When the Michigan Wolverines met the Ohio State Buckeyes in 1950, a blizzard of epic proportion left both teams struggling. Footage courtesy OSU.
Brian Kaufman, Detroit Free Press Videographer
Shea Patterson didn’t have to listen hard to hear the gunfire. Semi-automatics blasting in the distance.
Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap.
Almost every afternoon, the drug cartels sprayed bullets on the other side of the Rio Grande River. It got worse after dark.
When the time changed in the fall, and the sun fell off the horizon an hour earlier, Patterson’s football coach sent the players who lived among the cartels home early. It was easier to avoid stray bullets in the light.
Patterson learned to think of the gunfire as normal, part of the aural backdrop to football practice in Hidalgo, Texas, during his freshman year of high school. He’d moved to the U.S.-Mexico border from Toledo, Ohio, where he’d spent the first 11 years of his life.
Everything was different in south Texas. Many of his classmates barely spoke English. To get to school, they legally walked over the bridge from Reynosa, Hidalgo’s sister city on the other side of the Rio Grande, in search of a future.
The Pattersons had been searching for the same thing.
Shea’s father, Sean Patterson, had to leave Toledo when the mortgage business crashed in 2008. He had a brother in Brownsville, 45 minutes east of Hidalgo, and a sister-in-law who worked for the border patrol.
His extended family offered stability. A job selling gymnasium flooring offered work.
All Shea Patterson had to do was find the quiet.
The Michigan football quarterback was something of a phenom when he began practice his freshman year at Hidalgo in the summer of 2012. But the varsity coach, Scott Ford, wasn’t going to hand him the starting job.
Ford had a senior who’d thrown for 2,500 yards the year before. Patterson had to beat him out. Then the senior missed a practice and didn’t call to tell his coaches he couldn’t make it. Patterson stepped in.
“And I told the coaches during our meeting that night that the senior better Google Wally Pipp,” Ford joked.
Pipp had been the Yankees’ first baseman until Lou Gehrig got a chance to man the bag. Gehrig never looked back. Neither has Patterson.
This Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, Patterson will take the field at Ohio Stadium to face the Buckeyes for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. Everywhere he has been helped prepare him for the moment. But he doesn’t intend to end his journey there.
What began in Toledo, then Hidalgo, then Shreveport, Louisiana, then Florida, then Oxford, Mississippi, led him here, a day away from U-M’s biggest game of the season, and of his life.
He has big plans. And bigger dreams.
Dreams shaped by a sports-driven father and a soft-spoken mother and the DNA of a grandfather who played in the NBA.
He may have had to fight to get to Ann Arbor after playing at Ole Miss, and he learned much about patience in the downtime as he waited to hear whether the NCAA would approve of the transfer, but his education began long before that.
Patterson is not the savior at U-M, and doesn’t want to be thought of that way. Just as he wasn’t the savior at Hidalgo.
He was just a kid. He could throw, yes. And throw on the run. Across his body. Just as he does now. He could sense pressure and find the quiet in the pocket and manipulate the geometry until he spotted a favorable passing angle, gifts he’d had since he first picked up a football.
But he wasn’t there to save Hidalgo. He was there to learn, to navigate a world different from where he’d come.
It was all part of the plan.
His father hadn’t exactly thrown a dart on a map and rented a U-Haul to teach his family a cultural and geographical lesson. He’d picked south Texas because of family and opportunity. And yet the prospect of traversing a cultural chasm held appeal for Sean.
“All my kids, I’ve tried to get them exposed to as many different situations as possible,” said Sean. “Shea played baseball in Puerto Rico, in Mexico, in Florida … all over the country. My dad played in the NBA. Sports teaches you how to get along with everybody.”
So when a classmate had to walk over a border to get to school, had to dodge drug cartels on the way home, had little money and even less training in football, Sean saw that as a chance for his son to broaden his humanity.
He wanted Shea to step into the huddle, look at the faces of those next to him and say: “’Hey, he’s my teammate.’ So what if he couldn’t’ speak Spanish? Find another way to communicate.”
Patterson saw the differences in his schoolmates and teammates as an opportunity to understand the world beyond his home. Though he saw a lot more than that in south Texas.
Living on the border demands a kind of acceptance of the other. It’s hard to demonize those who are different when you share classrooms with them, share meals with them, share locker rooms with them.
There are laws that define the border, and Patterson understood that. But he understood, too, why some some residents on the other side would do anything to get to Texas.
If you listen to gunfire every day, it makes more sense when you see people trying to swim across the Rio Grande.
“Shea saw a lot down there,” said Sean.
