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Falcons' Cordarrelle Patterson's Record-Breaking Return a Story of Adversity, Fate

Atlanta Falcons star playmaker Cordarrelle Patterson has been faced with roadblocks time and again throughout his 10-year NFL career and found ways to overcome them. As such, it's no surprise he did the same thing in Sunday's victory over the Chicago Bears, running his way into the record books in the process.

Atlanta Falcons running back Cordarrelle Patterson's career can be summed up with two words: explosiveness and perseverance.

Drafted as a receiver by the Minnesota Vikings at No. 29 overall in 2013 out of Tennessee, Patterson had over 600 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns as a rookie while being named first-team All-Pro as a return specialist after running back two kickoffs for scores.

It was a promising start for the then-22-year-old, with many expecting him to continue ascending into a top-flight playmaker ... but for the next seven years, the numbers set during his rookie season stood up as career-highs.

Patterson was named All-Pro five more times during that span and took six kicks back to the house, good enough to tie the NFL record with eight career kick return touchdowns.

But after the billing of being a first-round pick and turning in a promising rookie season, Patterson hardly expected to become just one of the game's greatest kick returners.

Stardom, then adversity.

By mid-April of 2021, Patterson was a 30-year-old free agent with a defined niche ... but knew he had more in the tank. He also knew he was one return touchdown away from history and needed an opportunity to get that done.

He found an opening in Atlanta, where new offensive coordinator Dave Ragone talked him up to first-year general manager Terry Fontenot and coach Arthur Smith. The two sides agreed to a one-year "prove-it" deal.

To say the least, Patterson proved it.

Turning in a rare ninth-year breakout, Patterson nearly doubled his rookie season total of yards and touchdowns from scrimmage with 1,166 and 11 and made history in the process ... just not the kind he expected.

Rather than setting the return record, Patterson became the first player in Falcons history to record over 500 rushing and receiving yards in the same season, emerging as one of the few players capable of handling the "wide-back" position.

But for the first time in four years, he didn't reach the endzone on special teams, despite returning 18 kicks; he still had more to accomplish.

So, Patterson came back to Atlanta on a two-year contract this past offseason, set to play a key role on offense - and get a chance to break the record.

Through three games, he was one of the NFL's leading rushers, setting his single-game career-high in rushing yards twice and earning NFC Offensive Player of the Week following the third contest.

And then, adversity.

Patterson suffered a knee injury in Week 3 that hindered him throughout the next several days, ultimately leading into the need for minor knee surgery after Week 4. He was placed on injured reserve and missed the next four games, setting back his torrid pace and putting his quest for history on hold.

But Patterson came back with a mission, and he wasn't going to be denied.

On Nov. 20, his third game since returning from the knee injury, Patterson took his third carry of the game for 17 yards, reversing grain and swiping through the Chicago Bears' defense ... but fumbled after a big hit from safety Jaquan Brisker.

Chicago recovered and proceeded to score a touchdown on seven plays, bringing their total to 17 unanswered points to take a 17-7 lead.

Adversity.

But then Patterson, who spent two years with the Bears and added two more return touchdowns to his resume along the way, trotted out to the endzone of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, awaiting the kickoff.

"I knew when they kicked it to him, especially after what happened earlier with the fumble, that there was no way he was going to let that touch back," quarterback Marcus Mariota said.

Added rookie running back Tyler Allgeier: "He wasn't worried about (the fumble). He's like 'next time I get the ball, I'm making the most out of it.'"

To say that Patterson made the most of it would be an understatement.

Several cuts and 103 yards later, Patterson was alone at the top of the NFL record books with nine career kick return touchdowns. Teammates quickly mobbed him in the endzone, understanding the magnitude of the play and specialness of the moment.

"I knew the record was on the line," cornerback A.J. Terrell said. "I knew that meant a lot to him, meant a lot to the team." 

The celebration that broke out was 10 years in the making, leading to a whirlwind of feelings from Patterson - who joked that he was nearly as agitated as he was emotional.

"I was trying to cry," said Patterson. "But all the guys were running up on me and doing all this and doing all that, I couldn't even enjoy myself. It felt good, I was trying to shed a tear, they wouldn't let me, but it's good."

But even after the moment, the tears and the celebration, Patterson didn't stop.

While there was no way to top what he did on the return, there remained a football game to go win - and the Falcons did exactly that, partially due to Patterson's offensive impact, serving as a fine example of the growth he's undergone since arriving in Atlanta.

