For the past four years, there have been a number of consistent faces on Florida State’s practice fields, be it coaches, players, staff members, or visitors. Among these people on a daily basis is a face that may be a bit less familiar. FSU student Payton Poulin has been with the team since his freshman year, riding alongside them during practice in his wheelchair, rain or shine.
At birth, Poulin was diagnosed with a condition called schizencephaly. The diagnosis is an abnormal cut in the cerebral hemisphere. Long-lasting effects include delays in speech, language and developmental aspects of life. In Poulin’s case, the birth defect has forced him into a wheelchair— a wheelchair that he wouldn’t be the same without.
He’s always zipping along in his electronic wheelchair, riding alongside the team as they run out from warmup stretches in the indoor practice facility onto the main outdoor practice fields. Every day, he does so with a huge grin on his face, players and coaches embracing and encouraging him on the way.
Since early in his life, sports have played a major role in Poulin’s life. He appreciated all sports, from basketball to baseball to golf. His biggest passion, however, was football. And growing up nearby in Jacksonville, the main focus of that passion was on FSU.
“Me and Payton’s grandfather were such big fans that it just transpired to Payton,” Poulin’s father Patrick told Tomahawk Nation. “We rooted for them so he rooted for them. He just grew to love FSU.”
Poulin’s FSU love reached the next level when he had the chance to meet FSU head coach Bobby Bowden after he won the Walt Disney Dreamers and Doers Award, the first of three times Poulin met Bowden.
“That was when Payton’s whole dream and fight really kicked into overdrive,” Patrick Poulin added.
In fact, Payton knew he wanted to head to Tallahassee for school long before he was in the later years of his high school days. With his disability, it was much more difficult for Payton to get his work done, but he was determined to make it to Florida State and did whatever it took to make it happen.
“He wanted to be like Bobby,” Patrick Poulin said. “He wanted to go to that school, to follow in his footsteps, and to be a great winner like he was. That was a huge thing for him.”
Poulin stayed up all night on many occasions throughout high school and college to get his work done as it takes him three to four times as long to complete his work due to his physical limitations.
All the work paid off, though, when he was accepted into FSU for the 2013-2014 school year, enrolling in summer classes almost immediately.
In 2013, Poulin had a class with former Florida State wideout Kenny Shaw, who was the one who told him to come out to an FSU football practice. After that, he rarely missed practice in the four years he was with the team, even traveling to California for the National Championship Game in 2013 and the Rose Bowl in 2014.
Poulin set out to bring his mentality and determination to the team, hoping to give the players a little mental boost to their game.
“I try to bring out the best in people,” Poulin said. “I know it’s not always about being a good person, but it should be about trying to improve. That’s what I am all about.”
Poulin said that it had been a dream of his since he was young to have a role on the FSU football team. However, achieving it was more than even he imagined.
“There’s just so many people involved with Florida State football. I can’t put into words how much it means to be a part of it,” Poulin said. “I love this football team.”
After talking to a few staff members on the equipment staff, it’s very safe to say that the feeling is mutual.
“Payton was a joy to see at practice each and every day. He always had a smile on his face, was always in high spirits. In my two years Payton didn't miss many practices, he like the rest of us would brave the weather no matter if it was sweltering hot or an August thunderstorm. He had special handshakes that he would participate in with everyone that always made him feel included and gave everyone their own chance each day to show that they appreciated him being out there. Payton was an overall positive impact on not just players, but the staff as well. He was a constant reminder to us all to make sure we live and enjoy our lives to the fullest.”
Likewise, members of the team and coaching staff, including center Alec Eberle will miss his positive and upbeat attitude come next season.
“He's just been an inspiration to us with all of the things he has to go through every day and he's always positive.”
Over the years, Eberle said there has always been one thing that has stuck out about Payton, especially after the few loses suffered during the “Poulin Era.”
“He told us to be appreciative of the situation we're in. We lost a few games and we were feeling down and he told us to suck it up.”
Poulin graduated from Florida State at the end of the spring semester, raising out of his wheelchair and walking across the stage with the help of his father and a family friend in what was a very touching moment.
“It was really moving getting to see Payton walk on Saturday. The last few years he's been a fixture for us during practice, he's as regular a presence on the sideline at practice as any coach. He's become a part of our football family and he's always been a bright presence with his positive demeanor,” another equipment staffer said. “Seeing how genuine his relationship with guys on the team has been very touching. It really is evident how much they care for him. He's the most popular guy at practice and he's been welcomed as a member of our team. I think he has brightened everyone's day within the program, and really epitomized what this team is about. His fight and resolve has been inspiring for all of us. It's made me proud to be a part of this program.”
Since he was young, Poulin’s dream has been to be a football coach at Florida State. That may remain a long-term goal, but his desire has shifted more toward mission work, giving back, and sharing his testimony.
“He has really made an impact in Honduras. He has gone to a few prisons in Honduras and a childrens’ home where a lot of the people are primarily girls who have been abused,” Patrick said. “Between the prison and the girls’ home where people are hurting the most, Payton seems to bring joy and happiness to them.”
There’s no telling exactly what Poulin’s future holds. Perhaps he will find himself back around the FSU football program in some capacity. Whatever path he chooses, it’s difficult to bet against someone who has overcome as much as he has to accomplish so much.