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Patton makes his own way on, off field

MOBILE, Ala. -- The best high school receiver in Alabama isn't your typical high school receiver.

In an age of "Look At ME!" he shies away from crowds. Yeah, he plays Xbox, but he rarely watches TV. He doesn't show off, but did show horses -- Tennessee walking horses, to be exact -- with his uncle. He wears Polo shirts and sports five tattoos. And for relaxation, he prefers kayaking to kicking back.

On the field, he's pretty atypical too. He's speedy, he's shifty, he makes cuts that leaves his own coach shaking his head.

But Solomon Patton, the No. 12-rated wide receiver, works hard. His coach says he always has; Patton says he always will. It's comfortable, it's what he likes and what he wants. And that's why the Murphy High School senior -- nicknamed "Little Man" for his 5-foot-9, 167-pound frame -- is headed to Florida; it's comfortable. It's what he likes and what he wants. And the Gators feel the same about him.

"I really liked four places -- Florida, Florida State, Alabama and Southern Mississippi," said Patton. "I really wanted to check out Ole Miss, but by that time, I had gone to Florida and was blown away. It's where I really wanted to be."

Truth be told, where Patton would really like to be is on the Dog River -- kayaking with his coach, Ronn Lee -- and his family. It relaxes him and, it's not a secret in Mobile that right after his own family, being with the Lees would be second on Patton's list.

"I just like being with coach Lee. His wife and his family are good people. They took me down on the Dog River to go kayaking. And I have to tell you, it was scary at first being that low to the water," said Patton with a laugh reminiscent of another "Little Man" who turned out OK in the college ranks -- Michigan wide receiver, Heisman winner and ESPN commentator Desmond Howard.

"There's gators out there and everything. It's crazy, but I got out there and liked it. A lot of people think I'm crazy for it, but it relaxes you. You're just being in the water and around people you enjoy being around."

That's important to Patton and his core group of friends. He eschews eating lunch in Murphy High's busy cafeteria; he'd rather take his lunch to the field house and eat with the coaches. During Mobile's busy Mardi Gras, you didn't find him downtown celebrating; he was at the Lees' house with teammates enjoying the lost art of roasting marshmallows and making S'mores.

"I'm the type that doesn't like big crowds. If something happens, I don't want to be in the middle," said Patton. "We had to show these guys how to roast marshmallows and put them on the stick."

Do not, for a second, think that because he likes roasting marshmallows, Patton is a cream puff.

He's not afraid to go over the middle, or down the sidelines, or throw a block, even though Patton confesses that's the weakest part of his game.

"He is a dedicated player," said Lee, who put Patton on the varsity as a freshman because the coach not only saw a potential star but also wanted him to be around receivers coach Mardye McDole, a second-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1981 after a career at Mississippi State.

"We knew he was special because of his speed and his ability to cut," Lee said. "We played him on special teams as a freshman, and during his sophomore year he played at receiver. When people started seeing him run routes, colleges started paying attention."

His sophomore season was also the year Patton began to understand where his future was.

"After my first game, I realized I could be really good if I wanted to and I could be in a better position if I worked hard," said Patton, an Alabama Sports Writers Association first team all-stater as both a sophomore and junior. "It was about taking practice serious and not goofing around. Just being out there with a real purpose."

If his sophomore year was solid, his junior year cemented his future. Patton caught 43 passes for 812 yards and 12 touchdowns and helped Murphy to the Class 6A quarterfinals. He'd caught everyone's eye now.

"I was getting tons of mail from schools -- maybe 15-20 letters a day -- and some coaches would phone," Patton said.

After visiting Florida -- first with Lee, then with his parents, Solomon and Stefanie -- Patton's decision was made.

"My parents' biggest thing was the academics and to make sure I got a good education," said Patton, a solid B-C student. "The second was the depth chart and the possibility to play. I want to go in and fight for a position. They lost three wide receivers last year and will lose, like, five or six this year. They need help at wide receiver."

They'll get it from Patton, who times at 10.3 in the 100-meter dash and 4.27 in the 40.

"We started using him as a slot back because we had to find ways to get him the ball when our regular quarterback [Daniel Woodyard] blew out a knee and Matt Rouser came to play quarterback from running back," said Lee. "Solomon's got that ability to stick his foot in the ground. … He's not a juker, but can change directions on a dime and not change speed. He's got good hands and excellent body control."

Exhibit A came in the opening game of the season, with an 85-yard run on the opening play of a 31-29 win over then ninth-ranked Daphne.

"It was a sweep and it looked like they were going to get him at the beginning," said Lee. "Foley played it well, strung it out, but he stuck his foot in the ground, pivoted, split the defenders and it was over.

"He is one unique person. He doesn't put himself in a box. He lives a good clean life, has great character and is just unbelievable."

Paul Beaudry is a sports writer with the Birmingham News.