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Staring down 4th and a long yard with three and a half minutes to go in a tied game, the Falcons gave Patterson the rock on a quick hand-off up the middle ... and, naturally, he delivered, gaining six yards and setting up the eventual game-winning field goal by Younghoe Koo.

But lost in between the history of the kick return touchdown and key fourth down pickup is the energy Patterson's special teams play brought to Atlanta's sideline.

Coach Arthur Smith mentioned the game easily could've gone another way with all momentum in Chicago's corner, but Patterson flipped the switch in the blink of an eye.

"Really happy for CP," Smith said. "Pretty cool when a guy breaks an NFL record - we obviously needed that play ... It was a huge play."

Terrell added that the return provided a noticeable spark to the team and contributed to the Falcons outscoring the Bears 20-7 after falling behind by 10.

It was something that Patterson set out to do, especially after his fumble set up another Chicago touchdown. In a game the Falcons desperately needed for their playoff hopes, the 31-year-old rose to the occasion - and was pleased that he got the opportunity to redeem himself so quickly.

"The fumble before that was in my head the whole time," Patterson revealed. "As a football player, just got to move on to the next play, and I was happy when he kicked me the ball because I just had to make a spark for my team. That's what I went out there and did."

He certainly did that and etched his name in the record books along the way. The idea of being atop the list didn't really sink in for Patterson in the moment and still hadn't after the game ended; he predicted then that it wouldn't hit him until he saw his family.

For Patterson, family is everything. He shared that the history-making ball would be going to his kids, a stark contrast to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Beyond his blood family, the love and loyalty shared between Patterson and the Falcons organization and fanbase was a critical reason behind his return to the team in free agency.

He was given bigger deals elsewhere, with teams outbidding the Falcons for his services. But they weren't there when Patterson was the 30-year-old returner-only player the offseason before, and nobody had maximized his playmaking ability quite like Smith, Ragone and the rest of Atlanta's offensive staff.

Patterson found a home in the Peach State and created history - and something of a legacy - along the way.

"He's hard," safety Jaylinn Hawkins said. "He's super dope. CP's a baller, man. Salute to him and everything he's doing for the team. That's just a huge blessing for anybody to have an NFL record. To play alongside somebody who's doing it like that and how he balls and how he plays, it's crazy, so salute to CP."

Not lost in the moment is the efforts by Patterson's teammates, from Minnesota to Oakland, from New England to Chicago and finally to Atlanta.

Smith and Ragone stress that it takes all 11 players, be it offense or special teams - and there were several unsung heroes who helped spring Patterson into the record books.

"It was a hell of a play by a lot of people," Smith said. "Troy Andersen had a great block on that play - he almost fell down, gets up, those are things that go unnoticed ... he's able to make the block. Mike Ford at the end. We needed it - those are momentum as the game's going back and forth and it was a huge play for us."

It's only fitting that Patterson made the game-changing play on special teams. It's how he managed to stick around in the NFL when coaches struggled finding ways to use him on offense, and ultimately how he made his way to four Pro Bowl's. But it's perhaps even more fitting that the play occurred after the fumble and contributed to Atlanta's two-possession deficit.

What would Patterson's story be without adversity?

Better yet, what would it be without his ability to overcome that adversity?

It's a storybook ending for a player who's been through high highs and perhaps even lower lows, finding a way to form the two together on back-to-back touches to make the former overshadow the latter.

"That's just adversity, especially his inner self, coming off that fumble," Allgeier said. "And then look what he did, he ended up housing it for 103. Just shows a lot about his character."

Running back is often the position with the shortest shelf life. But for Patterson, who's 153 carries last season marked the only time he's crested 100 in his career, his unique career path leaves him with plenty of tread on his tires.

Despite proclaiming during the offseason that he'd be done returning kicks after breaking the record, Patterson's committed to continuing his pursuit of more.

And why wouldn't he be?

He's waited too long and overcome too much adversity to stop now. After many thought he was what he was, Patterson reinvented himself in Atlanta, turning special plays into the ordinary and sealing his place in NFL history in the process.

And yet, he's not satisfied - there are still memories to be made and, more importantly, records to build on.

"I'm just thankful for the opportunity to be in that record book," Patterson said. "I'm not finished, I've got a lot of football left in me. So, try to take that record and just go crazy with it."


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