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Pat Surtain II and the family legacy that goes well beyond his famous father
The strongest connection for Pat Surtain II and his father is the legacy that goes deeper than football.
By Ben Swanson Apr 28, 2022

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On the busiest day before National Signing Day in 2018, there was a traffic jam in front of a contemporary-style home with large windows and sharp angles at the end of a cul-de-sac in Plantation, Florida, some 25 miles north of Miami.

Over the course of several hours, groups of cars had pulled up to the end of the street and parked. Pat Surtain II says there were six groups, while his father and high school coach, Patrick, recalls five.

However many there were, these vehicles carried some of the most powerful men in college football. They were coaches representing some of the country's most prestigious programs, Nick Saban from Alabama, Ed Orgeron from LSU, Dabo Swinney from Clemson and Mark Richt from Miami among them.

They each had made the pilgrimage with the same hope, but only one of them would be lucky enough to land the high school senior who was considered the top cornerback in the country. As the deadline for Surtain II's decision approached, they arrived at the Plantation home to make one last pitch, crowding the street as they did so.

"Neighbors were probably looking at my house like, What's going on here? Cars just everywhere," Surtain II says.

Each team would get about 45 minutes or an hour in the living room with the Surtains, and in the meantime, the group that was on deck would wait its turn.

"They're waiting outside," Surtain says. "Nick Saban would leave, Dabo Swinney would come in. It was crazy."

"You'd look outside, it's another set of coaches," Surtain II says. "It's back-to-back-to-back."

The recruiting process had been grueling — "hectic," in Surtain II's words — and he'd been going through it for a long time. Schools sometimes would work in visits during Surtain II’s lunch break at American Heritage School. Saban once asked if he could land his helicopter at school for a recruiting trip (perhaps not just for Surtain II; American Heritage had several top recruits). Surtain II's first offer, he says, came from LSU when he was still in middle school in eighth grade — "supposedly," he says with a wry smile. Thankfully, it would all be over pretty soon with the NSD deadline on Feb 7.

"It's a blessing and a curse, to be honest," Surtain says. "If you feel you're a big-time athlete, you want to be in that position, and he was."

All this was more than what the elder Surtain himself had when he was a promising young cornerback finishing high school. Truthfully, he'll say that's fine with him, because he'd always wanted more for his children.

For generations of Surtains, this is the legacy that connects them. The father-son cornerback connection is important and the most evident between the two, but what's bigger is that through situations that can test the will of even the strongest of people, the Surtains have persevered.

That's how it's been for Surtains for generations, and as essential as the father-son cornerback connection seems for Surtain II, the stronger one that connects them is one that goes deeper than football.

I. ‘I wouldn’t be the person I was today if I didn’t have that upbringing’

To understand how Pat Surtain II reached the NFL, first you must understand how his father did so decades earlier.

Patrick Surtain grew up a long way away from Plantation and the immaculate modern home with its finely manicured yard and pool out back.

He had grown up in far more humble beginnings in the Magnolia Projects, which was considered one of the roughest parts of New Orleans. The colonial-style public housing was originally built in the early 1940s, but by the 1980s, when Surtain was a child, they’d grown neglected as public funding shrank. One former resident of the area later reflected that he didn't recall ever seeing green grass there; what he remembered was dirt, broken glass and dead bodies.

Amid it all, Surtain's mother, Pamela, was the glue for the family. She provided for them largely on $80 a week working for a dry cleaner, as she, Patrick and her other three children shared a two-bedroom apartment that she rented for $38 a month.

Surtain became a state-champion quarterback in high school — he even helped his school top Isadore Newman in a duel against Peyton Manning in 1992. Surtain was not as hotly recruited as Manning or his own future son, but he earned a scholarship to continue playing football at Southern Mississippi — where he would be converted to a cornerback.

"It was rough growing up, but at the same time, I wouldn't be the person I was today if I didn't have that upbringing," Surtain says. "It was impoverished, but at the same time, that didn't matter to the people in that community. We were a community — everybody knew each other. We got along. Obviously you had your crime, you had your murders and your robberies and the drugs and everything, but as a little kid growing up, I think I was shielded from that because my family was really well known in that community and they knew I had a really, really special gift … me and my older brother. Just being in that situation, it taught me a lot and it made me want to work to get out of that situation and obviously provide for my family in other ways."

Over the next few decades, the fruits of Surtain's labors paid off. He was drafted in the second round by Miami, where he became a three-time Pro Bowler. Through his subsequent contracts with the Dolphins and, later, the Chiefs, he was able to purchase a five-bedroom house for his mother and establish his own long-term roots in South Florida.

