In shadow of drug cartels, Michigan QB Shea Patterson learned to block out the noise

Shea Patterson didn’t have to listen hard to hear the gunfire. Semi-automatics blasting in the distance.  

Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. Bap. 

Almost every afternoon, the drug cartels sprayed bullets on the other side of the Rio Grande River. It got worse after dark. 

When the time changed in the fall, and the sun fell off the horizon an hour earlier, Patterson’s football coach sent the players who lived among the cartels home early. It was easier to avoid stray bullets in the light. 

Patterson learned to think of the gunfire as normal, part of the aural backdrop to football practice in Hidalgo, Texas, during his freshman year of high school. He'd moved to the U.S.-Mexico border from Toledo, Ohio, where he’d spent the first 11 years of his life. 

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Everything was different in south Texas. Many of his classmates barely spoke English. To get to school, they legally walked over the bridge from Reynosa, Hidalgo’s sister city on the other side of the Rio Grande, in search of a future. 

The Pattersons had been searching for the same thing. 

Shea’s father, Sean Patterson, had to leave Toledo when the mortgage business crashed in 2008. He had a brother in Brownsville, 45 minutes east of Hidalgo, and a sister-in-law who worked for the border patrol. 

His extended family offered stability. A job selling gymnasium flooring offered work.  

All Shea had to do was find the quiet. 

The Michigan football quarterback was something of a phenom when he began practice his freshman year at Hidalgo in the summer of 2012. But the varsity coach, Scott Ford, wasn’t going to hand him the starting job.  

Ford had a senior who’d thrown for 2,500 yards the year before. Patterson had to beat him out. Then the senior missed a practice and didn’t call to tell his coaches he couldn’t make it. Patterson stepped in.  

“And I told the coaches during our meeting that night that the senior better Google Wally Pipp,” Ford joked.  

Pipp had been the Yankees’ first baseman until Lou Gehrig got a chance to man the bag. Gehrig never looked back. Neither has Patterson. 

This Saturday in Columbus, Ohio, Patterson will take the field at Ohio Stadium to face the Buckeyes for a spot in the Big Ten championship game. Everywhere he has been helped prepare him for the moment. But he doesn’t intend to end his journey there.  

What began in Toledo, then Hidalgo, then Shreveport, Louisiana, then Florida, then Oxford, Mississippi, led him here, a day away from U-M's biggest game of the season, and of his life.

He has big plans. And bigger dreams.  

Dreams shaped by a sports-driven father and a soft-spoken mother and the DNA of a grandfather who played in the NBA. 

He may have had to fight to get to Ann Arbor after playing at Ole Miss, and he learned much about patience in the downtime as he waited to hear whether the NCAA would approve of the transfer, but his education began long before that.   

'Shea saw a lot down there'

Patterson is not the savior at U-M, and doesn’t want to be thought of that way. Just as he wasn’t the savior at Hidalgo.

He was just a kid. He could throw, yes. And throw on the run. Across his body. Just as he does now. He could sense pressure and find the quiet in the pocket and manipulate the geometry until he spotted a favorable passing angle, gifts he’d had since he first picked up a football.

But he wasn’t there to save Hidalgo. He was there to learn, to navigate a world different from where he’d come.   

It was all part of the plan. 

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His father hadn’t exactly thrown a dart on a map and rented a U-Haul to teach his family a cultural and geographical lesson. He'd picked south Texas because of family and opportunity. And yet the prospect of traversing a cultural chasm held appeal for the elder Patterson.  

“All my kids, I’ve tried to get them exposed to as many different situations as possible,” Patterson's father said. “Shea played baseball in Puerto Rico, in Mexico, in Florida … all over the country. My dad played in the NBA. Sports teaches you how to get along with everybody.” 

So when a classmate had to walk over a border to get to school, had to dodge drug cartels on the way home, had little money and even less training in football, Sean Patterson saw that as a chance for his son to broaden his humanity.  

He wanted Shea to step into the huddle, look at the faces of those next to him and say: “’Hey, he’s my teammate.’ So what if he couldn’t' speak Spanish? Find another way to communicate.” 

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