ANN ARBOR — When the final bell sounded at St. Charles Borromeo School on Airport Highway, Sean Patterson, Jr.’s school day was done.
But the fun was only the start for the 13-year-old. Waiting for him at home was little brother Shea — or “Shea Man,” as he was known — nine years younger and a budding sports superstar. The brothers would play basketball on Sean’s Little Tikes hoop, with Sean on his knees still eye level with 4-year-old Shea.
“I’d let him get ahead,” Sean said, “but I’d never let him win.”
The competitive grit that’s become a hallmark for the Michigan quarterback was fostered in Toledo, where Shea lived for the first 12 years of his life and the site of his first exploits that painted a picture of what was to come.
“You just knew he was going to excel,” said Ron Rightnowar, Shea’s youth baseball coach. “That’s just how he is. He’ll find a way to the top.”
The Pattersons relocated to Texas when Shea was in fifth grade, eventually settling in Louisiana. Shea led Calvary Baptist Academy in his adopted hometown of Shreveport, La., to consecutive state titles, then played his final high school season at IMG Academy in Florida. He was the MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and the top-ranked quarterback recruit in the country.
After two years at Mississippi, where Sean, Jr., was on the coaching staff, Shea transferred to Michigan when head coach Hugh Freeze was fired and the Rebels were banned from bowls two years in a row.
Now, after throwing 23 touchdown passes in 10 games for the SEC school, Shea is under the microscope as the starter for No. 14 Michigan, where hopes of a national title were bolstered the second he walked through the door.
“I understand the shoes I have to fill,” he said. “So many great quarterbacks have come through here.”
Rightnowar still recalls putting an advertisement in The Blade for a baseball tryout at the Lucas County Recreation Center. One of the 9-year-olds who showed up was Shea, and it quickly became apparent he would be the team’s pulse.
Shea stood out among a group that included several future Division I college athletes. The team was good enough to travel to Puerto Rico for a tournament featuring some of the best youth competition, and at an 11-year-old World Series in Alabama, Patterson helped lead his Toledo teammates past a group headlined by Texas star Kody Clemens, son of Roger Clemens, with Roger in attendance.
“He was different, and this was among a group of really talented kids,” Rightnowar said of Shea. “He could play anywhere. But the thing about Shea, he didn’t say a lot, but he had the ‘it’ factor. He just didn’t have any fear. He felt like he belonged. You could always tell Shea had been around older kids and competed with older kids. There wasn't anything that didn’t come easily to him.”
Shea, the son of Sean, Sr., and Karen, is one in a line of Patterson kids who have played college sports, joining Sean, Jr., Abby, and Kacie. His younger brother Nick, a junior tight end at San Antonio Christian, already holds an offer from Michigan.
Patti Irons, a retired principal at St. Charles and St. Clement, saw firsthand the bond between Sean, Jr., and Shea and Shea’s obsession with sports. As a kindergartner, Shea would try to tag along with his brother, which got the younger Patterson in trouble. When Sean went to football or basketball practice, Shea was right there.
Irons always had to remind Shea it wasn’t his turn to be with the big kids — he had to grow up first. A teacher’s aide in third grade recalled Shea and another boy, Lamar Carswell, playing football every day during recess. She told them they would one day be famous and joked she wanted them to buy her house.
Carswell is a star running back at Trine University in Indiana.
“He held his own,” Irons said of Shea. “He ran with [the older kids], exercised with them. He did everything. It was a hoot. He really garnered respect, even as a little kid. He was a good kid, happy-go-lucky. He came from a family that wouldn't allow any nonsense. The family is near and dear to my heart. I wasn't just a principal, I really became friends with the family. They’re just good people.”
Shea’s association with Sean continued as the older brother excelled for St. John’s Jesuit, where he played football and basketball before earning a scholarship to Duquesne University. A constant presence at Sean’s games, Shea either would throw passes under the bleachers or shoot baskets in an adjacent gymnasium.
“It really didn’t matter what sport it was,” Sean, Sr., said. “You always had to find places for him to play where the competition was top of line, even if it was older kids.”
One day in third grade, Shea sat on the steps during recess, drawing attention from teachers. When they asked why he wasn’t playing, Shea responded he got in trouble at home and his dad told him he was grounded from recess for the week.
“Come Wednesday, his dad shows up to check on him, and I said, ‘You should be so proud of your son because not every kid would do that,’” Irons said.
If you drove by the YMCA’s grass fields near the Toledo Zoo in 2003, you might have seen a 6-year-old quarterbacking a flag football team full of 10-year-olds. The little guy was Shea, who stirred debate and caused coaches to fight over him. One lost a $20 bet when he guaranteed Shea wasn’t a 6-year-old.
As a fourth-grader, Shea played for the DeVeaux Vikings in the West Toledo Lightweight Football League, which catered to sixth graders. He wasn’t the team’s quarterback. Instead, he was a fullback and linebacker who delivered such ferocious hits that coaches worried about him injuring teammates during practice.
Sean, Sr., an All-City League basketball player at Bowsher, never played organized football. He’s not afraid to admit it’s nerve-wracking to watch Shea play a violent sport, especially when he was a youngster. When coaches and friends started telling the elder Patterson that Shea’s potential was out of the ordinary, he realized they’d be in it for the long haul.
“Every league he’s played in, he’s been the best,” Sean, Jr., said. “He looked like Tom Brady throwing the football. The first time he ever threw a football, he looked like he’d been doing it forever.”
The Pattersons were Michigan season-ticket holders, and Shea attended games at Michigan Stadium as a kid. His bedtime stories weren’t your run-of-the-mill fairy tales. Sean, Sr., would reveal the future — Shea suiting up in maize and blue.
“It’s crazy just to think that I’m here at the University of Michigan,” Shea said. “It’s a reality now, and I’m just so thankful.”
When Sean, Jr., played football on the playground, he wore the No. 2 Michigan jersey of Charles Woodson. Two decades later, Michigan’s No. 2 jersey says Patterson on the back.
Shea wore No. 20 at Ole Miss, but when it came time to pick his number at Michigan he wanted a new identity. Although No. 2 was available, Shea thought it was best to ask Woodson, the former Fremont Ross standout and Heisman Trophy winner, if he could wear his old digit.
“He said, ‘Just wear that number with pride, and if you’re going to wear it, know what you're wearing it for,’” Shea said. “‘You’ve got to be a leader, and you’ve got to show the guys how hard you work.’”
The same blue-collar mind-set instilled in Shea Patterson in the Glass City.
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