By Rob Moseley
In the grueling, methodical recovery from a knee injury that ended his 2012 season, there is one last step for Avery Patterson to take.
He intends for that to happen Saturday night in Autzen Stadium, when the No. 2 Ducks host California. For it was against the Golden Bears last season that Patterson was felled by a major left knee injury, his breakout season ended on the final play of the game’s first quarter.
Patterson, a native of the East Bay Area, returned home that November night as Oregon’s third-leading tackler, a full-time starter as a junior. He left wondering whether he’d ever again be able to play the game he so loved.
What followed were nine arduous, sometimes painful months of recovery. With guidance from his family, Patterson learned not to worry so much about the big picture – would he ever play again? – but to focus on the small steps his return would require.
The process began with Patterson so immobilized he had to scoot up and down stairs on his backside. He had to teach himself to walk, and then to run, and then to cut loose on the football field. Each took time, and patience – both of which often seemed in short supply.
But entering this weekend, the process is nearly complete. Patterson has started each game this fall for the Ducks (3-0), and has 13 tackles, tied for fifth on the team. There’s one last step to take, Saturday night in a second chance against the Golden Bears.
“I want to go out there and do my job,” Patterson said. “Do what I didn’t do last time – finish the game.”
AMERICA PATTERSON, AVERY’S MOM, always understood the risks football presented. Logically, at least. Now, her understanding is so much deeper.
“It’s very difficult for me to sit through the games,” said America, who will attend her third home game of the season Saturday. “Every time I see them hitting, see someone down, I realize the impact. You don’t realize it in the stands, how it impacts the entire family.”
America was also in the stands last November, watching Avery’s triumphant homecoming. The Ducks also were ranked No. 2 that night, but given Alabama’s loss early in the day, Oregon figured to ascend to No. 1 with a victory over California. America’s boy was about to be a member of the best team in the country.
Then, on the final play of the first quarter, a Cal running back broke into the open field. Patterson planted his left leg to get in position for a tackle, and his knee buckled.
Back in the locker room, Patterson was told the injury would likely end his season. For as badly damaged as his knee was, his spirits might have been even more wounded.
“I think he looked at it as, it’s the end,” said America, who was summoned by her husband from the stands that night. “I told him he’s going to have to be strong mentally, dig deep inside, to get through this.
“Once someone is injured, yes, it could be the end. But all in all, he still has to keep going. I just told him, ‘Let’s get past the first stage.’”
It was a simple bit of wisdom. But that philosophy – dividing the recovery into stages, and attacking them step by step – ended up guiding Patterson throughout his entire rehabilitation.
Right after the injury, America moved north to live with Avery. She stayed for about two weeks, cooking meals, shuttling him around town, and helping him adjust to having to scoot up and down those stairs.
“I needed help to do everything,” Avery said.
But America had helped him embrace the idea of seeking small victories in his recovery. The day Avery got home from surgery in late November, he was already doing range-of-motion exercises.
Over the ensuing weeks, Patterson would call home with subtle but encouraging developments. He was able to ride a stationary week. He had completed a round of squats in the weight room.
“Those little milestones really gave him confidence,” America said.
Back home over spring break, Patterson had his father, Leon, video tape him running, to show America when she got home.
“Running was a big deal to me,” Patterson said. “I couldn’t wait to run.”
Teammates only got small windows into Patterson’s recovery. They were going through their normal winter strength and conditioning program, while he mostly spent time with athletic trainers, including Kevin Steil and Travis Halseth.
Erick Dargan, like Patterson a native of Pittsburg, Calif., never doubted that his friend and fellow safety would be back.
“He took it upon himself as a personal challenge to come back stronger,” Dargan said. “That’s the kind of person Avery is.”
“He was raised that way,” America said. “We’ve raised him to face circumstances, regardless of how difficult they are. I’ve always told him, ‘Life isn’t easy. Just be ready to work hard.’ And he has.”
IT WAS DURING THE SUMMER that Patterson’s fellow starting safety, Brian Jackson, finally got a better sense of how far Patterson had come. He’d learned to push through discomfort – which lingered even then – for the sake of getting back on the field.
“He had some rough times; obviously everybody does,” Jackson said. “But it was cool to see how he would struggle but he wouldn’t give up.”
In the fall, Patterson sometimes sat out one workout of a double-day session. On top of missing all of spring, those missed practices had him feeling out of sorts when the season began.
“I just know I would have been more tuned-up at the beginning,” Patterson said. “Now that the season’s going, I feel a lot better every day.”
His position coach, John Neal, thinks Patterson might be getting too caught up in statistics. Along with his 13 tackles, Patterson has broken up one pass.
At the time of his injury last year, Patterson had one fumble recovery and three interceptions, two of which he’d returned for touchdowns.
“Every player does that,” Neal said of the focus on numbers. “What I’m looking at is, how hard is he playing? Is he in the vicinity to make plays? How’s he finishing when he does get the opportunity? He’s still a dynamic player.”
The fear is that Patterson, given another chance to show his stuff against California, might be tempted to do too much Saturday night. The Golden Bears have the nation’s leading passer in Jared Goff, so Oregon’s secondary figures to have plenty of opportunities to go for big plays.
No worries, Patterson said. He’s preparing this week just as he has for any another.
“If a play comes to me, it comes to me,” Patterson said. “If not, I don’t want to be out of position and risk hurting my team.”
So that hasn’t changed. But there will be at least one difference for this Oregon-Cal game. America Patterson no longer focuses so intently on her son whenever he’s on the field. The emotions of his injury are still fresh, and she finds it easier to sit back and try to enjoy the game from a more distant perspective.
Surely, though, the urge will be too great at times. Her eyes will wander into the Oregon secondary, she’ll find No. 21 and she’ll take the chance to appreciate all that the family has endured in the 10 months since his injury. And she’ll know the part she played in his recovery, helping Patterson overcome his initial depression and focus on the incremental progress that made his return to the field possible.
“You have to take it in phases,” Patterson said. “And that’s what I did: I conquered each phase, one by one.”
There’s one more left to conquer, Saturday night against California.