Before you start to read this, stop for a minute and think about how you would answer these questions.
What would you do if you didn’t know where your next meal was going to come from? Or whether there would even be enough money to have one, let alone three meals a day.
What would you do if you didn’t know if you would have a place to call home tonight, a place where you could comfortably sleep, take a shower, and just feel safe?
Now, what would you do if those questions were part of your life, and you were just a kid?
Those are the things rookie Damoun Patterson has had to think about.
Yes, the same Damoun Patterson who literally flipped for joy after scoring his first NFL touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles in the Steelers’ preseason opener.
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Patterson loves to play football. For him, it was an escape, a way out, a path to a better life.
One of nine children of Chantel Hicks, the woman he calls ‘the strongest person he knows,’ Patterson didn’t have many luxuries growing up. As a matter of fact, a hot meal and a bed, those were luxuries for him and his siblings.
“We moved a lot, we stayed in the projects, we stayed in hotels some nights,” said Patterson, who grew up in Orlando, Florida. “We moved a lot. My mom had nine kids. It was rough. Sometimes you had to go without. Sometimes the meals were small, sometimes we didn’t have meals. Going to school was more about eating than anything. It was crazy.”
When he was younger, he didn’t totally understand the struggle. He didn’t realize that school was about more than a hot meal, that moving from place to place, staying with family and friends when there was nowhere else to go, wasn’t the normal way most families functioned.
Being the third oldest, the siblings now range from 12-27, it was up to him to step up and help. And when I say older, it’s all relative.
When Patterson was in middle school, he was the one responsible for getting his younger brother and sister, one in first grade, one in second grade, to school each day. That meant getting up at five in the morning, catching a city bus, getting them to school, and then having to wait for another bus to get himself to school, oftentimes finding himself not focused when he got there.
“None of it seemed too hard. I was accustomed to it,” said Patterson. “It was rough, but it didn’t seem that bad when we were kids until you got older and you started providing for yourself,” said Patterson. “I think when I was younger we were all together. It didn’t seem that bad. We ate takeout a lot, that took our attention off of everything. We ate pot pies a lot, pizza, we didn’t eat regular when we didn’t have an apartment.
“My mom didn’t have a lot so we stayed in the cheapest hotel. We all stayed in one hotel room. All of us. All nine of us kids. And it wasn’t the best place. It had prostitution going on, drug deals going on. My mom, she didn’t shelter me, but she taught me how to survive. I understood a lot of what was going on. Most of the time it was me helping out with my brothers and sisters.”
His mother worked security jobs, including one at the complex across from where they lived for a while. He would go over at night and see her, and learned how to drive at a young age by going around in the golf cart she used to patrol the area.
“She would be there late at night,” said Patterson. “A couple of times she let me drive when she was on patrol.”
At one point it seemed like things might change, when his mother got married and they had a home to go to. But she went through a tough divorce, and with nowhere to go, the kids were scattered, living in different places. And his grades suffered. He didn’t always have money to take the bus to school, so would have to walk about two hours one way just to get there. During football season his coaches would drive him, but when the season ended, he was walking again.
“My brother and I went to live with my grandmother,” said Patterson. “Before we moved there I was doing well in school, I had all A’s and B’s. After we moved I was late all of the time, it was hard to get to school, and my grades started to drop.
“Getting to school then, I would take the bus sometimes, but I walked most of the time. It wasn’t too bad. That wasn’t anything.”
His senior year of high school he ended up moving in with a friend, whose family helped take care of him.
“I was just blessed,” said Patterson. “The people I stayed with they looked out for me the most part. The other stuff I learned to go without.”
Patterson, who now has two young kids of his own, is hoping that football will be the path to him making a better life for his family.
“The goal is for their life to be totally different,” said Patterson.
He doesn’t expect his fight to make the Steelers 53-man roster to be easy. He understands what it’s like to fight an uphill battle in life, and he has taken that battle to the field, never giving up even when it seemed like there was no hope.
He attended a prep school in New Mexico, the first flight he ever took was the one where he headed off to school. He eventually walked on at Utah State, a school that showed interest when he was coming out of high school. But when he was told there was no potential for a scholarship, he headed back to Florida, bouncing around.
His break came when he got a scholarship to Highland Junior College in Kansas, and from there Youngstown State caught wind of him. He dreamt about being selected in the NFL Draft, or even signed as a rookie free agent when the draft ended. When neither happened, he never gave up.
The Steelers brought Patterson in for rookie minicamp on a tryout basis. When minicamp ended, the team signed him.
“I came into minicamp not knowing what to expect,” said Patterson. “It gave me a lot of hope to keep going and get better.”
And a chance to keep alive the one thing that was an escape from everything else in life.
“Football helped a whole lot. It changed my whole life,” said Patterson. “In high school, in my junior year, once I realized I could go to college that made a difference.
“As a kid I wanted to do something when I grew up, coming from the neighborhood I came from where I didn’t have much. Football just kind of stuck to me. It was my goal in life, to do something bigger than me and come back and give back.
“What I have been through, it taught me to never give up. No matter what you go through. Life is going to be hard. It’s all about having people around you, someone supporting you, being there for you. I try to be there for my family, for the younger ones. I tell them whoever is trying to tell you something positive, listen to them. Enjoy the moment. Go to school. Everybody doesn’t get to go to school. Their life is a little better than what I went through and I try to tell them to take advantage and enjoy it.”
And don’t ever be afraid to celebrate the good moments with a back flip.