By Mark Soltau
STANFORD, Calif. - Life isn't always what it seems. Take the case of Stanford senior wide receiver Jamal-Rashad Patterson.
A muscular 6-foot-3, 208-pounder, who ran 14.88 in the 110-meter high hurdles last spring for the Cardinal track team, has seemed destined to leave his mark on the football program. It just took longer than expected.
"He's got a pro-type body," said his former high school football coach, Mike Rozier, who won the 1983 Heisman Trophy at Nebraska. "He's a strong, possession receiver with track skills and is capable of taking it to the house."
So why did Patterson catch only nine passes and fail to find the end zone his first three seasons on the Farm? He was often buried on the depth chart, and when he did see the field, was inconsistent and dropped passes.
Some dubbed him an underachiever, only they couldn't have been more wrong. A four-star recruit by Rivals.com and Scout.com, the McDonough, Ga., product was a United States Achievement Academy All-America Scholar, and was a Watkins Award finalist honoring the top African-American in the country.
"It's like the Heisman Trophy for black players," said Rozier, who attended the banquet with Patterson in Los Angeles. "He's an incredibly bright person and is so well-rounded. Just a tremendous young man and we're extremely proud of him."
Patterson volunteered for community service projects and enjoyed speaking to middle school kids.
"He's always had that swagger," Rozier said.
Patterson isn't prone to excuses, but his mother, Shirley, is battling breast cancer. Last February, his 20-year-old brother, Jonathan, was killed by a stray bullet.
"I just want her to know that I'm playing for her."
"It just shows me life is not guaranteed," Patterson said this week. "It can come and go. Losing my brother hurt pretty bad and set me back mentally."
Patterson called his brother "John Boy," and wears pink tape on game days with the words, "Rest in peace, John Boy." He also wears four pink wrist bands on his legs and pink tape and a pink skull cap to honor his mom.
"Just to go out there and try and make her proud," said Patterson. "She's not able to come to games due to health concerns, but she's always tuned in. I just want her to know that I'm playing for her. I know she's not there physically, but she's there in spirit."
Her illness has taught him a valuable lesson.
"This is just a game," Patterson said of football. "Life is actually going on and you have to take it seriously and take every moment as if it's your last."
Patterson said the loss of his brother "fueled me, because I know he wanted me to do great." And wouldn't you know, Patterson has stepped up for the Cardinal offense this year. He'll make his fifth straight start Saturday when No. 16 Stanford plays host to No. 13 Oregon State in its regular-season home finale.
"He's relaxed, comfortable and confident," said David Shaw, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of Football. "He's been playing well all year. The plays that have been there to make, he's made."
Patterson scored his first collegiate receiving touchdown on a 27-yard pass from Josh Nunes against Duke. He also hauled in a 70-yard touchdown pass against Washington State. Patterson ranks fourth on the team with 10 receptions for 207 yards, an average of more than 20 yards per catch.
He's also been dangerous on end-around plays. Patterson has rushed three times for 66 yards, and his 40-yard scamper last week against Colorado set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Remound Wright.
"I definitely thought it was a touchdown," said Patterson, who appeared to stretch the ball over the pylon before going out of bounds. "I've seen it about 30 times. I wasted a couple of boxes of Kleenex on that."
A tenacious blocker, Patterson has never doubted his ability. At Henry County High School, he caught 144 passes for 3,100 yards and 41 touchdowns during his four-year career, won three Georgia state titles in track and broke the state record in the 300 hurdles.
"I've always had confidence in my game," Patterson said. "But now it's more in game flow and I'm out there competing at full speed with a tremendous amount of reps. That's built my confidence up even more."
Even through the tough times, Patterson insists he never hung his head.
"I just kept going hard and didn't get discouraged about it," he said. "I worked on my craft to get better. I just tried to develop my skills so when they do call my number, I can make a play for the team."
Rozier appreciates Patterson's resiliency.
"I'm glad he's snapped out of it," said Rozier. "That's what it's all about. Life is about adversity."
Patterson wears No. 21 for his favorite player growing up, Deion Sanders. He considered attending Florida and LSU, but his mother kept pushing Stanford. When he finally saw The Farm in person, he fell in love with Palm Drive.
"The diversity at Stanford is just amazing," said Patterson, who is majoring in science, technology and society. "You'll meet people from countries you've never heard of. Or people whose parents could be in charge of something or have royalty in their bloodstream. Some people have had their own Wikipedia page since they were 14 and have made inventions or found cures for things."
After football, Patterson would like to focus on decision making as it relates to "the actual engineering and constructing of a business. For example, if I was building a bridge, would I use steel or titanium? What are the advantages and disadvantages?"
On and off the field, he has embraced his Stanford experience.
"I've loved meeting the well-known professors and Nobel Prize winners," Patterson said. "I'm learning from people who have so much knowledge and are willing to give back."
People like his mother.
"I love my mom," he said. "She's a real strong lady. She's not the biggest woman in the world; she's pretty petite and thin. But she has the heart of a lion."
So does her son.