He was “Chief.”
Twenty or so years after Robert Parish first had the nickname, David Patten, who passed away last week at the age of 47, made it his own as a member of the Patriots.
While Parish gained the nickname because of a quiet stoicism, Patten’s sprang from a gregarious nature: He called everyone Chief. Teammates. Equipment guys. Us in the media. In the early days of the 2001 season, Patten’s nickname was what distinguished him from everyone else.
While Patten wasn’t exactly an afterthought when he signed — he had 38 receptions the year before with Cleveland — there were other new faces like Charles Johnson and Bert Emanuel whose resumes demanded more attention. And he was given little chance of beating out Terry Glenn for the deep-threat job.
But Patten was possessed with a unique self-confidence, according to his agent, Mark Lepselter.
“He had a unique confidence. He didn’t doubt himself. He knew others doubted him,” said Lepselter, who represented Patten (along with Jay Fisher) from 1999 until his retirement as a player.
“When he landed in New England, and there were so many free agents on that team that year, I just remember him telling me, ‘If it’s a level playing field, I will win the job.’ ”
Patten would go on to become a walking, talking advertisement for the Patriots’ approach to team-building in the early days under Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli. A product of Western Carolina, he went undrafted in 1996 and spent time working odd jobs to try and make ends meet while he stayed in shape. (He got a job toting 75-pound bags of coffee beans to make a living.) He eventually joined the Arena League, which led to gigs with the Giants and Browns.
To us in the media, it was soon evident he was more than just a guy with a fun nickname. After Glenn was suspended for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy and left training camp, Patten was the one who asserted himself. He caught everything that was thrown his way that August, working his way to the top of the depth chart and eventually making Glenn expendable.
“I’m just doing what I’m doing,” he shrugged that August when we asked him about his mind-set. “Everything happens for a reason. If Terry was here, I don’t know what would happen, but he’s not here and we just have to move forward and make do with what we have. It’s up to the rest of us to step up and make things happen.”
Off the field, there was no pretense with Patten. A devout Christian, his good nature, insight, and unique football journey made him a pleasure for us to cover, and an easy guy to root for. One of the first times I spoke with him that summer, I was thrilled when I heard him talk about his love of Madden; it became a go-to source of conversation for us in his years in New England, especially when the new edition would drop every August.
On the field, with Glenn limited to a four-game cameo that season because of off-field drama, Patten became the deep threat a young quarterback named Tom Brady could trust. He ended the regular season with 51 catches for 749 yards (14.7 yards per catch) and four touchdowns.
Just as important as the numbers, however, was the fact Patten had a unique ability to shine in the spotlight. That October, Patten became just the eighth player in league history to throw, catch, and run for a touchdown in the same game. In December in Buffalo, he was knocked unconscious on a lost fumble in overtime; whether it was sheer luck or just Patten’s knack for making the smart play time and again, the Patriots got the ball back since Patten had fallen partially out of bounds after he was hit.
“I knew I caught the ball, but I was out cold for about 10 seconds,” Patten said with a smile. “I was unconscious and the ball was touching my leg.”
The postseason was his showcase: In the Snow Bowl win over the Raiders, he was targeted a whopping 16 times, making eight catches for 107 yards on the way to one of the most dramatic wins in franchise history. He caught a touchdown from Drew Bledsoe in the AFC title game and finished his playoff run the other end of Brady’s first Super Bowl touchdown throw.
I always believed Patten’s football journey — from Western Carolina to carrying coffee beans to the Super Bowl that night in New Orleans — allowed him to appreciate that title in ways that some others simply couldn’t. Going from a 9-to-5 job to Super Bowl champion gives you some perspective.
“I think he was the epitome of what that team overcame,” Lepselter said. “To see him make that catch, one of the most underrated catches of all time, was such a great moment. He caught that ball in the Super Bowl with his fingernails.”
He would go on to play another three seasons in New England, winning two more rings. There would be more big plays, more big games, and more glory, as well as stops in Washington and New Orleans. But that 2001 season remains etched in the mind’s eye as his personal peak, with his ascension from undrafted free agent to postseason star being one of the best stories of a remarkable season.
In a unique happenstance, he tried one final comeback at the age of 35, going to camp with the Patriots in 2010. But he quickly discovered that the speed wasn’t there anymore. A couple of practices in, a hastily arranged news conference was called, and Patten said his goodbye to the game as a player, neatly summing up his career.
“Now you sit back and reflect, you say, ‘Hey, the career wasn’t that bad,’” said Patten from the podium at Gillette Stadium. “Not bad for a kid undersized, out of Columbia, S.C., a small 1-AA school, undrafted, working in a coffee bean factory, electrician work, landscaper.
“Who’d have thought 15 years later, 12 years in the National Football League — three championships. So many memories. Now I can sit back and I can reflect on it. Now, I can pass this on to my kids. Amazing.”
Ultimately, his remarkable football journey will be remembered as a singularly unique path, one that ended in glory. But his legacy as an individual — seen in the sentiments of his former teammates on social media in the wake of his death — will be what resonates for years to come.
“He was just an understated, beautiful guy,” Lepselter said. “He was a spiritual guy, a man of the Lord, a true man of faith.”