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September 1, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Chase Patton sends the dials of the combination lock flying back and forth — fast, graceful and effortless. With each spin, he stops at exactly the right place. It’s instantly clear Chase has spent a lot of time in locker rooms.
Two years ago, after not landing a spot on an NFL team, Chase began a new life journey. He’s been working to become a dentist. This wasn’t his original plan.
It’s 1 p.m. on a warm Tuesday at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Dental School. When the lock pops open, Chase grabs his uniform. The blue dental smock is a far cry from the MU football jersey he sported on the sidelines for so many games. Heading out of the locker room, Chase walks slowly down a brightly lit hallway. When he passes people, he gives a genial but bashful smile and a “what’s up?”
Today, Chase is practicing a root canal on a fake tooth. He’s just a regular dental student — almost. Chase attracts extra attention from his classmates, and teachers seem to take more interest in his questions.
That has less to do with his athletics background and is more a product of who he is. He’s soft spoken but personable. He’s tall and good looking. And as his wife, Ashley, puts it, “He’s the type to look you in the eyes when you talk.”
Chase Patton, in his third year of dental school at UMKC, works on a patient. Photograph by Timmy Huynh.
Ashley’s a good match for Chase. She’s extremely kind and knows him better than he knows himself.
Most of the sports fans in Chase’s classes knew his background before they met him. A Rock Bridge High School grad, he was one of the best high school quarterbacks in the nation in 2003 when he committed to his hometown school, MU. Other students are oblivious to his past. It’s not surprising; Chase is not one to talk about himself, especially not in a boasting manner.
In the basement of Chase’s childhood home, there’s an area dedicated to his sports accomplishments. Trophies, awards and photographs are neatly stacked on an oak cabinet
that sits against a wall in the middle of the room.
Robert and Joyce Patton moved to this Columbia home when Chase was 5 years old. Robert, Chase’s dad, has his son’s temperament and Joyce, Chase’s mother, is outgoing — the opposite of Chase and Robert.
To those who know the Pattons, the basement trophy area seems out of place. They’re modest and quick to talk about what a good kid Chase is, but they rarely talk about his athletic accolades. Nevertheless, the memorabilia represents a dream. “A dream we shared,” Robert says.
Chase was always athletically gifted: a black belt in tae kwon do at 9, and a sports standout who played against older children in baseball, basketball and soccer.
Sports were a privilege though. Chase’s parents made it clear school always came first. “Athletics were a reward for him,” Joyce says. “He never lost focus of both.”
From a young age, Chase and his father connected through baseball. The two played a lot of catch in the yard, where Robert taught Chase how to grip and throw fastballs, change-ups and splitters.
Robert made sure his only child didn’t throw curveballs until he was in high school for fear they might hurt Chase’s arm. Football was also off-limits for a while. Chase sprouted to beanstalk-like proportions faster than his peers, and Robert feared an injury. “I tried to protect Chase from that,” Robert says. “His growth left him vulnerable. Once his growth plates started to close, he could play.”
As a senior at Rock Bridge High School, Chase Patton was a nationally scouted quarterback. However, his studies were always a high priority - if his grades fell, football had to go.FILE PHOTO
Rock Bridge quarterback Chase Patton looks downfield after avoiding Marshall's Jeff Knott, No. 45, in a game in 2001.FILE PHOTO
Eighth grade was the first year Chase played football. It was also the year he met Ashley. They sat next to each other in science class. “His personality was so calm, and he was so easy to talk to,” Ashley says.
Chase and Ashley began dating in ninth grade and have been together ever since, except for a brief time during their freshman year at MU. With Chase playing football and Ashley running track for MU, they thought they were too busy for a relationship. It only took two weeks for them to realize they needed each other even more than they needed sports. On May 20, 2007, after their junior year of college, Chase and Ashley got married.
From the beginning, Ashley was there for the good and the bad. Both were plentiful. The good came first.
In high school, Chase excelled in his first full year starting as a quarterback, which didn’t come until his junior year. Chase broke every quarterback record at Rock Bridge including single-game, season and career records in passing yards, completions and touchdowns.
An invitation to the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp after Chase’s junior year of high school garnered him national attention. The camp brings the top 11 high school quarterbacks in the country to California to compete and learn from premier college quarterbacks.
Meanwhile, letters from colleges across the country poured in. Prestigious football programs such as the University of Iowa, the University of Tennessee and UCLA all showed interest. But only one team held Chase’s attention.
There was a majestic air to Chase’s dinner in the Faurot Field press box on the last night of his official recruitment. It was as if Disney had created a magical backdrop — ice sculptures inside, snow falling outside — and placed it on the set of Any Given Sunday, complete with waitresses, larger-than-life sports personalities and Chase’s own high-school football highlights playing on the field’s big screen. “It was cool,” Chase says, employing a word he often uses to describe and downplay his football experiences.
