The bedtime story was told nearly every night to the little boy who clutched either a football or a football helmet in his arms. Sometimes Dad told variations of the fabricated tale, but the constant was the location and scene. It always took place at Michigan Stadium before a raucous crowd watching the Wolverines in a tight game facing a desperate situation.
And the little boy gradually closing his eyes was always, remarkably, the hero. Funny how that works when dad gets to tell the story.
This was special father-son time and Sean Patterson, a Michigan season-ticket holder then living in Toledo raising a family with wife, Karen, to whom he’s been married 32 years, created a magical world of football where his young son, Shea, better known then as “Shea Man,” came from nowhere to lead his beloved Wolverines to victory.
The irony is not lost on anyone in the Patterson family these days as Shea nears his first fall at Michigan, where he will be competing for the starting job at quarterback after transferring last December from Ole Miss.
“He’d say, ‘Tell me a story Dad, tell me a story,’” said Sean Patterson, who is spending this Father’s Day completing a move to Texas and expecting a steady stream of well-wishes from his five children to celebrate the day. “I started making stuff up. ‘OK, we’re at the Michigan-Ohio State game, the score is tied, and oh no, all the quarterbacks are hurt, what are we going to do at quarterback?’
“Shea would say, ‘I can do it! I can do it!’ I’d say, ‘Who can do it?’ And he would say, ‘The Shea Man can do it, Dad.’”
Shea Patterson vividly remembers his father’s stories.
“Couldn’t forget that,” he said. “It was almost an every-night thing. It always started out in a big game in the Big House, sitting in the stands with him, wearing a jersey, maybe a Charles Woodson No. 2 jersey. The quarterback would always get hurt and, obviously, they didn’t have any more quarterbacks.”
Patterson, who is wearing No. 2 at Michigan, stopped to laugh at the creative license his father took with that unlikely detail.
“There wasn’t a backup quarterback, or a third-string or fourth-string,” Shea said, laughing.
That didn’t matter then, of course, because Shea Man knew that gave him his shot.
“The whole stadium would be calling my name,” he said.
Little Shea the quarterback would emerge from his stadium seat and run onto the Michigan Stadium field. This happened every story.
“And everybody is like, ‘Oh, no, what is this? A little kid?’” Sean said, his voice light and full of life as he continued his story. “They all say, ‘What’s his name?’ and he would whisper, ‘Shea Man.’ The quarterback drops back to pass, it looks like he’s going to get tackled, he scrambles out and scores a touchdown! Michigan is going to win the game! Who did that? And he’d say, ‘Shea Man!’ Michigan would always win against Ohio State and he was always the guy who would win it for them.
“And he’d say, ‘Tell me again! Tell me again!’ I would tell him five or six times and he’d fall asleep.”
‘That made him tough’
This is what fathers do. This is what parents do. They tell the story again and again, indulging the dreams of their children. Sometimes those dreams become focused and real. Then, instead of telling the story again and again, parents do what they can to provide avenues and opportunities, again and again.
That’s what Sean Patterson and his wife have done for their kids. Four of them – Sean Jr., Abby and Kacie, and Shea, have played sports in college, while 16-year-old Nick is a tight end at San Antonio Christian and already has multiple college offers.
Shea, from the time of those stories, never thought his dreams were out of reach.
“Some kids dream and it’s just a dream,” Sean Patterson said. “I think Shea dreams and thinks they’re supposed to come true.”
Sean Patterson was in the mortgage business in Toledo when the financial crisis of just more than a decade ago hit. He moved his family to Texas, where his brother lived. As Sean worked to provide stability for his family, he relied on his oldest child, Sean Jr., who recently turned 30 and is on the Ole Miss football staff, to continue to mold Shea.
That had started earlier, as Sean Jr. knew Shea had talent but also knew he needed the gut-check lessons that only a big brother can provide.
“I think we’re at that perfect age that now we’re best friends,” said Sean Jr., who is nine years older.
Sean Jr. knows he was instrumental in making his younger brother mentally tough. When Shea was 5, and Sean 14, the two would play basketball using one of those mini baskets for young kids. Sean would play from his knees so he and Shea would be equal height. They’d play to 100.
“I’d let him get up by 30 and I’d come back and win and he’d cry,” Sean said, laughing. “That made him tough.”
Then there were the football games.
“For whatever reason, I had an autographed Jim Tressel football, in a glass case,” Sean Jr. said, referring to the former Ohio State coach. “I tapped Shea too hard, and he fell and hit his side on the corner of the glass case. I could tell he was in a lot of pain, and I told him, ‘Shh. Don’t tell mom.’ The toughness started then.
“The thing I’ve helped him with is his competitive edge. I made sure I beat him at everything. It created that competitive edge, that chip on his shoulder. The way he plays video games now, or checkers or if he’s leading a comeback, he always going to try to beat you.”
Shea laughed when told Sean’s story about beating him in basketball and football and everything else until he couldn’t any longer.
“I hate to lose,” Shea said. “Nothing is going to piss me off more.”
While Shea is quick to point out his mother’s influence on helping him become the person he is today, his father, who he likes to call pops, “because it flows so much more than ‘dad,’” and older brother are credited for making him the player he is today.
