Cordarrelle Patterson, as always, is looking for an opening.
It’s one of the dog days of training camp, and the second-year wideout is peeking through the blinds at Jake’s Stadium Pizza in Mankato. He just picked apart a thin-crust pepperoni pizza and has to rush back to campus to prepare for that night’s practice.
But a pair of pesky, prepubescent fans are hovering outside on their bicycles, hoping to corral him for an autograph. If he stops for these two — and he swears he already signed for them after the morning walk-through — who knows how many Vikings fans will swarm him in the parking lot?
When the youngsters pedal around the back of the building, Patterson makes his move.
“Let’s go,” he says, heading for the front door.
He hops on his golf cart, speeds out of his spot and kicks it into its highest gear.
Just like that, he’s gone.
It was similar to what NFL defenders experienced during the tail end of Patterson’s electric rookie year.
Those who know Patterson say it’s not surprising that he is on the verge of NFL stardom. Never mind that he quit football for a while in high school. Never mind that Division I programs initially had to pass on him because of academic shortcomings. Never mind that his winding road to the league included pit stops at a prep school in North Carolina, a junior college in Kansas and the University of Tennessee.
Now that the fun-loving speedster with the blond dreadlocks and omnipresent smile has settled into his new home in Minnesota, everyone — from Vikings teammates and officials to giddy basement bloggers and NFL talking heads — seems to expect Patterson to ascend to stardom this season.
“I told him this, and maybe it was a little premature,” veteran wide receiver Greg Jennings said. “But I told him, ‘At some point, I’m going to tell my kids I played with Cordarrelle Patterson.’ ”
Patterson grew up in Rock Hill, S.C., a southern suburb of Charlotte that has produced a bunch of NFL players, including 2014 No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. Patterson and his two older siblings were raised by his mother, Catherine, who worked as a nurse until he made her retire this past year.
He rarely gave Catherine, whom he still calls on most nights, trouble beyond throwing his sippy cup into the bushes when he was a toddler and pulling pranks on her as a teenager.
His father was not around and only recently emerged from the shadows. “He came in good with the talk,” Patterson said, shaking his head. He hasn’t heard from him in a while. He wants to keep it that way.
Even as a kid, Patterson was like a Super Ball, bouncing from football to basketball to track. But he was burned out by the time he reached ninth grade and quit all sports. He didn’t play football until his junior year, when his old high school coach and quarterback talked him off the sidelines.
The Division I powerhouses, including in-state rivals South Carolina and Clemson, knew about his talent, but he was lightly recruited. They knew he wouldn’t qualify academically, and Patterson had a reputation for being immature.
His mother remembers the day she got a phone call from Patterson asking for an early ride home from practice. After an argument with a coach, he had ripped off his helmet, jersey and shoulder pads right there on the field and stomped off.
“I didn’t raise him that way,” she said, though she can laugh about it now.
Hoping to qualify academically for Division I schools, he stayed close to home at North Carolina Tech Preparatory Christian Academy. He never played there, though, and quickly decided the school — which propelled fellow wideouts Antonio Brown and Lestar Jean toward the NFL but was also investigated by the state of North Carolina and ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” — didn’t have his best interests in mind.
After one semester, Patterson, a country boy at heart who is just as likely to be bumping Hunter Hayes in his headphones as he is hip-hop, headed to Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.
Hutchinson coach Rion Rhoades soon found out that it was probably easier to tackle Patterson than it was to earn his trust.
“He was probably a little bit tougher nut to crack than most,” he said. “It just took a while, and I think he finally figured out that we cared about more than just what he did on the football field.”
Which was pretty much everything.
Rhoades used him as a receiver, runner, Wildcat quarterback and even his backup kicker. But Patterson was feared most as a kickoff returner. Opponents tried to kick away from him, including squibbing it short. So Rhoades had his backup quarterback line up as the up back, catch the kickoff and chuck the ball to Patterson, who averaged 48.2 yards as a sophomore.