Coaches and players led the recruits to the locker room after dinner. On the offense’s side, close to where starting quarterback Brad Smith’s name and jersey hung, “Chase Patton” was scrawled above a locker that held a ready-to-be worn jersey with “Patton” stitched on the back. It was as if he were already on the team.
Signees were led toward the field as MU’s fight song rumbled from the instruments of Marching Mizzou and the cheerleaders shook their pom-poms. A path had been cleared through the snow so the potential signees could run onto the field as an announcer yelled out their names. Patton’s name rattled off the thousands of empty bleachers and into the night. The next day, Chase told head coach Gary Pinkel he wanted to be a Tiger.
In Pinkel’s fourth season of recruiting, he was able to land 14 of the top 16 players in the state, including Chase. Many potential signees had waited to see what Chase would do and committed to MU after he had made his decision. Analysts declared that Pinkel had “sealed the borders” and brought together the best recruiting class since the legendary 1977 group that included many future pros. It was a special bunch, bound to do great things. And they did.
In the years that followed, Missouri’s football program elevated itself from an average big-conference school to an elite program. Since 2004, every MU team has made it to a bowl game, and in 2007, it finished as the Associated Press’s fourth ranked team.
Chase didn’t lead those teams. Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert, an illustrious trio of quarterbacks who are all in the NFL, did. And Chase Patton played second fiddle to them all.
Chase came to MU knowing he would play behind Smith for two years. However, he didn’t know about Daniel, who was recruited during Chase’s freshman year. And he definitely didn’t know about Gabbert, who would take his spot away from Chase when he was a senior.
The adoption of a new offensive system was something else Chase hadn’t anticipated. The spring Daniel signed, Pinkel’s team implemented the spread offense, a flashy and fast no-huddle style of play that often uses the shotgun formation and between three and five wide receivers.
In previous seasons, MU ran a pro-style offense in which the quarterback took the snap directly from the center. The old offense was similar to what Chase used in high school. The new offense was almost identical to what Daniel ran masterfully in high school. “There are two things I thought,” Chase says. “I could beat him out and learn a lot from him, or he could step in and compete early on.” Daniel competed early on.
On Oct. 15, 2005, Daniel cemented his place on the depth chart in his sixth game at MU. By the fourth quarter, Iowa State was ahead 24-14. Smith got knocked out of the game with less than nine minutes remaining.
Daniel stepped in and led the team during two fourth-quarter possessions. He completed a 25-yard pass on a fourth-and-seven during his first drive and then led an 87-yard drive with 2 minutes 32 seconds remaining to tie the game. The Tigers went on to win in overtime.
An internal battle began within Chase that night: team vs. self. That struggle would continue for three more years, the remainder of Chase’s time in college.
“Most often, quarterbacks at his level would go on to transfer,” Pinkel says. Chase says he thought hard about transferring and sought support from Ashley. She would have followed him wherever he went.
Along with family and friends, Chase leaned on faith. He memorized all 27 verses of the first chapter of James — a portion of the Bible about perseverance and the test of faith — and recited lines in times of despair.
“The big thing is that I made a commitment to Mizzou,” Chase says.
Chase never once mentioned a transfer to a coach. “If my role was to be a backup quarterback, I was going to be the best backup quarterback I could be,” Chase says.
In October 2008, Chase’s senior year, something unexpected happened as the door seemed to be closing on his football career. ESPN contacted Chase because it was doing a story about overlooked backup quarterbacks. Chase figured it was going to be a small, insignificant snippet. A couple weeks later, he was on the cover of ESPN The Magazine. Photo courtesy of ESPN
The article suggested that Chase, given his size and physical ability, might be a better NFL prospect than Daniel and might have the better shot at a successful professional career. Until that article, Patton hadn’t thought about the NFL. He hadn’t even thrown a touchdown pass in college yet. That pass didn’t come until Nov. 8, 2008.
It was Senior Day for the Tigers. Before the game, an announcer introduced the seniors, calling each name over the loudspeaker. Just as he had on that magical December night nearly six years ago, Chase ran onto the field. This time, his name didn’t fall on empty bleachers but was received by the MU fans, who were standing on their feet and applauding.
Chase didn’t make it into the game until midway through the fourth quarter. He says the ball felt frigid in his hands, which were numb from the cold. He was worried a pass would fling out errantly. It did on his second play, a wide-receiver screen. As Chase dropped back to avoid the oncoming rush, he opened his stance and threw a wobbling pass behind receiver Jared Perry. The receiver stopped his route, changed directions, waited and caught the ball. He then followed his blockers, cut twice, broke two tackles and carried the football 13 yards into the end zone. For once, the football had bounced Patton’s way.
It was his first and only passing touchdown in college.
