Henry County’s McKinley Paynter teaches much more than winning football
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
NEW CASTLE, Ky. – McKinley Paynter made sure his new friends got a proper sendoff.
As members of the North Laurel football team exited the north end of the field at Henry County High School, McKinley waved and said, “Bye, buddies!”
Opponents earlier in the evening, but buddies.
There was no smack talk. No finger pointing.
Instead, several North Laurel players came to give McKinley a hug or have a picture snapped with Henry County’s No. 6.
Minutes before, McKinley had been running for a touchdown, his ninth of the season for the Wildcats. It was a fitting exclamation point to North Laurel’s 21-10 come from behind win.
Unusual? Of course.
If you are just looking at wins and losses or the playoff picture, sure it is. North Laurel improved to 6-3 and showed why the Jaguars can’t be overlooked in the upcoming Class 5A playoffs. Henry County, which has some designs on its own playoff history, absorbed only its second blemish in nine games. Coach Matt Wright could be heard telling his team it had lost to a good team and the Wildcats, now 7-2, could learn from it as they get ready for the Class 3A playoffs.
But when Henry County takes the field, football is more than the scoreboard. That’s because McKinley Paynter isn’t your everyday player.
McKinley was born with Down Syndrome, making what most would see as normal participation in high school sports, especially football, impossible. But for the last four years, he’s been suiting up and running for touchdowns. But most importantly, even without realizing it, McKinley Paynter is teaching countless others about giving.
He’s making buddies.
“The big thing is our kids treat him like everybody else,” Henry County coach Matt Wright says. “Obviously, he’s special ed, but the kids are helping him in the locker room and on the sidelines.”
We first caught up with McKinley during the 2021 season and saw him run for a touchdown in the mud at Spencer County. A year later, he did the same after the final horn against North Laurel.
You see, when McKinley expressed a desire to play football in the third grade, it became customary for teams to line up for one more play after time had expired. McKinley takes a handoff, then runs through a gaping hole formed by the Henry County line while players on the other team jog behind him in pursuit.
As McKinley crosses the goal line, players on both teams mob him in celebration.
When McKinley got to high school, the practice continued, whether Henry County wins or loses. But the real victory is in the life lesson being taught.
“He’s showing that he is just like every other kid,” says McKinley’s father James Paynter, a Henry County assistant coach. “They have their shortcomings, but you can’t leave them out. You have to keep them involved. They want to be involved. They can’t run or catch (like other players) but they still want to be a part and the kids here have embraced him.
“The teams we play, they make him a part. Officials even ask, ‘Where’s No. 6?’ Other coaches ask, ‘Is No. 6 still on the team?’”
Wright, the Wildcats’ head coach, adds, “People know and coaches come to me before the game about the extra play. It means something and he is one of the guys our program is recognized for.”
As for McKinley, he seems to take it all in stride. While on the sidelines, he can be seen celebrating with his teammates – his buddies – when the Wildcats have a big play. But Friday night, Henry’s 10-7 halftime lead didn’t hold up. North Laurel took the lead midway through the third quarter, then added a late insurance touchdown.
Asked about his own touchdown, McKinley said it was “great. Awesome!”
And even after coming out on the short end, there were few sour faces in Henry’s post-game huddle.
“They can be frustrated and he comes out and smiles at them and gives them a thumbs up,” Wright said.
“You can’t be down around him,” McKinley’s father added. “You can’t have a bad day around him. When I come home from work after a bad day and hear him and give a hug – that’s his thing. He loves giving hugs.”
But even for a special player like McKinley Paynter, time does not stop. He’s a senior and will be suiting up for his final regular season home game Friday, Oct. 28, when the Wildcats host Spencer County. Henry has earned at least one more home game, hosting Nelson County in the Class 3A playoff opener a week later. If the Wildcats win that one and seedings hold, they will travel to powerful Bardstown the following week.
It might seem like the end of an era at Henry, but in reality, is likely to be a period of transition.
“His mother and I have had discussions about this in the summer,” James Paynter said of his son’s final home game. ”What are we going to do? His mother is taking it really hard. His brother and sister are both taking it hard.
“Coach Wright has made the comment that we are going to get him a headset and a clipboard and he’s going to be an honorary coach. McKinley will always be part of Henry County football.”
And chances are that McKinley will also be part of the Henry County community. His father says he has been offered a job at the popular Our Best restaurant in Smithfield, where he can be a host and talk with people. “They realize he’s part of Henry County,” James Paynter continued. “If you look at the stands nobody leaves until after the game (waiting for McKinley’s run). He will work there and will be an honorary coach here on the sideline if he wants to do that. So next year, he will probably have a pair of khakis and a pullover and a headset.”
For now, McKinley continues to smile with his buddies.
A year ago, Henry finished 5-7 but lost six of its last seven contests by an average of almost 27 points a game. “Coach Wright has made the comment that last year when we were getting blown out in games, he was the bright spot,” James Paynter recalls.
But this year, things are different as Henry will be going for its first playoff win since 2009 and only the fourth in school history. Whatever happens, you can bet that McKinley Paynter will be there smiling or giving a thumbs up.
“The game matters but it’s more about him wanting to be with the guys and it warms your heart with stuff like this,” says Wright, who previously served as a pastor after graduating from Campbellsville University. “You can come off the field with a loss and still feel good. It’s heartwarming to see somebody, kids from a school that don’t know him, don’t know anything about him, do something selfless and let him do something like (the touchdown run). Anytime you put someone else ahead of yourself, that’s God. It’s part of what God wants from us and putting that in front of kids is huge.”
James Paynter has seen so many affected positively by a special needs son who just wanted to be a part of things.
“We just had a young man from Western Hills that last year stopped to talk with him after the game. McKinley mentioned to him that he loved their green home jerseys because that’s his favorite color. They went back and found a No. 6 home jersey and sent it to him,” Coach Paynter says. “So he brings a lot to the table. It’s sportsmanship, which is what football is all about. It’s young men pulling together.”
And McKinley Paynter is quick to let you know how he feels about his buddies. “I love them,” he says.
James Paynter breaks into a smile as his son waves “goodbye” to North Laurel players.
“Everybody in uniform is his buddy, even the opposing team,” James says. “And he loves his buddies.”