Through football, Patrick was paving the way for the next generation of Surtains — including Pat — to grow up in safer and more stable surroundings.

II. ‘I could really do this. I could change my life forever’

Midway through high school, Surtain II sat down with his father and constructed the plan that would lead him to the NFL — now he just had to make it happen.

Strewn around the perimeter of Surtain II's childhood bedroom are the mementoes that naturally pile up when you're one of the most gifted athletes in the country.

Jerseys from his youth teams. Photos from high school football games. A miniature cutout of himself. Helmets from his old teams. And there's just a pile of medals, mostly track and field championships.

One of those medals is for a state title in the 4x100 relay. As it so happens, each of American Heritage's sprinters on that relay team ended up in the NFL: Surtain II, Tyson Campbell, Anthony Schwartz and Marco Wilson.

That, perhaps more than anything else Surtain II can say, speaks loudest about the kind of talent that American Heritage has there. His father says about a dozen children in the area in Surtain II's graduating class ended up reaching the NFL.

"It's crazy," Surtain says. "Me being from New Orleans, I knew how crazy it was, but this is times five. Times five. And it starts at the little league level. The little league games are sometimes more tense than a high school game, or NFL or college games. At 5 years old, pee-wee ball. It's a culture around here. They live and die football at an early age."

Surtain II says he never felt pushed into the game by his father. An active child, he was practically obsessed with playing sports — almost any sport. Basketball, baseball, track, soccer and, of course, football had their place in his life. But football "felt natural," Surtain II says, and he "just fell in love with it."

From there, Surtain II started his path toward becoming the best young cornerback in the country, though it wasn't until after his sophomore year of high school that he really thought the NFL could be in his future. Sometime between those two school years, as his father prepared to go from an assistant coach at his son's school to head coach, they sat down together to establish a five-year plan.

The goals were lofty, of course: finish out high school, go to a college for three years and then go to the NFL. There were smaller goals that flowed from there, daily ones, but they all supported that main objective.

"It was just something like that that led me to think, Man, I could really do this. I could change my life forever," Surtain II says. "I just was dedicated to the grind."

To put it lightly, success followed.

"Back-to-back state titles," Surtain says. "Won 31 straight games. Finished number 2 in the country his senior year. We had, what, five or six guys drafted off that team. It was a national powerhouse."

All that put Surtain II on a collision course with the most successful college football coach in history — Nick Saban.

As the 2017 college football season came to a close, Saban and Alabama were in fairly dire need of cornerbacks. An unprecedented six cornerbacks were departing after the season, which meant that Saban was able to offer not only a chance to join the national champions but to do so with a pretty good shot at playing from Day 1 as a true freshman, if all went well.

And while Surtain II also seriously debated an offer from LSU, which had natural ties for him because of his family's Louisiana roots, Alabama — given its tremendous track record at the collegiate and pro levels, its resources and unimpeachable coaching — was too much for Surtain II to pass up.

"I kind of gave him the pros and cons of each program and let him know that, This is the decision that you have to live with," Surtain says. "I don't have to live with it. I'm going to support you whichever way you go, but this is going to be a decision that you will have to live with. It was hard. It was some tears and some really mental anguish going on because he was so torn. He was so torn. I think his main thing was he didn't want to let anybody down. I had to let him know: You're not letting anybody down. It's your decision and your decision alone."

By himself in the hours before signing day, Surtain II made up his mind.

"It went down to the midnight oil," Surtain says. "At 1 or 2 in the morning, he came in and said, I've made my decision. I want to go to Alabama.

"Obviously, the rest is history."

III. ‘She’s the one that helped build the stage’

While the Surtain legacy from the outside appears to be centered on football and centered on the family’s two most successful athletes, Pamela’s as big a part of the legacy as Patrick.

Three years later, the five-year plan was about to reach completion.

On April 29, 2021, Surtain II and nearly a dozen family members and close friends were there with him to watch him enter the NFL. The three incredible years as a starter at Alabama, which included a national championship and 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, put him in position to be drafted early in the first round.

There in Cleveland, his father was struck by the differences between this draft and his own in 1998. One hundred and fifty of his closest friends and family members watched as he was drafted in the second round.

Twenty-three years later, the Surtains were joined by a crowd of about 35,000 fans in Cleveland as they watched Surtain II become a Bronco in the first round with the ninth-overall pick.

"It was truly special," Surtain says. "But it comes full circle to see your son do it and actually be at the draft. It was surreal. Just hearing his name called and you could see, when he got that phone call, everything was peaches and cream. When they got that phone call, it kind of hit him — and hit all of us."

Amid the celebration following the call Surtain II received from the Broncos, he embraced his father in the green room — and took hold of the framed photo of his father's late parents, which he thinks his dad brought from home.

