ORONO — Tyler Patterson was dressed, taped and ready to go Wednesday afternoon, when a flash of lightning in a dark northern sky sent the University of Maine football team off Morse Field and into the Mahaney Dome for practice.
For the past three seasons, Patterson’s appearances on the game field have been similarly brief. Hustle on to block for a field goal or point-after-touchdown attempt, then jog off the field.
Saturday promises to be different. When the Black Bears open their 2013 season Saturday night at Norfolk (Va.) State, Patterson, a native of Owls Head who walked on at his state university, will be the starting left tackle.
“I feel confident,” said the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Patterson. “I put in the work, put in the effort, put in the hours. I’ve got some great guys next to me in (left guard) Jeff Gakos and (right tackle) Joe Hook and (center) Bruce Johnson and (right guard) Dan Carriker.”
Of those offensive linemen, only Gakos and Hook are returning starters. The other three are trying to fill the considerable shoes of Josh Spearin, Chris Howley and Garret Williamson, all multi-year starters with a slew of postseason honors.
After Patterson’s senior season at Rockland High (now Oceanside), his postseason honor as an offensive tackle was this: Honorable Mention Little 10 Conference. That’s right. Despite his size, Patterson was judged to be no more than the fifth-best tackle in Class C Eastern Maine high school football.
“He really never grew into his body, even when he graduated,” said his high school coach Woody Moore, who is now coaching at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield. “As a junior, his feet were extremely quick, but then he put on more weight and he didn’t have the same (agility) he had as a junior.”
Even so, Moore said, Patterson’s potential was apparent. An engaging personality made Patterson particularly popular among both kids and parents of Moore’s youth football camps. Combine that with his size and a desire to improve and it becomes clear why head coach Jack Cosgrove invited Patterson to give Maine a shot.
“There were a lot of challenges for him,” Cosgrove said. “The size, the speed of the game, there’s just not any way you can replicate that in high school in the state of Maine, for the most part.”
After considering schools in Division II and III, Patterson opted for the bigger challenge. Among those whose path he followed are fellow Mainers Joe Vanidestine, Matt Mulligan, Steve Shea and Raibonne Charles, all of whom turned walk-on opportunities into scholarship positions through determination and hard work.
“The credit, at the end of the day, has to go to the kid,” Cosgrove said, “because the start is so rough, the challenge is so great, yet the heartbeat and the perseverance stands out for all of them, that over time they would win out, and they have.”
Patterson admitted to harboring occasional doubts, particularly with so much competition from teammates from states with stronger high school football programs. After sitting out a redshirt year, he found his niche on special teams and bided his time, learning all five interior line positions and duties, until an opportunity to start came along.
“The most challenging thing for me has probably been to not get discouraged,” Patterson said. “It’s not losing the love for the game and the (desire) for success. Every year you feel like you’re going in with an opportunity to start, and sometimes, that doesn’t add up. That’s just more fire to keep going.”
Patterson has made the most of his time in Orono. Not only does he play football, he also mentors a young boy from Milford and is a student ambassador for the university who helps put on summer orientations for new and transfer students and gives tours around campus.
At Rockland High, Patterson also played basketball and baseball. His younger brother, Isaiah, is a rising senior at Oceanside High who plays basketball.
“In general, I just love giving back,” Patterson said. “Where I come from, there was always someone there to help me along the way. Now it’s time where I’m seen as a role model and I can give back to the community as well as to anyone who’s willing to listen.”
In addition to protecting the blind side of quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, Patterson is roommates with him.
“He’s been up here all summer with us, working his butt off, doing everything he’s supposed to be doing,” Wasilewski said. “He takes a lot of pride in being a kid from Maine and getting a shot here.”
Just as Wasilewski leaned on a veteran offensive line last season, the new linemen are likely to benefit from Wasilewski’s experience in the early going, particularly with the voiced signals that precede nearly every offensive play, depending on the defensive alignment.
“It gets a little wordy out there,” Wasilewski said. “I have to make a call for the O line and then they have to make their separate calls. There’s a whole world of communication that happens within two seconds, and we have to execute off of those calls. It gets to be a lot.”
Patterson, for one, is relishing the challenge. Four years after he first arrived in Orono, his time finally has arrived.
“He’s worked hard for a long, long time,” Wasilewski said, “and I know he’s excited to get out there and get his first start under his belt.”