NC State football adds honorary coach, helping 12-year-old Florida girl live a dream

Ethan Hyman/
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

N.C. State football welcomed a new coach to its sideline for the Wolfpack’s game against Clemson on Saturday.

Payton Gibbs, 12, served as an honorary coach at the direct invitation of head coach Dave Doeren — and she did everything.

Gibbs and her family arrived Friday, staying at the team hotel. Doeren invited her to join team meals and meetings, participate in pregame activities, ride the bus for Walk of Champions, and participate in the coin toss.

Gibbs’ family also remained on the field during the game — outside of the restricted area — to fully provide a coaching experience.

“It’s amazing. I’ve loved this team for like three years, I just love the Wolves,” Payton said. “I came here last year against Florida State and had a very fun time with the boys.”

PJ Gibbs said the family is “blown away” by Doeren and the program’s generosity. He said it’s especially significant for Payton to be on the sideline against another Power Five team.

“For a girl that wants to be a coach, to be able to experience this at such a young age, it’s an incredible opportunity,” PJ Gibbs said. “I hope that she enjoys it, but I want her to also understand the amount of work that it’s going to take for her to put in if she ever has the opportunity to do it at a high level.”

PJ Gibbs serves as the associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Golden Gate High School in Naples, Florida. Until recently, Payton — who has autism — assisted on the sideline as a defensive analyst.

She charted play calls, tracked tackling statistics and, off the field, she helped break down film.

ESPN contacted Golden Gate with interest in telling Payton’s story, so the school notified the Collier County school district. District leadership responded, saying she was no longer allowed to be on the sideline. PJ Gibbs said on Wednesday he is still working on a compromise but, as an employee of the district, cannot speak directly on the issue.

Doeren takes action

Doeren became acquainted with the Gibbs family last year when PJ Gibbs contacted him through social media, telling him of Payton’s aspirations. In addition to her desire to be a coach, Payton also became enthralled with animal mascots, including N.C. State’s Tuffy. Doeren invited her to attend a Wolfpack practice, and meet the players and coaches.

The families stayed in touch. The Gibbs family sent Doeren photos of Payton on the sideline, and when Doeren learned about the school district’s decision to ban Payton from the sideline, he reacted.

“They contacted me, and it (ticked) me off,” Doeren said. “I wrote a letter to the Superintendent of Schools down there and everyone else that was on this board.”

In an email to the Collier County School Board, Doeren asked — rhetorically — where in its bylaws it states a person can be restricted due to their disability. It can’t, he said, otherwise it would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. Doeren told the board it should at least allow her in the press box.

“They wouldn’t respond to me about it,” Doeren said. “I said, ‘Well, maybe the only thing I can do then is put her on a college sideline.’ Let us put a story out about how this is the right thing to do, and how stupid they look down there, restricting somebody who’s done it for two years.”

Chad Oliver, a spokesperson for the school district, wrote in an email Thursday that it restricted Payton’s access “for a variety of reasons, including safety. Sideline access is for players, coaches, credentialed media members, and those working the game in an official capacity.”

The statement said Payton could sit in the press box or the field-level family area.

“Even though Payton is not one of our students, we applaud opportunities for children — like what she will experience at NC State — and wish Payton well on her future endeavors,” Oliver wrote.

Personal for the Pack

Doeren’s eldest son, Jacob, has autism, and studies sustainable energy and technology at Appalachian State.

The Doerens were told when Jacob was in preschool he wouldn’t have the capacity to work or live independently.

NC State football coach Dave Doeren pledges funds for new special needs program

Doeren’s experience raising Jacob informs how the 11th-year head coach lives his life and runs his program. It’s how a 12-year-old girl from Florida became N.C. State’s guest this week. Doeren saw how Jacob was put into a box and denied opportunities. He wants the Wolfpack to be welcoming, which includes hiring people with special needs, supporting local causes — flying a girl and her family to Raleigh for a one-of-a-kind experience.

“Why would they close doors on any young person that has a dream, especially when it’s something that makes sense,” Doeren said. “This is the right thing to do. You should be celebrating what Payton’s trying to do, not roadblocking it.”

The Gibbses arrived in Raleigh on Friday night, met with fanfare from the team. Players gave high fives, fist bumps and passed the football with the whole family. Payton wrote down the projected starting lineups for offense and defense, too.

The 12-year-old smiled and held up the Wolfpack hand gesture. She walked out of the Wolfpack tunnel about 30 minutes later, dressed in N.C. State garb and toting her defensive notebook. Players gave her fist bumps. Payton looked like any other member of the staff.

She wants to show that anyone, especially girls and women, can actively participate in sports.

“There’s a lot of females trying to get into the sport of football,” Payton said. “We’re trying to become coaches or trainers or something like that, and we’re gonna do it.”

Doeren was “fired up” to have the family in attendance, and knew the players would be, too. Maybe others will learn from this, he said.

“I would just hope that everyone that reads the article will send it to Collier County with a nice message about doing the right thing for this person and other people in the community that want to do this,” Doeren said. “I think it’s completely wrong what they’re doing and they need to look in the mirror. I hope that the people out there will see it the same way.”