After two years and 36 touchdowns, the NCAA’s big boys came calling. Patterson, the nation’s No. 1 junior college recruit, picked a Tennessee hat from a pile that also included ones from LSU, Georgia and Ole Miss.
In his only season in Knoxville, he scored a touchdown four different ways while earning all-SEC honors. Patterson was on the fence about declaring early. Then new Volunteers coach Butch Jones told the Knoxville News Sentinel that Patterson was “definitely going to the NFL.” The two have never talked.
“He put that article out, so I thought that was the best thing for me, to just go on and get up out of there,” Patterson said.
The Vikings traded up to draft him 29th overall. And to think, Patterson nearly fell through the cracks.
“There are some great players just walking the streets,” Rhoades said. “I’m super thankful that CP embraced his opportunities so he didn’t become one of those guys.”
‘Thrill a minute’
After watching tape of Patterson slaloming through SEC defenses and coverage teams, George Stewart, the Vikings’ wide receivers coach, couldn’t wait to coach him.
“This guy was a thrill a minute, all loosey-goosey, just making plays,” Stewart said.
Patterson is 6 feet 2 and 220 pounds with a chiseled upper body and 4.4 speed. But Stewart says that what makes him special is his vision.
“All the great players I’ve been associated with had a big viewfinder. They can see everything,” Stewart said. “That’s something that is God-given, that awareness. Those great players — Barry Sanders, Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders — they all had great vision.”
But what about the person inside the pads? He had heard Patterson was “arrogant” and “aloof.” So during Patterson’s predraft visit to Winter Park, Stewart asked him, “What am I getting from you?”
The smile disappeared. “You’re going to get a young man that cares about others,” Patterson replied.
Stewart has another story he likes to tell about Patterson. It was Christmastime at Winter Park. After the wide receivers exchanged Secret Santa gifts, Patterson left the room and returned with a box filled with watches, shirts, sneakers and headphones for everyone in the group, coaches included.
“The whole locker room loves that guy because he is fun-loving, spirited and has a great heart,” Stewart said.
A father now, too
As a rookie, Patterson made an instant impact as a kickoff returner, setting a few franchise records before being named All-Pro. But the Vikings brought him along slowly on offense, something Patterson had trouble coming to grips with. He also feels he was lazy and tried to coast on talent alone.
“I was never the guy that just rode the bench,” Patterson said. “It was a wake-up call, riding that bench. It taught me a lot of things. You’ve got to want it, man.”
Now, heading into his second season, Patterson is focused and much more comfortable, even with a new head coach in Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator in Norv Turner. The Vikings are counting on him to emerge as a go-to receiver after he caught 45 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns as a rookie.
“It’s a different everything,” Patterson said. “I think I’m better than I was last year.”
He feels more mature, too.
Changing diapers will do that to you.
His daughter, Cienna, was born last November and lives with her mother in Tennessee. The parents are no longer together, but Patterson said he sees his daughter as much as he can.
Does being a dad make him feel like an old man now?
“Naaaaah. Naaaaah. Nah, man,” he said. “I feel like I’m going to be young forever.”
Patterson gradually emerged from his shell after arriving in the Twin Cities and has become one of the fresh new faces of the franchise, showing off his personality while throwing out a first pitch at Target Field, taking a random fan to a Wild playoff game and representing the Vikings at community events.
Sometimes on days like that one at the pizza place in Mankato, with fans calling his name and clamoring for autographs as soon as he heads for daylight, it hits Patterson just how far he has come. But then he sees the opportunity in front of him and knows he still has a long, long way to run.
“It was a blessing that I’m here where I’m at today,” said Patterson, wearing two gold chains and a pair of glimmering diamond earrings. “I like to look back sometimes. But Coach Stewart likes to tell me that God gave us eyes so we can see where we’re going, not where we’ve been.”