Sean Jr. taught him a work ethic, instilled at an early age.
“That has gotten me to where I am now,” Shea said. “He always wanted me to better than him. He pushed me to my best at all times.”
His father is a big-hearted man who gushes about his kids but doesn’t accept mediocrity.
“He’s a huge teddy bear, honestly,” Shea said. “But he would be hard on me too when I’d slack off and didn’t play to the best of my ability, and that would light a fire under me. He would do anything for all of us and my mom. He’s done so much for us to put us in position to succeed. That’s something I’m really thankful for.
“But he has never accepted anything below my standards. It’s not his standards but my standards. It escalated and I took it to a whole other level. He put me in the right position to succeed. I knew it was real when he got me on the stage, and when I got there at an early age, that’s when I knew I could be successful at this stage.”
‘He’s a man now’
Sean Patterson said Father’s Day is when he feels the absence of his late father, George. Shea honored his grandfather, who played for the Pistons in the late 1960s, by wearing his No. 20 at Ole Miss.
When he transferred to Michigan, the number wasn’t available so Shea asked his father about wearing No. 2, which 1997 Heisman Trophy winner Charles Woodson made famous. Sean was a volunteer assistant at Fremont in Toledo when Woodson was in high school, so he saw him up close in those early years. Sean loved the idea and thinks even more of the fact his son called Woodson for his blessing.
“He’s one of the best players ever to play college football,” Shea said. “I didn’t feel I could walk in and wear the 2. I wanted to make sure it was OK with him. He said it was OK and said, ‘You have to represent that number well and be the hardest worker and be a leader,’ because that’s what he was.”
The Patterson family, but Sean and Shea in particular, weathered a challenging several-months storm after his transfer from Ole Miss. Shea appealed to the NCAA for a transfer waiver so he would not have to sit out this fall. It was a rigorous journey, but he was granted immediate eligibility in late April.
Sean said he and Shea’s attorney, Tom Mars, kept Shea insulated during the waiver process, allowing him to focus on spring football. But Shea had also shielded his father from any negativity he had experienced after transferring from Ole Miss.
“Shea blocked me from his Twitter,” Sean said. “Because there was a bunch of people who were so negative and coming at him and saying he was a really bad person. I was looking on there, and I’d respond in a negative way. He told me, ‘The next time you go on there, you’re blocked.’ He told me, ‘Dad, I don’t read that stuff. I’m doing it for your own good. I had death threat calls when I left Ole Miss that I didn’t tell you about. I was protecting you.’
“We’re so happy he’s with the Michigan family, the University of Michigan, coach (Jim) Harbaugh, all those guys, Jack Harbaugh – he makes my heart melt. He knew all my dad’s buddies. There’s really nothing to get mad about anymore. We’ve fought all the fights and this is where he ended up and he’s doing awesome. This last five months have been great for our family. It was tough, but now everyone is happy. Shea has been through a lot, and he’s very mature and will be able to handle the highs and lows of a lot of different things because of what he’s been exposed to. He’s a man. He’s a man now.”
No longer just a dream
When Shea decided to transfer, he went to his father, first, to determine his landing spot. Once the transfer appeal process began, he was grateful he was able to focus on adjusting to his new school and spring practice.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from my dad is to take advantage of an opportunity,” Shea said. “He always told me, ‘You never know how many shots you’re going to get so make sure you’re ready when it’s your turn. Control what you can control.’
“That’s a huge one for me. Going through this NCAA thing, there was a lot of outside talk and I controlled what I could control and worked my butt off the whole spring and took care of my business like I was getting ready to play (season-opening opponent) Notre Dame. I didn’t worry about anything from the outside.”
As the season nears, Sean Jr. does not marvel at what his brother has so far accomplished. He doesn’t need to. Like his father, he always knew there was something special about Shea.
“When you’re with him, I see him as Shea, my knucklehead brother,” Sean Jr. said. “I sit back now and think, ‘My brother is going to be the quarterback at Michigan.’ I would be lying if I said this surprises me. You knew at a young age, there was something different about him.”
Sean Patterson said his biggest joy is that his five kids are close with their parents and with each other. Shea was in Toledo over the weekend celebrating Sean Jr.’s birthday with friends from the family’s time there. Sean’s Father’s Day plans are simple.
“I’ll be home with the grandkids in the air conditioning. Watch a little golf. Relax, smile and be happy,” Sean said. “I look back six months ago and a lot of those decisions involving Shea were on me. He’d say, ‘Dad, do you think I’ll be eligible?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah,’ but I didn’t know. I just I knew he couldn’t stay there. There was a lot of pressure, and now that that’s off, I’m going to sit back and just enjoy.”
Typically, Shea sends his father a card on Father’s Day if he’s not with him. But cards rarely convey the full emotion a child hopes to convey.
“I can’t thank him enough,” Shea said. “He’s definitely the biggest reason I’m where I am today. I definitely couldn’t have done it without him.
“This is something I’ve worked for my whole life. Now looking back and remembering those bedtime stories, it’s crazy to think about how time flies and crazy to think I’ll be a quarterback at Michigan.”