Shortly after donning an Indianapolis Colts draft cap and draped in the Liberian national flag — his mother’s home country — Kwity Paye told a national television audience Thursday night his mother will never have to work again.
Standing by her son’s side, Agnes Paye’s mouth fell open and tears formed in her eyes. It’s become one of the more enduring moments of this year’s NFL Draft.
An ESPN mini-documentary also shows some of the scenes that followed — including Paye and his mother dancing alongside his large extended family at his brother Komotay Koffie’s house in Denver.
It’s a portrait of a man giving back to the village that raised him, and it has as much to do with the reason the Michigan defensive end was selected with the 21st overall pick as any on-field factor.
“He definitely is a fit for us just because of the athletic skill set and the way that he plays,” Colts area scout Chad Henry said. “The guy plays just 100 miles an hour all the time. And then the best thing is, once you start to learn about the kid, that’s what really seals the deal. I’m finishing up my 24th year in scouting, and there’s not five guys that I’ve scouted that have better character and makeup than this kid.
“He is unique — really, really special in a lot of ways. And he really fits the culture of our building and what we’re trying to do in terms of building our team.”
Paye’s background, by now, is well known. His mother fled Libera during the nation’s first civil war, and he was born in a refugee camp in Guinea. At 6 months old, he moved to Rhode Island with his mother and brother in search of a better life.
As a middle schooler, Paye begged his mother to send him to Bishop Hendricken — a private school and football powerhouse in Warwick, Rhode Island — even though it would be difficult for the family to afford the cost. To seal the deal, Paye promised his mother wouldn’t have to pay for his college education.
A scholarship to Michigan followed, and Paye developed into one of the 2021 draft class’s most coveted pass rushers. Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard said there was a group of edge defenders with similar grades near the top of the team’s draft board.
But there was no question Paye was the best fit.
“We thought we acquired a player that has got some unique talent and the character to match — that’s hard,” Ballard said. “I think that’s one of the things that people don’t realize. It’s easy to draft talent. That’s not hard to do. But to draft talent with character, that’s difficult. That doesn’t always come together, and we’ve been really fortunate around here to be able to do it. That’s part of who we are and what we look for.
“Our scouts do a tremendous job vetting each and every player, and we have a very strict criteria of what we’re looking for, and there are guys that we pass that unequivocally could probably help us. It doesn’t make them bad guys. They just don’t fit us. That’s OK. But when you get one that’s got a unique skillset with character, that’s a beautiful thing.”
There’s a very specific reason character plays such a large role in the evaluation process.
Adversity is guaranteed in the NFL. Players will be injured. They’ll have bad games. They’ll fail in ways big and small over and over again.
The way they respond to those failures ultimately determine the outcome of their careers.
If a player is not willing to fight through adversity, he will never reach his ceiling.
Paye’s been winning that battle his entire life.
“What his backstory tells you is this kid — he’s got some survival skills, and when it gets hard in this league, he’s going to be able to handle it,” Ballard said. “This is a hard league. It’s hard, and you’re going to fail. Players are going to fail. You’re going to have some bad moments, and you have got to have something inside of you that allows you to push through it. I think it’s one of the really good things that our scouts are able to do is to find those type of players.
“From Quenton (Nelson) to Braden (Smith) to Darius (Leonard), you can go down the list of guys who have had their — they might not have had the first start to their careers great, but they just kept battling and they have a confidence level that they are going to be good players in this league. I think Kwity has that.”
There are legitimate questions about Paye’s relative lack of production for the Wolverines, and he needs to refine his pass-rushing technique. For the time being, Paye relies too much on his power and needs to develop an arsenal of countermoves against offensive tackles.
That’s where Colts defensive line coach Brian Baker comes into the equation.
Indianapolis has faith that pairing will produce a positive outcome in large part because of the man Paye has become.
It all started with the people he danced with on draft night in Colorado.
“Once I was picked, I turned around and saw my family there,” Paye said. “It was kind of heartwarming, and that’s when I started to remember all the long nights and all the hard work that I put in throughout the years.”
It’s all part of a story the Colts hope will be a crowd-pleaser for years to come.