MOBILE, Alabama –223 miles southwest of Tuscaloosa, you hear a lot of “Roll Tide,” some “War Eagle” and every once in a while you may hear a “Go Noles,” but this is far from being in Gator Country. That didn’t stop Urban Meyer and his coaching staff from poaching one of the top prospects in the state of Alabama in 2010 when the Gators landed Solomon Patton Jr. out of Murphy.
After a fine career at Murphy in which he racked up 2,686 yards receiving and 28 touchdowns, Patton was considered the #9 prospect in the state. The humble Patton gives credit for his success to the Murphy coaching staff.
“I had a good run at Murphy with coach Ronn Lee there,” Patton said. “He gave me the opportunity to be recruited by taking me to all these schools and campuses around the country. All of the coaches at Murphy did a great job of helping me get recruited by sending off my tape and other little things because they saw so much potential in me. I definitely have to thank them a lot.”
After making the All-State team as a junior the phone lines and the letters started pouring in for Patton and there was plenty of interest from the home state schools, Alabama and Auburn.
But on June 14th 2009, Patton announced he was spurning the home state schools and chose to play for the Florida Gators. Florida was six hours from home but Patton wanted to play for Urban Meyer.
“Getting to UF was because Urban Meyer was such a good recruiter, especially for me to end up out of Alabama because most people end up at either Alabama or Auburn,” Patton said. “Urb, man when I went on my visit, he talked to my parents and me and he did a good job of selling the University of Florida. I feel like he did a real good job of recruiting me.”
It took a great recruiting job. Patton grew up cheering for Auburn but he had family that loved Alabama and a dad whose loyalties were garnet and gold.
“My mom really never had a team but my dad was actually a Florida State fan and I had family that were big Alabama fans but I myself was a big Auburn fan growing up,” Patton said. “I definitely got a lot of messages on Facebook and things saying they were disappointed and mad that I chose Florida.”
Leaving home wasn’t just tough on him, it was hard for his parents. Like every kid who chooses to go away for college, it’s often the first time away from home. There was separation anxiety, especially for Patton’s mom.
“When he first left home I cried for a couple of weeks,” Mrs. Patton said. “It’s my baby but it was hard at first.”
Mom wasn’t the only one who felt the tears streaking down the face.
“When we first left Gainesville she cried and it’s like a 6-hour drive,” Patton Sr. said. “She would go to sleep wake up cry, fall asleep, wake up and cry. I mean I cried some too but it’s a mother thing.”
After saying goodbye to his family, Patton began an uphill battle at Florida both on and off the field. He experienced some homesickness — as most freshmen do — but the values his family taught him as man led him to stick it out at Florida.
“The beginning of my career was rough but I just kept working and stuck it out,” Patton said. “I just wanted to carry my character and style of play to the University of Florida and make everyone back home proud. I definitely thought about not letting anyone down back home.”
During that rough time in Gainesville during his freshman year Patton leaned on his parents and Coach Lee from Murphy for guidance.
“Coach Lee is like my second dad and I called him plenty of times about things going on at Florida,” Patton said. “He kept telling me to stick it out and to keep working. He obviously wanted me to make the best decision but he wanted me to keep working and stick it out at Florida.”
After a long and emotional freshman campaign, he found comfort away from home in Sissy Rancier, his fiancé who he leaned on for support.
“She did a lot of encouraging of him,” Mrs. Patton said. “They are a lot alike and it helped Solomon to be focused more and it helped to strengthen him with us also doing a lot of praying.”
During Patton’s sophomore year he appeared in all 13 games but mainly on special teams. He struggled to find a role on offense as a receiver.
That offseason something happened to Patton that made him work harder than ever before to get on the field and produce as a receiver. The birth of his baby daughter Mia was a life-changing event that changed Patton as a player and as a person.
“Solomon matured as a person after that and started realizing things weren’t about him anymore,” Solomon Patton Sr. said. “He realized he had a child now and that he couldn’t be selfish anymore and that he had to now work hard for her now.”
With Patton now settled into things in Gainesville he had the chance to go back to Alabama to play the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa but this wasn’t any welcome home party nor did it end on a winning note for the Gators either, but there were never thoughts of revenge.
“I don’t want to say I wanted revenge against Alabama but it would have felt good to go to Tuscaloosa and win because going to Florida and hearing people say I should have went to Alabama,” Patton said. “I had a lot of people talking trash about it. When I came on the field during warm-ups there, I had people yelling at me ‘I told you that you should have went to Alabama.’”
That welcome home party didn’t take place in Tuscaloosa that October day in 2010 but it is taking place in Mobile this week for the Senior Bowl. It was a party that almost didn’t happen because Patton wasn’t one of the first invitees to the annual all-star game but when he received that call he was an excited man.
“I was so happy to get that call from the Senior Bowl,” Patton said. “I had a lot of my teammates that were surprised that I didn’t get invited at first with all of the people back home in Mobile and it being in my hometown. I was happy when I got the call at 11 o’clock and I called and woke up my parents to tell them and they were so excited and they called everybody.”
Patton is happy about the invite but his mom Stefanye wasn’t very happy at the way things were handled.
“I’ve honestly been bitter about this whole situation,” Mrs. Patton said. “Because I feel like it’s been a slap in my son’s face to be invited so late because he’s from Mobile and he’s done well and been a high character young man. I just felt like it was wrong because he had worked hard and been a humble young man. Solomon is very excited though and he’s always wanted to play in this game. We brushed it under the rug and we are here now.”
The excitement for Patton was definitely there on Monday afternoon for the Senior Bowl’s first practice, which took place on a familiar field in Fairhope, Alabama.
“I got goosebumps out there at practice in Fairhope,” Patton said. “I grew up watching the best players come into town and I was always the little kid running around with the football going to get autographs from them. It’s was a real good feeling being back out on the field.”
Now that practice is over the countdown towards game time is on for Patton to play his last game as a collegian at Ladd-Peebles stadium. Its familiar turf for the player that his mom calls her “little man” because it’s where he played so many of his high school games.
To be able to run out on to that field, one more time, and hear ‘number 80, from Mobile, Alabama and the University of Florida, Solomon Patton” is a moment that Patton feels like he has been waiting for his entire life. And he has. He’ll get that chance at approximately 3:30 on Saturday and as you can expect emotions will be high.
“The emotion is going to be there and it’s going to be exciting to hear my name called,” Patton said “I’m going to have so many people there and I’m definitely going to hear them in the crowd. Everyone is so excited about me coming no matter where I went to school.”
Patton doesn’t have an exact count but his cheering section will be substantial and as of Friday was still growing.
“It’s a lot so far,” Patton said. “My mom has actually been going and buying tickets to get tickets for everyone to come to the game. They plan on doing the whole tailgating thing and everything. I expect 50 or 60 family and friends there.”
His career is not over but this will be the last game that Patton plays in that orange helmet with the “Gators” script on either side. His journey has come full circle.
It was on this very field that Patton impressed college coaches from around the country and it’s on this field that he hopes to impress just one NFL team and convince him he’s worth taking a shot on.
A Mobile native myself, I think I speak for everybody in the city when I say that I’m proud to say Solomon Patton is, and always be, from the 251.