Commentary

Teammates work to restore Patterson's place in history

Updated: February 15, 2008, 7:51 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

For more than two decades, Florida State's history books suggested J.T. Thomas was the first African-American to play football for the Seminoles.

Thomas, an All-America cornerback who later won four Super Bowl rings as part of the Pittsburgh Steelers' vaunted "Steel Curtain" defense, was indeed the first African-American to play in a football game at Florida State. In the 1970 opener against Louisville, Thomas blocked what would have been a winning field goal by the Cardinals in the final seconds of FSU's 9-7 victory.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Patterson
Florida State AthleticsCalvin Patterson's tragic story faded from memory for many years.

But Thomas wasn't the first black player to accept a scholarship to play football for the Seminoles. Calvin Patterson, a running back from Miami, enrolled at Florida State in 1968, one year before Thomas arrived in Tallahassee. But because Patterson never played in a game at FSU, his tragic story was largely erased from history.

"He was forgotten," said former Seminoles quarterback Tommy Warren, one of the first white players at FSU to befriend Patterson. "It was more than that. Nobody was interested in remembering or doing anything about it, quite frankly."

After Patterson broke the color barrier at FSU, Thomas became a champion of civil rights on campus during the turbulent 1970s. Thomas became the first African-American to letter in football and the first black football player to graduate with a degree from the school. After playing 10 seasons in the NFL, Thomas became a successful businessman, operating a chain of profitable restaurants in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

"I just did what I had to do," Thomas said. "It hasn't been talked about a lot and a lot hasn't been written about it. People don't like to talk about those times. They like to think things have always been the way they are now."

Things were certainly much different at Florida State during the 1960s. Like most Southern colleges, Florida State was slow to desegregate its student body. A handful of black students began to enroll in classes in the mid-1960s, but having an African-American representing the Seminoles on the football field was an entirely different matter on the lily-white campus.

"You have to understand that Florida State was still a white university and they'd had only white players," Thomas said. "They weren't accustomed to having an African-American on the team. Those receivers, like Fred Biletnikoff and Ron Sellers, were sacred. This was still a work in progress."

Finally, football coach Bill Peterson decided to recruit two black football players in 1968. Peterson and his coaches targeted Patterson, a fleet-footed runner from Palmetto High School in Miami, and Ernest Cook Jr., a bruising fullback from Daytona Beach, Fla. After Patterson and Cook signed to play for the Seminoles, each player was inundated with racist hate mail. The letters were never signed and didn't have return addresses. Nearly all of them were laced with bigotry and a stern warning: Don't come to Florida State, or else.

Cook took the threats so seriously, he changed his mind and attended Minnesota.

"I had a wonderful recruiting experience at Florida State, but there was an organized hate mail campaign that really concerned my parents about my safety," Cook said. "I was able to take advantage of other offers and visited other schools, including Minnesota. When I visited Minnesota, I became enamored with that institution."

Cook became an All-Big Ten player for the Gophers and enrolled in Minnesota's medical school after graduation. He eventually returned to his native Florida to work as a physician and is now executive director for a health insurance company

Patterson ignored the threats and enrolled at Florida State in the fall of 1968 against the wishes of relatives, who wanted him to attend a northern school, where they thought he would face less racism.

He went to Florida State alone and could have never known how disastrous his decision would end up being.

[+] EnlargeJ.T. Thomas
Florida State AthleticsJ.T. Thomas became the first African-American to letter at FSU.

On Aug. 16, 1972, the day before the Seminoles started football practice in what would have been his senior season, Patterson pointed the barrel of a .38 revolver at his stomach and pulled the trigger. When police arrived at the home Patterson shared with an FSU professor, a crumpled FSU football schedule lay at Patterson's feet. He asked a police officer to hold his hand while blood spilled from his belly.

Patterson bled to death before the ambulance carrying him reached the hospital.

More than three decades later, the people who were closest to Patterson are still confounded by what would have driven a 22-year-old man full of such promise to take his own life. They still believe Patterson didn't intend to kill himself. They want to believe he only sought to injure himself so he couldn't play football anymore.

Patterson's ability to play football better than most was what sent him to Florida State at a time when few other African-Americans were afforded such an opportunity. He left home carrying the hopes and dreams of his family, friends and an entire community. But Patterson struggled in the classroom, losing eligibility for the first time in 1969. His academic problems coupled with the difficulties adjusting to a new environment kept Patterson off the field.

