Track and field snuck up on L.J. Patterson his senior year. Then he snuck up on the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
After just a single season in the sport, the recent Cullman High graduate signed a scholarship to continue his career with the Chargers.
A two-year varsity football player, Patterson didn’t even factor track into his plans until a conversation with an athlete already entrenched in the Bearcat program. Jeremy Odom told Patterson he’d heard the wide receiver was pretty fast and that Cullman could use him in the 4x100-meter relay.
So Patterson obliged, but he didn’t stop at the 4x100.
At various times in the 2014 outdoor season, Patterson competed in the 100- and 400-meter dashes, 110- and 300-meter hurdles, long jump, high jump, shot put, javelin, discus and pole vault. And he was adept at all of them, which was evident by a superb showing at the state decathlon in mid-May.
“I ended up doing just about everything,” Patterson said. “I really didn’t know how well I was going to do at the beginning of the year, but then everything turned out great.”
Patterson wrapped up the first day of the decathlon, which featured more than 80 premier athletes from around the state, in a close second. He rose to the runner-up position by flirting with victory in the high jump (second), long jump (third) and shot put (third).
Patterson didn’t slow down on Day 2 en route to a sixth-place overall finish. The fact he didn’t even stick around for the last event — Cullman’s competitors headed back home so they wouldn’t miss the team’s banquet that night — made the outcome even more remarkable. Had he turned in even a lackluster time in the 1,500-meter run, Patterson would’ve been assured a top-three spot.
Nine events was all it took for UAH to realize the Bearcat was the real deal. Immediately following the decathlon, the Chargers bumped up their scholarship offer by a significant amount.
Patterson, who passed on a hefty sum from the University of Mobile, said he’ll take on the decathlon, 400-meter hurdles and long jump — his favorite event — while in Huntsville. He plans to pursue pre-vet studies, eventually transfer to Auburn and one day begin a career in forestry and wildlife management.
Though signing a scholarship is a very personal endeavor, Patterson knew he wasn’t alone in the matter. He thanked Waid Harbison, Cullman’s sprints, jumps and hurdles coach, as well as his Black and Gold teammates for their contributions along the way.
“I definitely could not have done it without Waid. He brought me a long way. I gained so much speed with his workouts,” Patterson said. “And the whole track team was supportive of me. They’d always especially cheer me on in the 400 and the 300 hurdles. They’d always be at the corners. I probably would’ve given up some points without them there.”
Harbison was beyond pleased at Patterson’s opportunity to take his talents to the college level, a feat only a small percentage of prep athletes are able to accomplish. For Patterson to hail from one of Cullman High’s top groups of sprinters and jumpers in recent history was just icing on the cake.
“We had some great success with our girls and boys, and L.J.’s obviously at the top of that,” Harbison said. “He was probably one of the best athletes, as far as sprinting and jumping goes, that Cullman’s ever seen. You can put him in any event, and he’s basically going to excel at it.”
Patterson’s potential was apparent to his assistant coach from the get-go. Natural ability, paired with a knack for perception and comprehension, allowed the talented teen to drop his 400 times from the :56s to the :51s by season’s end.
“L.J.’s probably the best athlete I’ve ever worked with. He’s just got this great attitude. Whatever you tell him to do, he does it times 10,” Harbison said. “Obviously as a coach, I wish we could’ve had him two or three years ago because there’s no telling how much better he could’ve been. But in just one year, it’s incredible to see that much progress in an athlete.”
% Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 138 or at email@example.com.