COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Shea Patterson set his feet, clapped his hands and caught the snap he’d been waiting his whole life to receive.
Before you could start saying “two-Mississippi,” a linebacker barreled toward his blindside. But the 19-year-old showed no hint of panic as he bolted for daylight, picked up 16 yards and slid to the ground.
Three quarters later, minutes before Ole Miss kicked a game-winning field goal to upset No. 8 Texas A&M, 29-28, Patterson’s demeanor remained the same. Calm. Poised. Unflappable from the time he warmed up in a mostly-empty Kyle Field until he marched the offense into Aggies territory, with 105,000 fans screaming at him under the stadium floodlights.
“He was composed and just told us, ‘Everything’s going to be alright.’ He came to us and led the team, and we followed him,” Rebels receiver Van Jefferson said.
Patterson threw for 338 yards, rushed for 64 more and scored two touchdowns in his college debut. He reversed field, escaped defenders, extended plays and hit Damore’ea Stringfellow on a circus-like completion. And, without question, he won over his teammates.
“He’s a freshman. This is his first game playing,” senior tailback Akeem Judd said. “Chad (Kelly) went down so we needed someone to step up. And he stepped up, tremendously. A road game in the SEC is tough. To play in front of 100,000 as a freshman as a first game, it’s scary. He handled himself well.”
The ease with which this 6-foot-2, 200-pound newcomer accomplished the spectacular made the performance feel like magic. To have it take place on the same field that made Johnny Manziel a Heisman-winner — well, that’s just absurd.
“It’s a dream come true. It’s crazy, my first start,” Patterson told SEC Network after the game. “Johnny Manziel was my favorite player growing up. It’s ironic that I get my first start at Kyle Field. It’s awesome.”
The folks that know him best weren’t surprised by what they saw unfold Saturday night. To them, he wasn’t a 5-star arm, the next Johnny Manziel or the future of Ole Miss football.
He was just Shea — the one they’ve always known. Soon enough, the whole country will know all about the kid with the cool hand and the big heart.
“The secret weapon”
They didn’t know he was playing until Sunday or Monday of game week, but everyone in Patterson’s circle made it to College Station on short notice — parents, siblings, extended family members and friends from Texas and Louisiana.
Most of them are used to the road trips. His father, Sean Patterson Sr., played college sports. His older brother, Sean Jr., was a three-year starting quarterback for Duquesne and is now Associate Director of Recruiting Operations at Ole Miss. Shea’s grandfather George Patterson played for the Detroit Pistons in 1967-68.
Shea chose to wear No. 20 at Ole Miss as a way to honor his late grandfather, who passed away when Shea was young.
“Great tribute. That’s just kind of Shea, though,” Sean Sr. said.
As the second-youngest of five children, Shea’s siblings always have driven him to succeed, and perhaps nobody kindled Shea’s competitive spirit more than Sean Jr. When Shea gave his first interview as a seventh-grader, for example, he noted that while he loved having an older brother who was a Division-I quarterback, he wanted to go to a bigger school than his brother.
“As soon as he was able to walk, his older brother Sean — there’s maybe a nine-year difference between those two — as soon as he was able to walk he had a football helmet on,” Shea’s father said. “Sean was closing the door to the room and tackling him. Coming out and telling me ‘Dad, he can throw.’
“As soon as he was able to walk he was kind of a human toy.”
These days, the relationship between Shea and Sean Jr. might almost be as much quarterback-coach as it is older and younger brothers. On Saturday, the two were in deep conversation on the Ole Miss bench right before the offense marched out for its fourth-quarter comeback drive.
“Sean’s kind of the secret weapon or the guy behind the scenes,” Sean Sr. said. “He’s a great quarterback coach, a mentor … He’s kind of paved the way for Shea and made it so it looks normal, and he knows the right things to say, and the wrong things to say, and how to be a great teammate and leader. Sometimes just by action and not words.”
“He’d be the one”
Right away, the Pattersons could tell Shea would be a special athlete. At 6 years old — “I think he still had a pacifier in his mouth,” Sean Sr. recalls — they had their second-youngest son competing in a 10-and-under football league.
“He went out there and scored like 7 touchdowns,” Sean Sr. said.
As early as the seventh grade, recruiting reporters interviewed him. He excelled at basketball and baseball. But by the time his freshman year of high school had ended, Shea knew that he could be better on the gridiron.
Ole Miss and other high-profile programs began recruiting him. Before long, 25 schools had offered him a scholarship, including Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and USC. He earned 5-star status and became the No. 1-rated pro-style passer in his signing class.
So, yeah, Shea’s no stranger to attention.
“It never became too much for him. It became too much for all of us, but not him. That’s just been his goal. That’s what he thinks is supposed to happen,” Sean Sr. said.