After the game, Ashley waited for Chase outside her aunt’s house, which was close to the stadium. She usually waited inside but was too excited that night. When Chase pulled up and got out of his car, Ashley ran and gave him a big hug. Chase didn’t brag or talk about his touchdown. Instead, during the embrace, he said, “It was so awesome to play football again — to really play football.”
There was one football high left for Chase. It’s no coincidence it happened off the field.
Chase Patton, (in green), stretches with his teammates during a Missouri Tiger football practice in 2008.FILE PHOTO
Chase had received a number of off-the-field honors in his time at MU including a spot on the 2007 Academic All-Big12 First Team and the 2008 Misouri Director of Athletics Leadership Award scholarship. But the greatest honor came at the end-of-the-season banquet during his senior year. The Tigers team included great players such as Daniel, Chase Coffman, Jeremy Maclin and Evander “Ziggy” Hood. But it was Chase who was selected by his fellow teammates as the Most Inspirational Player. For all the times Chase felt conflicted after wins and helpless after losses, the award was proof of his contribution to his beloved team.
In the months that followed, Chase prepared for the NFL Draft. Scouts were impressed with Chase on Missouri’s pro day, and professional teams showed interest, especially the Chicago Bears. Many analysts were saying he could get drafted in the seventh round.
Chase says he was hopeful on draft day and watched everything unfold on TV. He kept his phone next to him, willing it to ring. It never did. Until after the draft ended, that is.
After the final selection had been made, the Bears called and asked if he was interested in working out for them. Of course he was. Chase went to Chicago to compete in a training camp. Despite the high level of competition, Chase says he thought it went well.
Chase also had workouts for the Kansas City Chiefs and the Buffalo Bills, but in the end, no one offered him a contract. Chase says it was difficult but not cataclysmic. With Ashley, his friends and family, his faith and school, he always had so much more than football. “Even if the Chiefs had taken me, I’m not sure I would have accepted it,” he says. “When I was honest with myself, it wasn’t for me. I wanted to try and respect them and respect my wife and our plans.”
Chase started his Missouri career with an eye for engineering, but switched to pre-med. He wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps — his dad was an X-ray technician, and his mom is a nurse anesthetist. After shadowing a physician, Chase says he saw the potential for getting too engulfed in his work and neglecting his duties of being a father and a husband.
Chase shadowed a dentist while in college and found he really liked the profession. “You earn people’s trust, build a rapport with the patients even though they might not be comfortable,” he says. “You have the best intentions for them.” Dentists also have flexible schedules and often get to take Fridays off, which was perfect because Chase started playing golf.
In the fall of 2009, Chase began dental school at UMKC. Even though Chase’s life hadn’t been defined by football, his past still haunted him. He couldn’t watch football anymore. From the sweltering heat in August to the snow-filled winter months, he didn’t watch a single game. Not the NFL. Not college football. Not even the Super Bowl. Not anything. If a game came on TV, he’d change the channel.
Ashley says she knew something was wrong but didn’t say anything. Chase had always watched football all weekend long. That fall, he even jumped at the chance to do weekend errands with Ashley. “I was bitter,” Chase says.
The bitterness has since subsided.
Chase and Ashley live in a two-story red brick home in an eastern suburb of Kansas City. They have two dogs, a Golden Retriever named Grace, and a Maltese-Yorkshire Terrier mix named Charlie. Grace has non-threatening facial paralysis and looks as if she’s always mid-wink and grinning. The four are the extent of the immediate family — for now. The child question comes up often, but the Pattons say they’re waiting.
Chase Patton and his wife, Ashley, sit down for dinner in their Kansas City home. When Chase isn't at school and Ashley isn't at work, the two spend every minute together. Photograph by Timmy Huynh
Ashley graduated from UMKC in May and is working as a dental hygienist in Kansas City. Chase’s summer was a hectic one. He worked with patients for the first time and has two years of dental school left. Uncertainty remains in the form of student loans and job searches, but at least there’s stability. If Chase works hard, he knows he’ll get a job — perhaps in Columbia, an option he and Ashley have not ruled out.
That’s more than can be said of many NFL players. Although the lockout resolution ended some uncertainty, the average NFL career lasts a little more than three years. Injuries riddle most NFL player’s careers, and there’s always the possibility of a trade.
If Chase had played in the NFL, he would have been constantly on the road. But with dentistry in his future, Chase will have more time to spend with family and friends.
Most nights, Chase and Ashley sit in their basement and watch movies, which is just fine with them. They’re a self-proclaimed boring couple who would rather stay at home than go out. On the left wall of their basement, Chase’s old MU helmet hangs on a nail in the white concrete — mouth guard still lodged in the facemask. He hasn’t put it on since his playing days, which makes sense. It was just a mask anyway.