"I really don't know," Surtain II says. "My dad had it. It caught me by surprise. It was probably a surprise that he did. I didn't know he took it. But looking at that moment, it just made me capture the perspective — like, she's here with us sharing a special moment with the family. I already know she was proud of that moment up in the heavens above."

Pamela had always been a key part of Surtain's life, and when his son was born, she formed a similarly important role as a protective grandmother.

"That was her baby," Surtain says. "That was Granny to him. And she went out of her way to protect him. That was the guy. He couldn't do no wrong in her eyes. She loved him immensely, and I know he thinks about her all the time. … I know she's looking down on him, seeing that he's doing great things. It was a special relationship. It was a special relationship between those two. Obviously, he has a special relationship with his other grandmother as well. We're really family oriented people, and that means a lot to us."

In March, Pat Surtain II returned to his hometown of Plantation, Florida to visit his high school alma mater and his childhood home.

As Surtain II grew up, family was a constant part of life and among them, Pamela was a consistent presence, especially at his games. He'd rely on her for advice, for a kind word on a hard day. And the same way that her son was humble in spite of his achievements, she helped instill those traits in her grandson.

"She taught me a lot, just how to be respectful, how to be a great man in this world," Surtain II says. "I learned a lot of life lessons from her. I could tell because of the way my dad is, how humble he is, how he approaches life, I could tell that she instilled that into him. And then when I was able to be around her as well, she instilled that into me as well."

While the Surtain legacy from the outside appears to be centered on football and centered on the family's two most successful athletes, Pamela's as big a part of the legacy as Patrick.

"She's the one that helped build the stage," Surtain II says. "She's the one that helped raise my dad into becoming the person that he is. … You could just tell by the way that he acts, how he treats people, how humble he is. And I look up to my dad. He was such a great role model, not only for the family. He inspired so many people around him. That's the type of guy I want to be, at the end of the day — a type of guy that inspires people, lifts up people. A type of person where they can lean on me for anything.

"But my grandma, she was a tremendous figure in our lives and our family. I always look at her as an inspiration of mine, too. … She's a very key part of my heart. As I go on through this football stage in my life, I'm going to always look at the memories we had and the things she taught me and the things she instilled in me."

IV. ‘What if I didn’t have all this, the legacy behind me?’

The legacy Surtain II hopes to uphold — in football and outside it — is hefty, but he wouldn't have it any other way.

Surtain II occasionally thinks about what it would be like to not be a Surtain, to not have the luxuries that his father's NFL career has afforded him.

"Sometimes, I just be thinking like, What if I had it different?" Surtain II admits. "What if I didn't have all this, the legacy behind me? What if I grew up in a sort of way like a majority of kids grow up?"

In other words, perhaps: What if he'd grown up in the atmosphere his father did?

"Obviously his lifestyle was different from me," Surtain II says. "I grew up around the NFL lifestyle in a calm, peaceful area. He grew up in a sort of violent drug area in the projects. So obviously his background was different from mine, but we all had the same type of personality, same type of determination, at the end of the day. His work ethic was different from mine, because you know he had a family to feed, he had people that's looking to him, towards him, just to be that dude to change their family's lives forever. I'm looking to be that dude to carry on a legacy."

Growing up, Surtain II resented the idea that he had it made just because of his last name. Obviously, he understands it's afforded him certain comforts and genetic abilities, but as a football player, he wanted to make sure that if you took the name off of his stats or off the back of his jersey, he'd stand out just as much.

"Being down here and having the same name as me," Surtain says, "a lot of people think that, OK, things are going to be given to him. He's Patrick Surtain II, he doesn't have to work as hard as other guys to get it. But I think he saw that and took offense to that. Like, Nah, I'm my own person. Even though I have my dad's name, I'm going to show you I'm the best at what I do. And he did it at the high school level, he did it at the college level. … The eye in the sky don't lie — you cut the film on and you see what kind of player he is."

But beyond perhaps some askance looks or whispers, the heavier psychological burden of also being named Patrick Surtain may be that he's constantly being measured up against his father. Is he as physically gifted? Is he as skilled in man-to-man coverage? How about zone coverage? Will he be able to make it to the NFL? Will he be as accomplished in the NFL? Maybe these are trivial concerns, but to Surtain II they may not be.

Regardless, Surtain II never wishes it away — neither the benefits nor the burdens.

"I would never ever change the way how I would be," Surtain II says. "I just think that when I look at it, being named after my dad, I just think that he did that because he'd seen something special in me. Like, You know what? I want to give him the same name because I think he could do probably bigger or better things than I have done.

"It just carried on that legacy, that family legacy."

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