GREEN BAY – Lucas Patrick was done with football. At least, that’s what the future Packers’ offensive lineman thought as his redshirt senior season drew to a close at Duke University.
The run was incredible. Patrick had started 21 consecutive games at left guard to finish his career and played a part in the program’s resurgence, culminating in a 44-41 overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. It was the Blue Devils’ first bowl victory since 1960.
Graduating with a history and teaching degree, Patrick was just about ready to move on with his life when he embarked on a conversation with his offensive line coach, John Latina, who bristled at the idea of his pupil calling it a career without at least trying to play at the next level.
“I felt like I’m a good player leaving college, let’s call a spade a spade and part ways on my own terms,” recalled Patrick on Thursday. “He said it pretty colorfully – because that’s the kind of guy he is – ‘If you don’t give it a shot, you’re lying to yourself.’”
Those words stayed with Patrick. They motivated him to train for the NFL Draft and not lose hope when no one called afterward. They stick with Patrick today, on the eve of the 16th and final game of his first official NFL season.
Patrick’s journey is about as unlikely as undrafted stories get. After being convinced to aim for the draft, Patrick split his spring between workouts and holding down a nearly full-time job with Duke’s game operations. He’d help set up for Duke basketball and handle the logistics of other on-campus events, including the ingress and egress of the security metal detectors.
Patrick knew it was unlikely he’d be drafted in 2016, but he was hopeful an opportunity would present itself through college free agency. The third and final day of the draft passed without much interest. A few teams checked in, but no offers. He went to bed thinking his months of training had been for naught.
“That night I got Chipotle, sat in my room and ate by myself,” Patrick recalled Thursday. “I was like, ‘Well, this is over.’ It was tough. That was a tough day.”
The next day, his agency called with what turned out to be his only offer – an invitation to participate in the Packers’ rookie orientation camp on a tryout. The only guarantee was a plane ticket and a chance to prove himself.
Once Patrick arrived in Green Bay, he quickly got the lay of the land. He knew the Packers had drafted UCLA’s Kenny Clark in the first round. If he accomplished anything all weekend, Patrick was going to line up against Clark.
“This was my only opportunity. It’s what Eminem says, ‘One shot, one opportunity,’” said Patrick, laughing. “I gave it my all. I told myself that weekend, ‘I don’t care who’s coming in at right or left guard, I’m going in with the first team, I’m going to just try and block Kenny as many times.’”
Patrick felt good about how he played, but it didn’t result in a contract. The Packers actually signed another offensive lineman instead and Patrick returned home. He spent the next two weeks job-hunting with his girlfriend, who works at the Nike World Headquarters.
As soon as it began to look like the door was closing again on his football career, the Packers called Patrick with a contract offer. Green Bay was stacked on the offensive line with two incoming draft picks, but that didn’t matter to Patrick. It was the foot in the door he needed.
While he sustained a hand injury forcing him to wear a club for most of training camp, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound rookie showed enough potential to earn the respect of the coaching staff and a place on the practice squad for the season.
“He’s just a very tough kid,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “You love the aggressiveness, but to be able to harness that … I think he’s done a really good job. Certainly he’s hurt his hand and had (the club) on as a rookie. I think, at times, he’s such a powerful, strong guy, a lot of it is upper body and now he’s learned how to use his feet, so I think that was kind of a blessing for him.”
Patrick returned again this year staring at long odds to make the 53-man roster. It was at the start of the offseason program in April he was introduced to another longshot hopeful, Justin McCray, a former undrafted free agent who spent the previous year in the Arena Football League.
With comparable backgrounds, the two offensive linemen became fast friends despite the fact they appeared to be competing for the same job. That didn’t stop Patrick from showing McCray the ropes in Green Bay, though.
“He was one of the first guys who came up to me and introduced himself when I got here,” said McCray, who’s now roommates with Patrick. “He taught me a little bit of the playbook and showing me around Green Bay when I first got here. He’s been a great guy since I’ve been here. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Injuries on the offensive line not only led to the Packers keeping both McCray and Patrick during final cuts, but they also presented each player with legitimate chances at playing time this season.
McCray has started seven games this year, playing at both tackle and guard positions. Patrick started one game earlier this year in Chicago and again was pressed into action last Saturday after Jason Spriggs suffered a significant knee injury on the first play of the game against Minnesota.
The friendship and chemistry they developed has served them well. In an instant, McCray went from replacing an injured Jahri Evans at right guard to Spriggs at right tackle, with Patrick sliding in at guard. Despite playing again with a club on his hand, Patrick held his own against Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson.
Patrick could be in line to start again at right guard this Sunday against Detroit, with Evans being declared out on Friday with a knee injury.
Patrick knows his journey isn’t over. He hopes to parlay this first full season into a career. However, a conversation with his girlfriend this week opened his eyes to everything that’s occurred over the past two years and how Latina’s advice set the course for his once-impossible leap to the NFL.
“There’s no other way to say it. It’s divine intervention or something,” said Patrick, smiling. “I think it’s a testament to work hard and keep your nose down, and things will come to you if you work hard enough in life and not willing to take ‘no’ for an answer. Not being stubborn, but at certain times you just have to keep pushing. It’s definitely helped. It’ll translate in life after this.”