very, very great,” Payton said.
Doeren has a son who is on the autism spectrum. Last year, Doeren and his wife, Sara, established OnePack Empowered, for NC State students who are neurodivergent or have executive functioning challenges.
We shouldn’t be putting roadblocks up for young people that want things, that are good people, that are doing things the right way. It’s just wrong. And so for me to have an opportunity to help her – not just her but people like her – that’s what this was about,” Doeren later told reporters.
The number of females on college and NFL coaching staffs is growing. One survey estimates that 8% of college coaches in 2023 were female. There were nine female assistant coaches in the NFL this past season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had two females on the coaching staff when they won Super Bowl 55.
Payton has Skyped with Kathleen Wood, who scouts college football players in the Northeast for the Cleveland Browns.
So, opportunities are growing for girls like Payton who aspire to a career in football, and not only as coaches. Front office, scouting, and analytical jobs are now being filled by women.
“Everything that we do today should be about preparing our kids for their future,” Kristen said. “Payton has such a passion for football. She’s so into the game and so focused. She has the drive. She’s a hard worker. I will not be surprised if one day she’s a coach. She’s falling into daddy’s footsteps.”