So in the end, even a self-inflicted gunshot to his belly seemed like an easy way out.

"I knew Calvin was having some problems simply because he wasn't playing football," said Javan Ferguson, who grew up on the same street as Patterson in the Richmond Heights section of South Dade County. "When he couldn't play, I think things turned south. I had no idea it was as bad as it was."

Ferguson never thought his close friend was capable of hurting himself.

"I never knew Calvin to be the kind of person who would want to do something terrible to himself," Ferguson said. "He had his sisters and brothers, who he truly loved. He really wanted to do well for them and he wasn't going to be able to do it. I really know that was taking its toll. But I never knew he could do that. I didn't think he was capable of doing it."

In the months leading up to his death, Patterson had duped his girlfriend and closest friends into believing he was taking classes at Tallahassee Community College, while trying to regain his eligibility to play football at Florida State. When Patterson left home each morning, his friends thought he was attending classes. Each night, he would spend hours studying for exams and working on term papers he was never assigned. Patterson had never enrolled in the classes.

"It was just an unbelievable act and charade," said David Ammerman, a former FSU history professor, who befriended Patterson and became his mentor and roommate. "He and I worked on this paper on [Voltaire's] Candide for days and days. We argued and fought for days about that paper. He didn't even have a class for it."

[+] EnlargeTommy Warren
Florida State athleticsFormer FSU QB Tommy Warren worked for years to get his teammate recognized.

Ammerman and Patterson were an odd couple. Ammerman was a white professor. His grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the 1930s. Ammerman was raised to have the same political views as many white Southerners before the civil rights movement. He didn't vote for John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election because he feared JFK "would bring the Pope to America." But Ammerman's beliefs changed while attending Cornell University.

"Cornell hit me right in the face," Ammerman said. "It taught me everything I'd been taught in life to believe was bullshit. I did a complete 180-degree turn."

When Florida State started to admit black students, Ammerman became their confidant. He sponsored FSU's Black Student Union. When black students took over the university president's office during a protest and demanded the school offer courses in African-American subjects, FSU turned to Ammerman to teach the classes.

"If you believed in the Bill of Rights, you were at odds with most of the people in Tallahassee and North Florida during the 1960s and 1970s," Ammerman said.

Shortly after arriving at Florida State in 1968, Patterson began to struggle in the classroom. By 1970, he had dropped out of school and returned home to Miami. He was back at FSU a year later. Warren, the former quarterback, says Patterson was bright and witty. But Patterson's grades rarely reflected his intelligence.

Patterson's friends say he never felt completely accepted by his teammates, coaches or classmates. Even many of the black students enrolled at Florida State ostracized Patterson because he dated a white woman. Many of the students at nearby Florida A&M, a historically black college, resented Patterson because he was enrolled at the white kids' school.

"Back in those days, if you were black you didn't fit in well at Florida State," Ferguson said. "There weren't many black students there, so it was a pretty close-knit community of folks. When they found out Calvin was dating a white woman, they considered him a sellout. He was definitely between a rock and a hard place."

Warren, who grew up in Coral Gables, Fla., and played football against Patterson in high school, tried to take his younger teammate under his wing. The pair were roommates during Patterson's third season at Florida State in 1971, and became close friends.

"There were a lot of hard-core rednecks on that team, no question about it," Warren said. "There were some bigots. There were some serious bigots on the coaching staff, too. But Calvin didn't face racism on the team. If it had happened, some of us would have done something about it.

"Did he get singled out and treated more harshly than the white players? Maybe. But he wasn't a complainer. It's obvious there were things going on in his world that make you think he was dealing with some serious issues."

Once Patterson fell into academic trouble, FSU's coaches were reluctant to play him in games. Early in Patterson's career, black students watched FSU practices just to see him in action. During one spring game, black students chanted Patterson's name while he sat on the bench. A coach asked Patterson why he wouldn't take off his helmet. Patterson didn't want his teammates to see him crying.

Kris Knab, who was Patterson's girlfriend at Florida State for more than two years, said he was most burdened by the enormous expectations he faced at home. Patterson's parents were young when he was born and separated when he was 3 years old. A great aunt, Vernetta Edgecomb, largely raised him in her home. Patterson's five younger brothers and sisters continued to live with their parents.

Patterson's younger siblings and many of the black children who grew up in his neighborhood considered him a hero. He was one of the first students to integrate Palmetto High School and was known across the city for his athletic ability. How could Patterson fail them?

