Jamal-Rashad Patterson's senior year of high school had already been plenty impressive. The four-star wide receiver sported an offer list including some of the most storied football programs in the nation, Florida and LSU, Michigan and Notre Dame. He started his 2008 season off with a commitment to Stanford, and finished it by being named First Team All-State by Georgia's biggest newspaper.
But, last Saturday night in Los Angeles, Patterson elevated himself into more elite company yet. He won the prestigious Franklin D. Watkins Award, an annual honor given to the nation's top African-American male student-athlete.
"This tops it all," Patterson said in an exclusive interview with The Bootleg. "That's the best. I've never felt better. It's better than any athletic thing I could possibly accomplish."
Patterson knew the competition was tough, with fellow finalists Jemari Roberts (another Stanford commit), Jelani Jenkins (a Stanford target and Florida commit), Georgia commit Christopher Burnette and BYU commit Richard Wilson. The selection committee did its part to maintain secrecy, and thus Patterson had no idea who would win until he heard a name announced over the loudspeakers - his own!
"It was a total surprise," he said. "No one know who was winning until they called it out. I felt great making the last five because they were all great guys up there.
"It felt great. It means a lot -- it shows all the hard work pays off, and you can't back down when the work is hard."
Patterson joins an illustrious list of Watkins winners that includes Florida State safety and Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle, the 2006 recipient, and 1998 honoree Ronald Curry, now with Oakland Raiders. (Of interest to the Stanford diehard, 2001's winner was five-star Cardinal linebacker Michael Craven, and Cal running back Covaughn Deboskie, a top Stanford target 13 months ago, was a 2008 finalist.) The success of past Watkins winners is not lost on Patterson.
"It's great," Patterson said. "It allows you to set your goals higher. There are Rhodes scholars. There are a lot of guys in the pros or helping out somehow."
It took a little prodding from a reporter, but Patterson, humble to a fault at first, did eventually explain what he thought made him worthy of the Watkins Award.
"It's the things that I give to the community and youth, my 4.65 grade point average, the performance on the field, and in track - where I'm a state champion, having great parents and great support at home," Patterson said. "It's just the way I carry myself and the type of swagger I bring. I'm fun to be around."
Specifically, Patterson volunteered his time by talking to middle schoolers about the challenges that lay ahead in high school, and the importance of good decision-making. He also helped pick up trash, was a counselor in athletic camps, and read books with students in summer camps, all as a volunteer.
Patterson mentioned repeatedly his family, his head coach and his city as influences on his life. His upbringing, Patterson says, has impressed upon him indelible life lessons.
"Be able to give back to your community. Always respect others and be courteous of others, because you never know from whom great things will come. Just do the right thing.
My parents never pampered me. They let me know right from wrong and that there were consequences – you can't go wrong and get away with anything. I respect them for that."
After football, Patterson hopes to become a lawyer, and eventually start his own litigation firm. In the meanwhile, he plans on being a leader at Stanford, not just with words, but as someone who leads by example.
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It's often said that college football is run as a business, not to mention anything of the NFL. And while this reporter isn't turning a blind eye to the NCAA's hypocrisies, or the billions in TV money, or the countless schools that seem only to care about their players' bodies, and not their minds, there is another side to the story too.
There is Myron Rolle risking the NFL's millions to chase his academic dreams. There are the thousands of non-Division I athletes playing in anonymity for the love of the game. And then there are people who realize the game need not be just an end in itself, but who see that football can also lead the way to greater goals in life. He's barely old enough to drive, but already, Jamal Patterson appears to be seeing through the glitz and glamour, and toward that bigger picture.
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