On Feb. 17, 2015, Shea committed to the Rebels. The match seemed perfect to both sides, and for Freeze, that’s a rare feeling.
“I’ve kind of known all along that he just had that ‘it’ quality about him,” Freeze said. “I leave very few high school games feeling like the kid’s just a no-brainer. We obviously have to develop them and take them. But the one opportunity I got to go watch him play (2014 state title game), I left that game with a man-crush on him.”
By next fall, Shea had transferred to IMG Academy, an ultra-competitive boarding school in Bradenton, Fla., loaded with top high school athletes. The football team, which plays some of the toughest high schools in the nation, was no exception.
But even with the dramatic increase in talent level between Shea’s previous high school (Calvary Baptist) and IMG, and having to practice against top prospects every week, the young gunslinger made it look easy once the games began.
“In practice, you don’t hit your quarterback. In preseason, you don’t hit your quarterback,” IMG coach Kevin Wright said. “The first time he actually got to go live in a game, for us, it was eye-opening. Because he was even better in a game setting when the lights were on and people could hit him and come after him.
“After our first game I remember thinking ‘Yeah, this guy’s better than we even imagined.’”
In eight games at IMG, he threw for 1,533 yards and 18 touchdowns — the latter a school record until Texas A&M quarterback commit Kellen Mond broke it on the same night Shea debuted. Like Freeze and family members, the IMG coaching staff wasn’t too surprised to see Shea making big plays against the Aggies.
Well, OK, some of it was still surprising.
“I was a little surprised seeing him reverse field against A&M,” Wright said. “I’ve seen him do it so many times in high school. But not against guys in the SEC on a Saturday night. He just has this uncanny ability to keep his eyes downfield and make plays.”
And what of the comparisons? Even before Shea name-dropped Manziel as his favorite player, members of the media were already crowning him. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason compared to him to Johnny Football earlier this week.
Is there any truth to that?
“He’d be the one in most recent history, just because of the comparable size and style of game,” Wright said. “He’s not the tallest guy, so he has to throw through windows. He’s an unbelievable athlete and he’s a legitimate 4.5 40 guy. He always seems to run as fast as he needs to run.
“Russell Wilson would probably be the guy I would compare him to most. … Shea, he will run the ball as needed. But he’s also a guy that can throw it from the pocket. He gives you a lot of versatility.”
Thankfully, athletic ability is where the Manziel comparisons end.
As a teammate, those who know Shea best describe him as quiet and humble. The first words out of his mouth after the Texas A&M game were “I want to thank God,” and he went on to praise the seniors, his defensive, his offensive line and his receivers. Without saying much, Shea said everything.
“He just has that air where he breathes confidence into his teammates and into his team in general,” Wright said.
For those still wondering about the Shea Patterson beneath his helmet, perhaps the best illustrator is his relationship with his other secret weapon.
That is, of course, his mother Karen, whom he still calls “Mama.” Since he began attending IMG, and after that when he moved to Oxford in January, Shea calls her almost every night.
“He’s a real emotional guy with his mom,” Sean Sr. said. “He sent her a letter one time thanking her for everything she does. Cleaning his uniform, allowing him to go to practice school. All the things. I remember that day and that just really hit her. It lets you know he’s got his head in the right place. Football doesn’t define Shea, it’s just part of him.”
Nearly everyone who talks about Shea touches on a common point: An unshakable calmness. Debuting on the road against the No. 8 team in the country? No problem. Need a field goal with less than four minutes remaining? We can do this.
It’s a trait Sean Sr. says comes from his mother — one he displayed at a remarkably young age. Like when, at 6 years old, he and Shea learned of George Patterson’s passing after getting off an airplane..
“I broke down right in the airport. He just grabbed my hand and said ‘What happened?’ I said ‘Grandpa went to heaven,'” Sean Sr. said. “He was just (like), “It’s going to be OK dad. We’re going to be alright.’
“I didn’t realize how special it was at the time. That’s just how he is. He just worries more about everybody else. He’s just had that about him. God gave him a gift.”
And with expectations likely to be sky-high after Shea’s stellar welcoming party in College Station, that’ll serve him well in the coming days, weeks and — if everything goes according to plan — years.
Call it a gift, call it confidence, call if a sense of inner calmness. Whatever “it” is, Shea Patterson has an infinite supply, and with it he can accomplish an awful lot of good as Ole Miss quarterback, both on and off the field.
“(I told him) this is just the beginning of a journey. Stay humble. Stay hungry. Learn from it,” Freeze said. “Just remain who you are. And I think he will. He’s going to have a platform where he can impact a lot of people’s lives with just the way he handles adversity and successes. They both can be difficult to handle at times.”