Calvin Patterson memorial brick
Florida State AthleticsCalvin Peterson's place in FSU history is etched in a brick in the Legacy Walk.

"I think it was just the pressure of him wanting to live up to what his friends and relatives were expecting of him, and maybe even his own internal expectations," Knab said. "When he hit the dead end and was not going to be able to play football after telling everybody he was, I think he felt like he had no other way out. I don't think he was intending at that point to kill himself. I think he was trying to create an excuse because he put himself in an untenable situation and didn't have a better way out."

The night before Patterson killed himself, he lay on the floor of Ammerman's home watching TV.

"You know what's so hard?" Patterson asked his friend.

"What?" Ammerman asked.

"What's so hard is trying to act so happy when you're so sad," Patterson told him.

A few minutes later, Ammerman asked Patterson if he was planning to run away. In fact, Patterson had backed himself into a corner and had no where to run.

"Everybody was expecting him to play because he'd made all of us believe that he was enrolled in the junior college and getting himself eligible to play," Warren said. "Clearly, he didn't want to do that deep down. He'd rejected it and didn't want to do it."

A few days before Patterson shot himself, Ammerman took him to a doctor's office, where Patterson was supposed to get a physical in order to return to the FSU football team. When they arrived at the doctor's office, Patterson didn't have an appointment. Ammerman said they walked up and down a street, going into every doctor's office on the block.

It was all part of Patterson's charade.

A few days later, Patterson called a close friend in Miami. Patterson told her he had been shot in the stomach as an innocent bystander during a botched robbery at a convenience store. Patterson said he would eventually recover from his wound, but his football career was probably over. He shot himself the next day.

"He had the TV hooked up and bought some books," Ammerman said. "He obviously thought he was going to be lying around recuperating from that injury. He wouldn't have shot himself in the leg or the foot because he was so proud of his running ability. I think he thought if he shot himself in the lower abdomen, it would do the least damage."

Patterson's plan ended up killing him.

Thomas and three of his black teammates served as pall bearers at Patterson's funeral. Thomas said FSU officials warned them not to go. None of Patterson's coaches or other FSU officials attended the funeral. When FSU coaches learned Thomas and the other black players had worn their Seminoles letterman's jackets at the funeral, they threatened to kick them off the team.

Patterson was dead and couldn't have realized the lasting effect he would have on people -- or how his quickly his memory would fade at Florida State.

Ammerman said he still thinks about his friend every day. He said he eventually became addicted to cocaine and was fired by Florida State after getting arrested for attempting to buy crack. Ferguson, who left to fight in Vietnam when Patterson went to FSU, never realized his good friend would be the one returning to Miami in a coffin. He learned of Patterson's death while watching TV at a friend's home in Tampa.

"It's weird how crap happens," said Ferguson, who graduated from FSU and now works in the same legal assistance firm as Knab.

Cook, who nearly became his teammate at FSU, still wonders if things would have turned out differently if he would have joined Patterson in Tallahassee.

Family of Calvin Patterson
Florida State AthleticsCalvin Patterson's family attended a Florida State ceremony honoring him in 2004.

"I was shocked and saddened because a part of me questioned whether I could have helped Calvin if we had shared that experience together," Cook said. "I might have been able to befriend him and help him academically. I was saddened that somebody who accepted that challenge ended up feeling so desperate and destitute that he decided suicide was the best solution."

Warren was perhaps most affected by his friend's death. Warren was so disturbed by Patterson's struggles that he became a prominent civil rights attorney in Tallahassee. While attending an FSU football game in 1992, Warren became angry by a commemorative cup celebrating Thomas as FSU's first African-American player. Over the next 10 years, Warren worked to persuade FSU to honor Patterson.

Thirty-two years after Patterson died, FSU finally remembered him. In 2004, the school invited nearly 30 of Patterson's family members to Tallahassee for a football game. Patterson was honored at a dinner and during an on-field ceremony during the game. Warren and his wife, Kathy Villacorta, donated $100,000 to endow a scholarship in Patterson's name at FSU's School of Law. A portrait of Patterson now hangs in the law school's rotunda. His name also is etched in a brick in the Legacy Walk outside Doak-Campbell Stadium.

"It was an unfortunate piece of history that was being ignored," Warren said. "Calvin had been forgotten."

At least Patterson isn't being forgotten any longer.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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