MUNCIE – Eric Patterson has had to learn a lot to reach the position that he finds himself in with the Ball State football program, which is a youngster competing for a good amount of playing time. And just as much of that learning had to take part off of the football field as on it.
The sophomore cornerback had to make the decision in high school whether he would take his academics seriously enough in order to be able to get on the field at all. He did and now he is thriving.
“I blew up (in recruiting) and I got too comfortable,” Patterson recalled of his high school years. “My grades were bad and Ball State was the only school that stuck it out with me.”
Now before this evolves into a university that simply allowed a poor-performing student admission due to his athletic ability, you need to understand the amount of research that went into learning just who Patterson was as a person.
“Eric's situation was pretty unique,” Ball State assistant coach Keith Gaither said. “We found out about Eric, who was a highly recruited kid, but was struggling academically. He had a high SAT score, but his GPA wasn't as good as it needed to be.”
Gaither, Cardinal defensive coordinator Jay Bateman, defensive backs coach Daryl Dixon and head coach Pete Lembo all got involved in the recruiting process to determine if Patterson could succeed with the program that they were about to construct in Muncie.
“We got a chance to meet Eric,” Gaither explained. “We saw that Eric could survive in college, he just needed to be in a structured environment.”
Patterson had transferred to Plant High School in Tampa following his sophomore season and admittedly had focused more on football than the classroom up to that point. He found a more disciplined environment at Plant, where the recently-hired Ball State staff had developed a strong relationship through their recruiting for Elon University, and made strides on the field and off. However, Patterson still had a lot of ground to make up. He showed enough promise that Plant High School coach Bob Weiner recommended Patterson to the Cardinal coaches, and that meant something to Lembo.
“Plant High School is a great program in Tampa,” Lembo explained. “We had some of (Weiner's) players play for us at Elon. We know when Bob recommends a guy exactly what we are getting.”
In the case of Patterson, who was penciled in as a back-up to Jeffrey Garrett at one corner spot as camp ended on Sunday, they are getting a humble and more mature student-athlete.
Patterson had over 20 scholarship offers entering his senior season, and a lot of the interest was coming from BCS conference programs. However, by the time he got his academics in order, few schools – aside from Ball State – had been patient enough to wait on him.
“All of the offers went away,” Patterson said. “The coaches said call me when you get your grades right. I called and they said 'Everything is filled up.' But coach Bateman and coach Gaither came to my school every day and showed me love.”
Sometimes “love” can be tough and that is what the Cardinal coaches impose on all of their players once they arrive in Muncie. A skipped class, failure to do an assignment or poor performance in the classroom brings not only discipline from above in the form of the coaching staff, but can also be applied through peer pressure.
Gaither explained that if a class is skipped out of the season, Ball State players have had to rise at 5 a.m. – as an entire position group, not just the guilty individual – to run.
“We are on the players every day,” Gaither said. “We have an academic support staff that is on them. If a kid is missing class, we are going to deal with them. One thing I tell the players is that every class costs (money). If you are on scholarship, then we are paying for it, so don't miss a class.”
In the case of Patterson, Gaither has really enjoyed watching the young man develop as much as a person, as he has as a defensive back.
“Eric had a great off-season academically and a good off-season football-wise,” Gaither said. “He has matured a whole lot. When we got him here, college was too big for him. He was a little immature and silly. You can see that every day he is getting more mature. He's starting to take ownership of himself academically and on the football field.”