For years what I'd think when I thought about Davis were the faces inside that downtown bar or the careless laughter echoing in its parking lot. There was the rich smell of soil, all that surrounding farmland broken and turned, the punishing summer heat. By noon Davis felt like a kiln. Come closing time, though, the air above the still-warm asphalt was refreshingly cool. Walking home felt something close to perfect.
Here, though, is a mean fact about young men on the cusp: All towns are the same. All towns are a bed and a roof, just a place to pass through when you're between school and settling down and you have the steam to work 19 hours a day but still can't tell if that will be enough. Fear makes even a place of Davis's charm disposable. Because we weren't rooted. Young men come and go.
Patterson arrived there in the summer of '86. He was 26, toothy and trim, already a coaching tramp with little to recommend him. During his three years in charge of outside linebackers, Tennessee Tech went 3--29. Jobless after the '85 season, Patterson headed home to tiny Rozel, Kans., worked construction, spent the spring tearing a roof off a barn. He almost stayed. But some words spoken years before by a friend's dad had dug under his skin like a barb. "Quit chasin' your dream," the man said. "You're just a small-town boy. Come back and be a high school coach here in Kansas, get a job, make a living. Quit chasin' it."
As he stripped off shingles, Patterson kept seeing that man's face. To stay felt like surrender. He packed his guitar and flew to California. He worked the Offense-Defense Football Camps in Riverside and Sonoma, de facto coaching conventions for hundreds of assistants hoping to network and desperate not to seem desperate. Patterson was known as the guy who sang, whose Offense-Defense Blues became the camp's add-a-verse standard on beer-soaked nights: Of-fensive, De-fensive ... Blues/Four-Oh/Bring eight/F--- you!
If anyone thought he was still working at Tennessee Tech, Patterson let him believe it. Then he hit it off with someone just as tireless and tightly wound. "Don't tell anybody," he told Davis linebackers coach Dennis (Deke) DiCamillo, "but I'm not coaching anywhere."
DiCamillo finagled Patterson a tryout with Davis coach Jim Sochor and defensive coordinator Bob Foster at their summer camp. When the week ended, Foster essentially told DiCamillo, You want Patterson? He's yours. The linebackers job would be split: co-coaches. Deke didn't blink. Patterson's pay would be $1,500—for the year. (Little did DiCamillo know that his $3,000 salary had been reduced to the same amount.) Patterson raced home to Kansas, loaded up the backseat of his battered silver Chevette, returned in July without lining up an apartment. It took a few paydays before someone told him that he wouldn't see a dime until season's end, in December.
The house at 619 East Eighth Street belonged to the Belenis family, owner of Mr. B's Sports Page, the downtown restaurant and bar that served as a college social hub and a back-channel booster club for the football team. Over the decades George Belenis had kept many a coach and player afloat with a job at B's, and when he died, in 1985, his son, Jim, an Aggies special teams coach, kept the tradition alive—and then some. When Patterson arrived, Jim offered up the one empty room in his home.
The tenants were an odd mix. Along with Deke, there was Jim's 52-year-old uncle Nicky, sweet-natured and born with Down syndrome; me, a New Englander covering the NBA; two constantly barking Dobermans, Mr. P and Gina, who would crap on the patio, step in it, then paw frantically on the sliding-glass doors; and Jim himself, who had lost four fingers in the B's restaurant meat grinder as a one-year-old, then twice overcome Hodgkin's disease. He ran B's with his sister, Liz, and unlike me, Jim sensed that Patterson needed all the help he could get.
The house wasn't pretty: A slovenly assault by five boy-men allowed the furniture to fray and mice to settle in every cupboard. We played late-night basketball games and drank beer. But it wasn't like college life; Gary, Deke and I were too frantic for that. Our internal clocks ticked. We'd wedged a foot in the door of places we feared might be too good for us. Davis was in its heyday as a D-II power, its students well-scrubbed, middle-class sophisticates; we had no money and no cushion if things didn't pan out. Gary had a bachelor's degree from Kansas State, where he had been a walk-on linebacker and safety, and a master's in education from Tech. He ate oranges off the backyard tree. He bought crackers and supersized tubs of peanut butter wholesale; when Nicky polished one off by mistake, a month of lunches was gone.
Gary's room had neither heat nor air-conditioning, but it "was like the Taj Mahal to me," he says. He tried selling muffins to convenience stores, started substitute teaching. At 4:30 a.m. I'd hear the phone ring for that day's $60 assignment at Vacaville High; he would bang out the door, teach until 2, then hustle back to coach blitz packages.