Willie Patterson hears it so often. If not from his father’s own mouth, then someone else educated in Tacoma or Central Washington University football history.
“He was the truth,” Willie said. “He talks about it all the time — his almost 2,000-yard rushing year.”
“Almost?” his father, Pat Patterson, interjected.
“Wait, you did get 2,000, right?” Willie asked.
“It ain’t almost,” Pat said.
“Oh! That’s right. Almost 3,000. My bad,” Willie laughed.
Yet, maybe someday it will be Willie that the old-timers remember, telling stories of his stellar three years as the starting quarterback of the Franklin Pierce High School football team, the back-to-back state playoff trips, or playing at wherever he finds himself next year.
That Willie was “the truth.”
He’s thrown for almost 2,500 yards this season and ran for almost 1,500. His speed and athleticism have allowed him to score touchdowns by throwing the ball, running it, returning an interception, returning a kickoff and on a punt return.
In one game, Willie threw for 332 yards and ran for 281.
“I can’t imagine, at least a quarterback, who has done what he has done at this school,” Franklin Pierce coach Mickey Ahrens said.
It makes Willie think of his older brother, the late Ryan Harlan, and how proud he might be.
Willie loves how proud his father, his other older brothers, Eric and Patrick, sister Mary and mother Lisa — his biggest fan — are of his accomplishments as he chases a path he hopes leads to the NFL.
His parents are there for every game — Pat being Franklin Pierce’s running backs coach, Lisa the team mom and loudest voice in the stands.
“When I was little, I was like ‘Oh, gosh … that’s my mom,’ ” Willie said. “Now I’m like ‘That’s my mom!’ Everybody knows Mama Patt.”
Willie grew up on football fields. His mother was standing on one the weekend before Willie left the womb, watching Pat play in a men’s flag football league. Willie was again there the weekend after as a newborn.
“Playing football is just second nature because he’s been around it,” Pat said. “We started this thing a long time ago. I just kept telling him, ‘Keep going, keep going. You’ll see.’ ”
Pat starred at Mount Tahoma as a running back before graduating in 1985. He remembers the matchup against Foss and running back Maurice Owens, where Pat outrushed the eventual Eastern Washington standout.
Pat had his first son, Eric, when he was 18, and three years later broke Central Washington’s single-season rushing record with 321 carries for 2,063 yards and 27 touchdowns. He accumulated the second-most career yards in Central history with 3,266 and 39 touchdowns in only two years after transferring from Yakima Valley Community College.
Pat was inducted into CWU’s hall of fame in 2004.
Next stop — NFL, right?
He attended combines, but wasn’t drafted and had a decision to make — be a father to Eric, or chase his NFL dream.
“I don’t know if I would consider it giving up my dream, or just making the right choice,” Pat said. “A lot of guys might have said, ‘My kid can wait. I’m just going to try to make this money.’ I just wasn’t going to do that. Being a dad was more important to me than trying to be an NFL running back.”
A few years later, after stops playing football for the Pierce County Bengals and now-defunct Tacoma Express semipro teams, he helped co-found the Tacoma Panthers youth football program alongside Rodney Jackson.
Willie has been coached by his father every year since the third grade, always the quarterback, always one of the smallest players on the team.
Don’t let the 5-foot-9, 175-pound frame fool you. Willie scrambles out of the pocket like a rocket, and he possesses such a high football IQ that Ahrens has allowed him full reign over the Cardinals offense.
Willie has three options on every play — to hand it off, pass or run, himself — and even on pass patterns, he’s allowed to audible the route based on his read.
“We talked about as a staff in our offseason planning that Willie is just so talented, let’s go all in,” Ahrens said. “Let’s trust him. Let’s let him make the decisions. It’s like having 12 guys on the field the way he can run the ball and throw the ball.”
It’s like having another coach, too.
“He’s almost literally a coach this year,” Ahrens said. “The stuff that’s getting impressive is last year he would get on guys and it would sound like complaining and getting mad at guys. They didn’t always respond well. Now he’s explaining things to the players so well and they just go, ‘All right, I got it.’ ”
Pat, the running backs coach, sees much of himself in his youngest son.
“Mostly the competitiveness,” Pat said. “I always wanted to be the best guy on the field. When someone left the stadium, I wanted people to say, ‘That guy can play.’ I would run for 200 yards and be mad because I should have had 250 or 275. He’s got that.”
The difference, Pat said, is Pat’s cockiness versus Willie’s confidence.
“The confidence — that’s from his mom,” Pat said. “That’s definitely his mom’s gene. I was cocky and I talked and I was bad about that. He is confident and his mom is a very confident lady. She keeps him humble and grounded.”
Willie plays like he has something to prove. Partly to his father, to live up to his legacy. Partly to his mother, to make sure she continues to say “Great job, Willie!” after games.
Then there’s his sister. “She’s my rock,” Willie said.
Or his brothers, Eric, Ryan and Patrick. Eric was an all-state defensive back at Curtis and Ryan, who died almost two years ago, was a quarterback at Olympia.
Willie changed his jersey from No. 7 to No. 11 to honor Ryan, and he wears a red Olympia practice jersey that belonged to Harlan.
“I will sometimes just be like, ‘Is he proud of me? Yeah, he’s got to be,’ ” Willie said. “And my dad — I look up to him so much. He’s a big part of why I am where I am now.
“He has a saying — ‘Be as advertised.’ When another team is watching, are they going to be like, ‘Is he for real?’ ”
Willie has yet to earn a scholarship offer despite backing up his junior year — when he threw for 3,115 yards and 35 touchdowns with 720 rushing yards — with his scintillating senior year. But he’s not worried, he says.
Franklin Pierce will host West Valley of Spokane at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the 2A state playoffs. The Cardinals ended their last season with a loss to Tumwater in the first round.
“I’m playing Friday night football and there’s nothing better than that,” Willie said. “God got me. I just always know that he’s got me.
“People say, ‘Hey, someone needs to offer this man, or they’re tweeting at me. I just say, ‘Hey, God’s got me.’ ”
Said Pat: “There’s going to be a whole bunch of guys that are going to go, ‘Shoot, why didn’t we get him?’ ”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677