Sean Payton and Wayne Gretzky have bonds forged through sport and competition

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HARRISON, Idaho — The text message appeared on Sean Payton’s cell phone shortly after what turned out to be his final game as a New Orleans Saints coach.

The ping came from Wayne Gretzky, who happens to be one of the greatest hockey players of all time.

It was the best coaching job I have ever seen.

Of course, the substantive conclusion can be debated. The feeling, however, was completely genuine.

This is what friends will do to show their support.

The Saints missed the playoffs in 2021 but have won four of their last five games to finish with a 9-8 record. They stayed in playoff contention until last weekend despite a string of injuries that included the torn ACL that ended quarterback Jameis Winston’s campaign midseason.

DISPLAY MATERIAL:Former Saints coach Sean Payton’s pick to win NFC South? Of course, it’s not Tom Brady’s team.

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Gretzky was moved by the effort of Payton’s team down the stretch.

“It meant a lot, coming from a guy like him,” Payton told USA TODAY Sports, recalling the text. “He saw a lot.”

The exchange reflected a larger picture. Payton and Gretzky have developed a close friendship in recent years as neighbors — and extreme golf partners — in an exclusive golf and lake community in northern Idaho. The on-course action has intensified in recent months with Payton on hiatus from his NFL coaching whirlwind. After leaving the Saints in January, Payton and his wife, Skylene, settled into their off-season getaway home near a vacation home owned by Gretzky and his wife, Janet.

“He’s a special man, a really good person,” Gretzky said of Payton while munching on pizza between rounds of golf. “And we all love sports, don’t we? He follows hockey and baseball. I follow baseball and football. And so, we have this karma… this real camaraderie.

“He grew up in Illinois; he didn’t know much about hockey. I grew up in Canada; I didn’t know much about football. I always tease him that he couldn’t play in the (Canadian Football League), that he wasn’t good enough to play in the best football league, the CFL, so he went to coach in the NFL.

Gretzky has quite the sense of humor, which was seen recently while playing golf with Payton and other partners. It was also apparent that Gretzky and Payton are bonded by an interest in sports history and culture. No wonder they became fast friends after Payton moved into a community house in 2020. They often engage in debates and small talk as part of a “Breakfast Club” group.

“You’re drawn to athletes,” said Payton, aware of the famous actors and entertainers who also have homes in the resort community adjacent to Lake Coeur d’Alene. “I love hearing the stories of someone like Wayne, who has incredible insight.”

Before Payton headed to training camp after his first off-season jaunt to the resort community, Gretzky hosted a farewell party at the clubhouse. He presented the coach with a huge trophy – which now sits prominently on the first floor of Payton’s house – which speaks volumes about the acceptance of the new neighbors. The trophy was inscribed as follows: Rookie of the Year.

Sean Payton is enjoying his year without football.  Here he is with the trophy presented by Wayne Gretzky on which is written

“He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Gretzky said. “We are all shooting for him. He’s going to do a good job on the panel (Fox Sports). He knows the game, but the average person can listen to him and relate to him. That’s how he is.

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