Two and a half months before the 2019 NFL Draft, Natrez Patrick takes 20 minutes out of his training-filled day to talk to a reporter.
The former Georgia linebacker talks about the stuff you’d expect him to — where his training is taking place (Chip Smith Performance Systems in Gwinnett, Ga.), what his daily routine is like (combine-specific drills plus 2 days a week with a positional coach) and his main focus is during the pre-draft process (cutting a couple more pounds to get down to 235 and running a 40-yard dash in at least 4.7 seconds).
“Just being able to fly, man,” Patrick tells SDS.
But there’s another thing that Patrick is going to delve into during that 20-minute conversation. He knows he has to. NFL teams are going to want to discuss it with him. He’s OK with that.
Patrick is roughly 14 months removed from his third marijuana-related arrest. It was a decision that left his status at Georgia up to a vote at a team leadership meeting. It sent him to drug rehab, and even a maximum-security prison Texas so that he could be “scared straight.”
Fourteen months later, Patrick addresses the issue head on. He talks about the addiction that nearly ruined any chance he had at playing in the NFL.
“How I look at it is well, it’s in the world anyways. It’s been on the news. It’s been everywhere. There’s no point in hiding behind it or trying to mask it or anything,” Patrick tells SDS. “The only thing I can do is talk about how it’s helped me or how it’s made me a better person.”
So, as Patrick would say, let’s talk about it.
Jan. 8, 2018 was a day that Georgia fans had been waiting decades for. It was the program’s first national championship game since the 1980 season. Anybody who grew up in The Peach State, like Patrick, knew the magnitude of what was about to unfold at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Yet despite what ultimately happened that night, it still turned out to be Patrick’s favorite moment at Georgia.
Jan. 8, 2018 was a day that Patrick had been waiting weeks for. Sort of. Following his arrest hours after the 2017 SEC Championship, Patrick began treatment at a drug rehab facility in Augusta, Ga.
It didn’t matter that pot charges were dropped 11 days after officers found “a leaf of marijuana smaller than a penny” in a car that was driven by teammate Jayson Stanley, who was arrested for driving under the influence. It was still Patrick’s third misdemeanor marijuana-related arrest in 3 years at Georgia, and his second in a 2-month stretch. And Patrick failed a probation-mandated drug test. Treatment was the next step.
-- Natrez Patrick
There, Patrick remembered watching the Rose Bowl surrounded by patients of all walks of life, plenty of whom didn’t have any understanding of football or Georgia.
“I was like, ‘Man, I’m supposed to be there,’” Patrick said. “That really shook me. I was just like, ‘What am I doing?’”
Patrick expected to watch the national championship from the treatment facility, as well. But on the morning of Jan. 8, he got the ultimate surprise. Because he did everything that was asked of him in rehab, he was released. That meant he’d be able to watch the national championship in person.
Before kickoff, Patrick got to go into the Georgia locker room. He was greeted with hugs and a moment that brought him to tears.
“They got a whole game to play. I’m not even playing and they’re happy to see me. That was amazing to me, man,” Patrick said. “I cried. Honestly. I had never seen anything like it.”
Somewhere in that entire experience was when it all clicked.
The switch was flipped for Patrick, though nothing was necessarily guaranteed for him after that. Georgia players and coaches still had to decide if they wanted someone on their team who was battling addiction.
Former Georgia LB Natrez Patrick
Patrick was brought back on to the team for his senior season on a trial basis. Slip up another time and there wouldn’t be another time. With the Dawgs set to sign the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, it’s not like they were lacking in talent. Kirby Smart didn’t have to even allow the leadership committee a chance to keep Patrick on the team. He could have pointed to the UGA student-athlete policy, which states that a third arrest results in an automatic dismissal.
According to Patrick, “any other coach” would have kicked him off the team and not let him finish his career at Georgia. But he felt like there was a reason that Smart gave him the benefit of the doubt one last time.
“I never had an excuse for him,” Patrick said. “Kirby came and told me me man-to-man, ‘You’ve gotta prioritize. Is this really what you want or is it not? Because you don’t have to be here. You can just finish school. You don’t have to play football anymore if it’s not a priority to you.’ When he told me that, it was just instantaneous.
“I felt like, OK, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to invest everything in. No more funny business, no more outside distractions. It was really easy when my priorities got in check.”
For the first time in his career, Patrick played in every game in 2018. It was drama free. As a result, the inside linebacker finished with 44 tackles, and he was fourth on the team with 4.5 tackles for loss. Instead of watching Georgia’s bowl game from a rehab facility or in street clothes, Patrick had a season-high 7 tackles in the Sugar Bowl against Texas.
Perhaps most important, he developed a new appreciation for the game he played since he was 4 years old.
“‘Blessing’ would be an understatement,” Patrick said. “It was super refreshing not to have to deal with any outside issues. I could solely focus on the game. I could solely focus on the season and just being there. A full season with my teammates was amazing. It was nothing short of remarkable. I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
-- Natrez Patrick
Ask Patrick how he had a trouble-free season and he’ll point to the massive support system he had.
“It just speaks volumes that after everything, my teammates still felt that I was valuable enough to the team to want to keep me around. That means a lot,” Patrick said. “That makes it easier to go out and fight for them. It makes it easier to do the workouts for them. It makes it easier to go to class for them. It makes everything easier when you know that the people around you genuinely love you, genuinely care for you and want you to be there.”
Now, Patrick’s goals are individually-focused. Preparing for the NFL is a different challenge than staying in good standing with his college teammates. Soon, he hopes, he’ll have an NFL locker room to win over.
In order to do that, he’ll have to maximize the skills that helped make him a U.S. Army All-American out of Mays High School (Ga.). Patrick is hoping that scouts will see the linebacker who eventually earned a starting spot as a true freshman and had his best season as an incident-free senior. It wasn’t long ago that Patrick and classmate Roquan Smith were partners in crime in the middle of Georgia’s defense.
To get into that same breath again, Patrick is working on his explosion. Showing that quick first step and that he can cover in space to play in today’s NFL, he knows, will help him at the next level.
-- Natrez Patrick
He won’t get a chance to prove himself at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he’ll still have a pro day opportunity to turn heads. All things considered, Patrick will take it.
“I was just want an opportunity. That’s all I need. Obviously I feel like I’m the No. 1 linebacker in the draft, no doubt about it,” he said. “I’m blessed and thankful for the opportunity. I only need an opportunity.”
Patrick is past taking football for granted. He had plenty of wakeup calls in his career, on and off the field.
He still recalls the time he delivered his first big hit against South Carolina in 2015 and hearing the excitement from the Sanford Stadium crowd. That was his “oh, I really can do this” moment. He’ll cherish his pre-2017 National Championship greeting more than any in his career, which could have ended at several different points.
At the end of Patrick’s 20-minute conversation, the reporter asks him something that he knows he’ll have to address repeatedly over the course of the next few months.
That is, what do you say to NFL teams who look at you and only see red flags? Why should they give you a chance?
“Everything that I do and everything I’m willing to do for my team is unmatched,” Patrick said. “My teammates love me even though I’ve had bumps in the road. My teammates know that I’m still an upstanding teammate. I was a leader. I was someone who wasn’t afraid to say something to the next person. I was someone who was willing to step up to the plate and do whatever it would take to win.
“And all you have to do is talk to me and you’ll know the type of person I am.”