Payne was back at work less than a month later, complaining that his pledge to stop arriving at the office at 4 a.m. left him with too much time for early-morning wandering around the house. "You can't change your personality," Payne told a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "but maybe you can change how many hours a day you subject your body to your personality.
"So now I start working at five instead of four," Payne said as he trucked quickly out of the ballroom when the speech to the track people was over. "Guess that means about seven more heart surgeries from now, I'll be workin' a normal day."
Upon observing Payne's carpe diem pace not long after Atlanta won the Olympics, the chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for the '96 Games—Dick Pound, a former Olympic swimmer for Canada—took Payne aside. "Billy," he said, "this is not a sprint. You've either got to change the way you're going at this, or the stadium you want to build is going to be called the Payne Memorial Stadium." Payne wouldn't listen. "The fact is," Pound says now, "Billy is a man entirely unaware of himself in many important respects."
"With his medical history, his type A personality and working himself like he does," Payne's close friend Peter Candler says, "you wish . . . well, but Billy just doesn't understand. You say, 'Billy, you're going to kill yourself,' but he just doesn't look at it that way. Makes you think of an old country and western song. I think it went, 'Live hard, die young and leave a beautiful memory.' "
"The thing that convinced me to help him was the single-minded dedication I saw," says Andrew Young, the cochairman of ACOG, who was mayor of Atlanta back when Payne made his unlikely approach to the city. "I learned that Billy had actually quit his job and was spending his savings in pursuit of his goal. He'd had a heart attack, and he had the feeling that doing something for others was what life was really all about. 'I don't know what I'm doing,' he said, 'but I believe I can do it. I believe it with every ounce of strength I have.' It reminded me of the line from the philosopher Kierkegaard that 'purity of heart is to will one thing.' "
Every ACOG official has heard about the things Billy's daddy said to him—and, more important, failed to say—making him unable to proceed in any gear but overdrive. Billy was born a child of Athens, the one just east of Bogart, Ga. He was also the child of a Georgia football hero named Porter Otis Payne. Billy's father was the Bulldogs' captain in 1949, and he played on the College All-Star team that beat the Philadelphia Eagles the next year.
"My daddy always said, 'Never was a horse that couldn't be rode or a rider that couldn't be throwed,' " Payne says. "He would say, 'Billy, if you're not smarter than a lot of people or a better athlete than somebody, you can always outwork 'em.' "
Billy was a workhorse A student and a workhorse athlete. After each report card and after every game in which he'd played his heart out, he would approach his father in search of what he calls "adulation."
"Well, whaddya think, Dad?" he would say. "Was I good today? Are you proud of me?" And Porter Payne would always say the same thing: "Doesn't matter, Billy. The only thing that matters is, did you do your best?"
"Never once in those hundreds or thousands of conversations with my dad," Payne has said often to those he would inspire to join his cause, "could I ever respond that, yes, I had done my best. So I think it's kind of obvious what motivates me now."