There’s been an edge to George Paton ever since he was growing up in La Cañada Flintridge, and for good reason. He always had to battle two older brothers at home.
“We competed every day,” he said. “They were five, six years older, so we competed in everything, and I lost a lot because they were older. That’s all we did, is compete.”
It’s also what the Minnesota Vikings of the National Football League have done while Paton worked behind the scenes since 2007. In his time as director of player personnel and later assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel, the Vikings drafted 16 Pro Bowl performers, and the former La Cañada High School student hopes to carry that spirit and success into his new role as general manager of the Denver Broncos.
“It feels great to work in this league and get the opportunity to work for such an iconic franchise with a championship tradition and passionate fan base,” said Paton, who signed a six-year deal with the Broncos last week. “It’s an honor and something my family and I are really excited about.”
Paton will be working alongside President of Football Operations John Elway, a Hall of Famer who played at Granada Hills High School and quarterbacked the Broncos to two Super Bowl victories.
“With John Elway offering you the reins of the franchise and being from Southern California, how can you say no?” Paton said.
Early in the process, it became apparent to Elway that Paton was the man for the job.
“He is a proven evaluator who knows every detail of leading football operations,” Elway said in a statement. “With his experience in all aspects of the job — the college and pro sides, salary cap, trades, working with the head coach and bringing the staff together — George is more than ready to succeed in this role. George has waited and worked for the right opportunity, which shows that he is smart and serious about winning.”
He has always been serious about winning — just ask anyone who knew Paton, who grew up in a football family and played for the youth league Gladiators while living in LCF.
After attending La Cañada Elementary and Foothill Intermediate School and spending a year at LCHS, he transferred to Loyola High School in Los Angeles and quickly became one of the Cubs’ top football players. He eventually took over starting quarterback duties as a senior.
“He’d be the one watching three times more film than everybody else and really understanding the ins and outs of the game,” said Chris Rising, a former teammate and close friend of Paton. “He got a lot out of his ability and earned a Division I scholarship.”
During his senior season in the fall of 1986, Paton helped guide the Cubs to a CIF Southern Section quarterfinal appearance and was selected All-Del Rey League (on both offense and defense) and Loyola’s team MVP. He moved on to play at UCLA as a defensive back and played professionally in Europe for two years before returning to the States.
His dream of becoming of becoming an NFL player ultimately didn’t become a reality, but that didn’t discourage Paton from continuing to pursue a career in football.
After a brief coaching stint, Paton eventually landed as a scout for Chicago Bears. It was a low-level position that didn’t pay much, and the former Bruin got a little help from his former UCLA roommate and good friend, Jim Bonds.
The beloved St. Francis High School coach and former Bruins quarterback reached out to his brother Tom, who offered his couch to Paton. It would be where he slept for two years, but the situation never discouraged him.
“I never felt [like giving up],” Paton said. “I love every minute of it, and I love the grind. I like the process. There was a reason I got up every morning and worked hard: It’s because you’re trying to achieve the goal. There were trying days, there were tough losses, but it never crossed my mind.
“I was never worried where I was, where I was living and where I was sleeping. They were good friends and they were good to me. It was a passion of mine, so I was going to try to reach my goal, no matter what.”
Paton climbed the ladder in the personnel department, and moved on to the Miami Dolphins in 2001 and reunited with Rick Spielman, whom he worked under in Chicago. When Spielman took over as vice president of player personnel for the Vikings in 2006, he hired Paton as director of player personnel.
“What I really admire about him is that he shows up every day to work just as hard as he did the day before,” said Rising, who played collegiately at Duke after starring at Loyola. “He’s got this intestinal fortitude like no other. He’s had to battle through everything, and he’s in a really good position to battle through the challenges he’s going to face.”
With Paton serving behind the scenes, the Vikings won four division titles and clinched six playoff berths, and he continued his evolution from player to coach to NFL team executive.
“Minnesota was a special place,” Paton said. “Everyone really empowered us and we had a good run there. I still think they have a lot left. They drafted to develop talent and have done a really good job of creating a culture that players want to play in, and that starts at the top. It was not easy to leave but they are excited for my opportunity.”
Only days since news of his hiring broke, Paton was already hard at work on building up a Denver team that finished 5-11 this year. He is getting acquainted with the organization, players and coaches to better understand how to move forward.
In a statement from the team, Paton called the Broncos a “sleeping giant.”
“Obviously it’s different here, but I would want to still install some of the things that we did in Minnesota here,” Paton said. “I want to see how their process works first, and maybe they have things that don’t need to be changed. I’m going to learn from them and they’re going to learn from me, and we’re going to try to come up with the best possible process.”
Rising wasn’t surprised to see his good friend moving up in the NFL. He knew Paton was bound to have more opportunities after meeting up with him and listening in on his phone conversations.
“I just don’t know if people appreciate how good he is with the salary cap,” Rising said. “My favorite stories are just being with him and he’ll take a quick phone call. He’s just running numbers off, with no paper in front of him, telling people why they have their cap numbers wrong. I’m just looking at him and telling him he should be doing real estate deals with me. He’s got an amazing mind for cap economics, and that obviously allows a team to be successful.”
Paton returned briefly to his hometown of Southern California to pay his respects to his good friend Jim Bonds, who died of cancer in late October, sparking memories of his childhood and time as a player locally.
“It was a great childhood, and I had great friends,” he said. “I played in little league and had great coaches and great mentors. I look back with fondness, and I’m very fortunate to have grown up in the area.”