As a 12-year-old in 2011, Kwity Paye promised his mother, Agnes, she wouldn’t have to pay for his college studies.
On Thursday night, he promised her she’ll never work again.
The newest member of the Indianapolis Colts has an incredible family story, and after he was drafted with the 21st overall pick his first thoughts turned to his mother. She worked nearly around the clock to send him to a private high school in Providence, Rhode Island, and he repaid that investment by earning a football scholarship to Michigan.
After becoming a first-round draft pick, he told her on national television it’s time to retire.
“It means everything,” Paye said of that moment during a video conference call with Indianapolis media. “That was my goal my whole life. Growing up, just seeing how hard she worked, that’s what made me work harder. So being able to tell her that she’s done means a lot.”
Paye was born in a Guinea refugee camp during the aftermath of the first Liberian civil war and was named after his grandfather who was killed in that conflict. His mother moved Paye and his older brother to the United States when Paye was 6 months old, and NFL Network told the harrowing story in an “NFL 360” video feature.
Colts general manager Chris Ballard had tears in his eyes when he watched the video, and the character Paye has displayed is just one of the reasons Ballard is so excited about adding him to the roster.
“What his back story tells you is this kid is – he’s got some survival skills, and when it gets hard in this league he’s gonna be able to handle it,” Ballard said. “This is a hard league. It’s hard, and you’re gonna fail. Players are gonna fail. You’re gonna have some bad moments, and you’ve gotta 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 types of players.”
In Paye, Indianapolis believes it’s found the rare player with a unique skill set and elite character to match.
His college production doesn’t jump off the stat sheet. In four years with the Wolverines, Paye recorded 99 tackles with 11.5 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss and one forced fumble. His most productive season came in 2019 when he had 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
That’s also the year Paye first began to believe the NFL could be in his future. He went to Michigan with designs on a career in law enforcement and a dream of working for the FBI.
Instead, he’ll be paid to chase down quarterbacks as another athletic young piece for a growing Colts defense.
“Last night I was a little anxious, a little excited,” Paye said of his draft preparation. “But woke up this morning, I was cool. And then going through the draft I was just waiting for the call, and I was blessed to be picked by the Colts.”
The landing spot wasn’t a surprise. Paye had three “real good, long meetings” with the team during the process. But he doesn’t know much about his new home.
He’s been to Indianapolis just once, for the modified medical portion of the canceled NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month, and he’s still familiarizing himself with the defensive personnel. He is “a big fan” of all-pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and looks forward to lining up alongside him.
Like Justin Houston, whose shoes he might soon be asked to fill, Paye is a plus defender against the run. He has work to do as a pass rusher, refining his technique and learning more ways to beat offensive lineman. During the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he recorded two sacks and four tackles for loss in four games.
It’s athleticism that stands out immediate with the 6-foot-2, 261-pounder. He ran the anchor leg for the state championship 4x100-meter relay team in high school and also won the state championship in the long jump.
Among his eye-popping pro day results were a 35.5-inch vertical leap, 36 bench press reps and a 4.57-second 40-yard dash.
He also was a team captain for the Wolverines, and Ballard said he plays with the relentless intensity the Colts’ defense demands.
“We think he’s got really high upside, and his tape’s good,” Ballard said. “Kwity’s got really good tape, and he fits our scheme really well. The one thing with him that I think is really – the effort defensively that our players – it’s an adjustment for new players that come in the building, whether they’re rookies or free agents. It won’t be an adjustment for him. He plays the way we want to play.”
Ballard turned down a trade offer on the clock because it didn’t provide enough value to pass on Paye, a symbol of the conviction he has in this pick.
Paye is the first player selected in the first round by the Colts since three-time all-pro guard Quenton Nelson in 2018.
And the general manager likely slept well after making the selection.
“I’ve made some pretty easy picks, where you just knew when you pulled the card it was an easy pull, and pulling the card of Kwity Paye was very easy,” Ballard said. “He stands for everything we want to stand for. He’s at a position that we all know is important at defensive end. We think he’s got really big upside. We think he’s gonna continue to get better, and he’s gonna add to our front. He’s got an unbelievable story and just feel very fortunate tonight.
“Sometimes it goes your way, and tonight we feel like it went our way.”