Not just desperate swimmers, but stash houses full of immigrants, border patrol officers chasing immigrants on 4-wheelers, helicopters constantly patrolling the skies.
Everyone had a story. Everyone knew someone trying to make a better life. Patterson threw to receivers that had to get home before dark. He dropped back behind linemen who spoke another tongue.
His job was to communicate, and to connect.
Sean will tell you his son gets his competitiveness from him, and little else. His calm comes from his mother, Karen.
“I used to coach basketball and my wife would show up to games with two kids in a stroller, Shea running around all over the place, and act like it was nothing,” Sean said. “She could handle anything. Shea gets that from her.”
Not only her chill, but her quiet, her tendency to study without opinion. Where Sean would get so amped up before Patterson’s games he’d approach the coach, Karen relaxed in the distance. She wanted to blend in.
“Sean is a little more braggadocios, more vocal,” said Ford. “I had to tell the dad a couple times to shut up. To his credit, he did. But I did used to wonder where (Shea) came from.”
It wasn’t always that way. When Patterson was in elementary school, he was wild.
“A handful,” he admitted.
Sean held him back in the fourth grade. He said it was to help him mature. Patterson said it was for sports. Both are probably true.
The result was that Patterson was no longer the smallest kid on the field. And though the extra year did allow him to settle down and relax, it also helped crystallize his athletic gifts.
By the time Ford saw tape of him from middle school, Patterson was a miniature version of the quarterback U-M head coach Jim Harbaugh sees now.
“He was the best player I’d ever seen,” said Ford.
What he didn’t know was whether all that skill he’d seen on video would translate to varsity football. Playing quarterback is much more than reading a defense and making throws. Those in the huddle have to believe what a quarterback says.
To help prepare him, Ford rode him hard the during summer practice. He told him he didn’t coach quarterbacks, he coached football players, and the first thing Ford made his prodigy do was tackling drills.
“I was tough on him to the point of being an ass,” said Ford. “I wanted to see if he could handle it. He did. And never said a word.”
Patterson was 15. Running a spread offense. Attracting college attention — Clemson and Arizona extended offers — and led the team to a district championship, where he was the MVP.
“What he did, you don’t teach,” said Ford. “Some people are born for certain jobs. He was born to be a quarterback. But you would never know it by how he carried himself.”
A couple of weeks ago in New Jersey, Patterson pulled off the kind of play that Ford witnessed every Friday night in Hidalgo.
It was second down in the third quarter on a cold and windy day at Rutgers when he dropped back to pass. After scanning the field and finding nothing, the pocket began to collapse, and Patterson rolled to his right.
As he neared the hash mark, another defender started closing and he stepped forward to elude him, then ran farther toward the sideline before zipping a pass to Oliver Martin in the corner of the end zone.
In the postgame news conference, Patterson was asked about the play. He thought for a second, credited the offensive line, gave props to Martin for the catch, and downplayed the feel and vision he’d displayed to secure the touchdown.
Harbaugh, on the other hand, was happy to talk about Patterson’s role in the play.
“The throw he made to Oliver Martin on the run was great,” he said.
When asked what allows Patterson to excel when a play turns chaotic, Harbaugh elaborated:
“The biggest majority is (his) feel, (his) pocket awareness … not panicking, moving subtly to get to the quiet spot.”
And where does that ‘feel’ come from?
“There are drills, for sure,” Harbaugh said. “You do the same drills with some guys and they don’t ever get it. You do those drills with guys that really have the spatial awareness and the feel and the innate ability? And it can get really good.”
Patterson would never stand at a podium and say this about himself. This isn’t surprising. He’d rather shine a light on his teammates, as he has done all season at U-M, a habit he picked up listening to his older brother, Sean Jr., who was also a quarterback, but a lesson he learned back in Hidalgo.
You don’t take over a varsity team as a freshman and endear yourself to your older teammates without tossing praise around the huddle. Especially when you’ve beat out a senior for the most important spot on the field.
Patterson left Hidalgo High School after one season. Sean’s employer transferred him to Shreveport, Louisiana.
Sean called a couple of local high schools and settled on Calvary Baptist Academy, a school with a rich football tradition, whose athletic director, John Booty, was the father of two NFL quarterbacks. Patterson had already committed to Arizona at that point, so it was an easy sell.
After two years, and two state championships, Patterson left for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He made the Army All-American game as a senior. It was played back in San Antonio.
When the game was over, and Patterson was walking off the field, the senior quarterback who he’d beaten out at Hidalgo was there to greet him with a hug. His former teammate had driven five hours north to see him play and wish him well.
Patterson couldn’t believe it. Neither could his father. But then it wasn’t the first time someone from south Texas had driven to San Antonio to support his son.
