Path less traveled
Gathered with his charges in August, Duke defensive backs coach Derek Jones told the group one starting cornerback job naturally belonged to Ross Cockrell, an All-ACC player.
The other, he said, was wide open.
One player begged to differ, speaking out to say that, no, the job was his.
The dissenting voice belonged to Garett Patterson, a native Jamaican who didn’t play organized football until his freshman year of high school.
Simply expressing himself in a meeting was an accomplishment. When Patterson arrived in Virginia from Jamaica in 1999, he had to repeat third grade while struggling to comprehend English rather than the broken English of his native Jamaican Patwah dialect.
Now he was staking his claim to a starting job for a Duke program that expects to compete for bowl appearances annually.
“That was eye opening,” Jones said. “I had never seen him display such confidence. He immediately established respect as a senior and that this was his position to lose. He went about it in camp.”
Patterson, a redshirt senior who hadn’t started a game for Duke in his previous three seasons, won the starting job in preseason camp. His main competition was freshmen Breon Borders and Bryon Fields, universally considered far more talented players now than Patterson was when he arrived at Duke in 2009.
Patterson, though, combined his natural athleticism with hard work honing the skills under Jones tutelage to clamp down the starting job like a steel vice.
“Every day, he had to come to work,” Duke wide receiver Brandon Braxton said. “It was competition. We have really good young guys. He didn’t give up. He was not going to be outworked. He was always giving 115 percent, which is pretty standard for Garett.”
Making a big move
Patterson keeps pushing forward with an eye on where he’s been.
He grew up in the Jamaican parish of Hanover, located on the extreme northwest corner of the island adjacent to Montego Bay. With his father traveling back and forth to the United States attempting to establish a life here, Patterson, his mom and his three siblings lived with his grandparents in a small home.
Patterson remembers walking to school or riding his bike along dirt roads, dodging potholes. He played soccer with neighborhood kids.
In 1999 at age 10, he joined his parents, Yvette and Martin Patterson, in Richmond, Va., and was introduced to far better surroundings.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” Patterson said. “It made me not take things for granted that my parents were working hard to provide for me. It let me know to appreciate things more.
“The fact that there is a different world made me realize certain things about life. It made me work harder with motivation, knowing the background that I’m from.”
The transition to America was far from easy.
Patterson needed English-as-a-second-language classes. He was behind the other fourth-grade students because the learning pace here was accelerated compared to Jamaican schools.
“That was difficult,” Patterson said. “Coming here, that was a journey.”
Administrators moved him from school to school in search of the right programs.
“I took me a good year to get acquainted into the school system,” Patterson said. “My parents, they were really hard on me. They wanted me to, I guess, pass them and really excel.”
So that’s football
Athletically, all Patterson really knew was soccer. As the weather turned cool in the fall, something unknown to him in his former tropical home, he stayed inside. But he saw the neighborhood kids playing.
“I saw them outside throwing this brown thing,” Patterson said. “I thought, ‘Oh, it’s football.’ I used to see them playing it (on TV) on Sundays back in Jamaica sometimes.”
Patterson joined the kids and learned the sport.
By eighth grade, many of his fellow students would head to practice after school.
“After class, I would see them leaving with cleats and pads,” Patterson said. “I was going home to study. They were going to play football.”
One year later, as a high school freshman, Patterson joined them. He was a starting safety and wide receiver, earning a call up to the Monacan High School varsity at the end of the season.
He never left, eventually becoming an all-state player.
After his junior year, Patterson attended a camp at Duke. That’s where Jones first saw him.
“I liked his athleticism (and), more than anything, his competitive nature,” Jones said. “That caught my attention. He was a guy who fit the mold.”
Becoming a Blue Devil
David Cutcliffe had just arrived as Duke’s head coach with Jones on his staff. They were attempting to turn around a program that had won only 10 games in the previous eight seasons.
Bringing in a raw, athletic player like Patterson made sense. To Garett Patterson’s parents, the decision was easy.
“It was my first offer,” Patterson said. “My parents were like, ‘Yes, you are going. Sure.’ It was kind of a done deal.”
In the classroom at Duke, Patterson has earned a sociology degree and a marketing certificate. He is taking classes this year in a pre-dental curriculum with plans to attend dental school.
He knows he wouldn’t be doing this if he had he stayed in Jamaica.
“Possibilities of that are very slight,” he said. “There are a lot more resources here. I would go back and stay there but not necessarily live there. The opportunities here are more, more routes to take your career.”
As for football, Patterson redshirted in 2009 and played special teams in every game over the past three seasons. In 2012, he gradually earned playing time in the defensive secondary.
Still, this past spring, his football career stood at the brink.
Near the end of a spring practice during the team drills, Cutcliffe lashed out at Patterson saying, in no uncertain terms, that it was now or never for him to establish himself.
“It was sort of a wakeup call,” Patterson said. “I had to put up or get out of the way. I took it to heart.”
Patterson studied his playbook intensely and worked to shore up his assignments. He sought advice from Cockrell. He set daily goals for himself in practice regarding pass breakups and tackles.
“He’s figuring out what he can do well,” Duke defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said. “It’s not what Ross can do. It’s not what some other cornerback can do. It’s what Garett can do best. I think he’s gotten very serious about his technique and what suits his abilities. He’s playing fundamentally sound.”
Becoming a leader
Patterson has started Duke’s first three games this season. In the Blue Devils’ 28-14 win at Memphis on Sept. 7, Patterson broke up two passes and recovered a fumble.
Cutcliffe particularly is proud of how Patterson accepted the challenge to become a significant contributor for the Blue Devils while maintaining a positive presence.
“He smiles easy, and I was anxious to see if the pressures of being a starter — and he’s going to be tested certainly each week, was last week — which will start getting to him a little bit,” Cutcliffe said. “He certainly hits the practice field with the kind of energy and enthusiasm you hope all your players do.
“I particularly noticed that this week after a loss. He was one of our real leaders of the senior group we have of hitting the field with a little bounce and challenging himself to get better. He’s one of those guys you like so much that you just pray that it continues to go well for him.”
Patterson said his main drive is to make his family proud of him. He’s grateful to Cutcliffe and the Duke coaching staff for giving him a chance.
“I’d just like to keep the Duke way going,” Patterson said. “I’m really excited about that — Coach Cut believing in me, helping me be part of this process. I really thank him for allowing me to just keep pushing on.”