As an eighth-grader, Patterson made the Army All-American team, too. For that game, Hidalgo rented a couple of buses, packed them with students and the middle school band and made the trek north to support their quarterback.
“If you do things right, if you treat your teammates right, they don’t forget you,” said Sean.
For as much as he pushed his son — and children — into sports, he made sure no matter how successful they became, they weren’t going to forget that. It helped, too, that Patterson came by it naturally.
“Since I was a little kid, I was more of a giver than a taker,” said Patterson. “I love seeing other people’s joy. I like seeing other people happy, other people make plays … when they are on my team.”
This isn’t just an act in front of cameras. The player you hear and see in interviews is the player his coaches and teammates hear and see in practice, in the weight room, in film study.
“What you see is what you get,” said Zach Gentry, U-M’s tight end. “It’s easy to rally behind Shea.”
It’s easy to confuse quiet with self-doubt, just as it’s easy to mistake bravado for confidence. Patterson discovered the minute he stepped onto a football field that he could see and feel things that others couldn’t.
He was fast, too.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “It’s almost like having eyes in the back of your head.”
In the season opener against Notre Dame, late in the fourth quarter, Patterson didn’t feel the pressure in time to escape the rush and fumbled the ball while trying to slip out of the pocket. It was his first game as a Wolverine and losing to the Irish kept up the narrative that U-M, no matter the quarterback, couldn’t win the big game.
Patterson didn’t buy it. He knew what he could do. What his team could do. And though he felt responsible for the loss, he got back to Ann Arbor and worked on ball security, telling himself the next time he had the chance to make a play on the run late in the game, he’d make it.
He hasn’t had many chances because his team has dominated. But in the two relatively tight games since Notre Dame — Northwestern and Michigan State — he made plays in the second half.
With each win this fall, the narrative began to change, though most of the credit for the resurgence went to the defense and the improved offensive line and the running game. Patterson did his job and receded into the background.
That’s not what his coaches and teammates saw inside the program.
“I think he brings a calm to our guys, and a confidence without the bravado,” said Don Brown, the team’s defensive coordinator who has built an unlikely friendship with Patterson. “Sometimes the bravado is just a sham. The quiet confidence is really what you’re searching for … which is a beautiful thing. (Shea) has that intangible something that allows individuals to be special. You never see him flinch. It’s his body language. With some guys, their whole presence gives away what their mood is. He doesn’t do that.”
Brown told the story about Patterson seeking him out during the Michigan State game and forcefully telling him to get the ball back. That he would lead the offense to a score.
He barks in his own huddle, too. It’s not easy to spot. Nor is it when he talks trash, which he said he likes to do to opponents when he thinks they deserve it.
“The Penn State game I was really talking (expletive),” he said.
He just does it in a way that cameras miss. He likes it that way. This is why he dons a baseball cap when he steps outside in Ann Arbor. He wants to blend in. To hop over to a teammate’s apartment and chill. Sometimes, he stays home and puts on a headset and plays Fortnite with his buddies. The video game is an escape. Though it’s addicting.
“I have to limit myself,” he admitted.
The best times, though, are on the sideline, shoulder-to-shoulder with his team, late in the game, victory secured, reveling in their performance, talking about what they’re all going to do that night.
He hopes he’ll have a few more of these moments. Something he thinks about often. Something he was thinking about two weeks ago at Rutgers, when, for one of the few times all season, he grew frustrated with his head coach.
It was fourth down when Patterson started waving his arms at Harbaugh, begging him to let the offense stay on the field. His Wolverines were near midfield and needed three yards for the first down.
U-M was leading Rutgers, but Patterson wasn’t thinking about Rutgers. He had Alabama on his mind, as he has all season.
“I wanted to go for (the first down),” he said. “Because we just weren’t playing like we should’ve been offensively. We weren’t dominating. And if we get to our ultimate goal, we are going to play Alabama.”
Patterson didn’t transfer to Michigan to beat Alabama. Not technically. But he was convinced the team had the talent to compete with the Crimson Tide if it got the chance, which is why his arms were flailing on that fourth down against Rutgers.
He was irritated.
“If it’s not good enough to beat Alabama, then it’s not good enough,” he said. “That kind of drove some of that anger on that play.”
It’s what drove him north. Has driven him week to week. Drives him as he prepares to face Ohio State this Saturday in Columbus.
He knows what’s out there. He knows where he has been and who he is and that everything he has ever learned and absorbed has prepared him for this week, and for what awaits beyond the Big Ten.
“We have the talent,” he said. “We have everything we need to go and finish this thing.”
He believes. In himself. In others.
He’s been doing it all his life.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.