Father-son bond still guiding Patrick Surtain II to success at Alabama
Every pregame conversation between Patrick Surtain II and his father involves a prayer and ends with a simple message.
Since the sophomore defensive back arrived at Alabama a year ago, he’s received a pep talk from his dad before every game. Patrick Surtain Sr., a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, generally tells his son to focus on the technique he’s drilled into him over the years. He also reminds him to play with confidence and remember he’s the best player on the field. Most importantly, he leaves him with one constant phrase.
“I always end it with this,” the older Surtain said. “‘Win, lose or draw, just know that we’re here for you, we’re your No. 1 fans, and we love you.’”
The younger Surtain’s first football memory with his father dates back to when he was five year’s old.
“It was probably getting to suit up for my first football game while he was with the Chiefs,” he told BamaInsider. “That’s when I first started playing real, organized football. I remember starting out playing and my dad telling me things about football and us going to buy equipment and stuff.”
The five-star defensive back has been picking up tidbits ever since.
The elder Surtain could tell his son was going to be a football star early on. Around the age of nine, the budding athlete was already separating himself from the rest of his youth football teammates. Then featuring as a running back, his elite speed allowed him to easily sweep past defenders. Although, as he began to grow into his current 6-foot-2 frame, it became apparent that the young athlete was destined to follow in the footsteps of his father.
“The thing was, he was getting so damn tall,” the older Surtain said with a laugh. “He hit a growth spurt around nine years old, and I’m like ‘Man, you are going to get banged up playing running back.’ He did both for a while, but I just saw it at an early age. He had the natural ball skills, and he had that athleticism. I told him, ‘You’re going to play defensive back in high school, and that’s going to be your path.’”
After a few years and a bit of convincing from his father, the younger Surtain finally settled on his new position. From there, the lessons started to intensify.
The elder Surtain played quarterback in high school before switching to defensive back at Southern Miss. Admittedly raw heading into college, he credits his road to the NFL to a focus on fundamentals. It’s why he emphasized them so relentlessly to his son.
On top of countless hours perfecting footwork on the practice field, the two also broke down film together as he taught his son how to read opposing offenses and search for quarterback tendencies.
“Most of it was mental,” he said. “We’d watch a lot of film to get him to understand the things the quarterback might do in certain situations. After a while, you could tell it was starting to click. I remember one time in high school you could see the quarterback was giving a hitch signal. Pat picked it up and jumped it for a pick-6.”
The younger Surtain played under his father during his final two years at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla. There the two claimed back-to-back 5A state championships while recording a 27-game winning streak.
During his junior year, the younger Surtain recorded two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. While offenses stopped throwing his way the following season, the five-star recruit continued to shoot up the national rankings, finishing as the top cornerback and No. 8 player overall in the 2018 class.
The younger Surtain experienced a much busier recruiting process than his father, who quietly committed to play for Southern Miss in 1994. While the Golden Eagles offered a chance to follow in his father’s footsteps, he had his eyes on more prominent programs.
“I was like, ‘Hey man, you have to give my alma mater at least a look,” the elder Surtain said with a laugh. “But with him being such a high-profile recruit, I kind of knew he’d go to a bigger school.
“I just told him to blaze a path all of your own. I didn’t want him to worry about what I did. It’s his time now. I told him, ‘I want you to be better than me. I had my time, and it’s your time to shine now.’”
Ultimately, the younger Surtain’s path brought him to Tuscaloosa, Ala., setting up an interesting dilemma for his proud father this weekend as the Crimson Tide takes on Southern Miss at 11 a.m. CT inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. While the elder Surtain still claims to be a “Golden Eagle for life,” he’ll be setting aside his black and gold for crimson and white this weekend.
“This week is kind of different,” he said. “It’s my alma matter versus my son. Obviously, I’ve got to go with my blood. I’ll go tailgate with the fellows, and I’m sure they’ll give me a bit of a hard time. But when 11 o’clock rolls around, I’m all Roll Tide.”
The elder Surtain admits he has missed coaching his son the past two years. He’s still getting used to watching games from his vantage point in the bleachers of Bryant-Denny Stadium compared to shouting at him from the sidelines.
“I see all the nuances that the offense is trying to do,” he said. “I try to yell them to him, but there are 100,000 other people in the seats yelling, too.”
Then again, his son seems to be picking things up just fine. Through three games, the 6-foot-2, 203-pound sophomore is Alabama’s highest-graded defensive player, earning an 89.5 mark from Pro Football Focus. He’s also tied for the team lead with two pass breakups and has recorded an interception while holding opponents to a 45.6 NFL passer rating on balls thrown his way.
“I think Pat’s grown tremendously,” cornerback Trevon Diggs said last month. "He had tremendous ability and last year he was playing like he was young. He was just finding his way but now he improved like he knows the plays, he knows calls, he knows adjustments, he knows things like how to read routes so I’ve seen him grow tremendously.”
After earning SEC All-Freshman honors at cornerback, Alabama moved Surtain to Star this spring. The Star role, the Crimson Tide’s fifth defensive back in the nickel formation, is viewed as one of the most complex positions on defense. Not only does it require the ability to keep up with shifty slot receivers but it requires defensive backs to be able to tackle and blitz the cornerback. Fortunately, it’s a position his father is familiar with from his time in the NFL, which made for some extra tutelage over the summer.
“It’s a position that takes a lot of studying, and that was more important than anything,” the elder Surtain said. “I knew he could handle it athletically, but mentally with him being such a young player, I wanted to make sure he was comfortable with everything.”
While the father is happy to help when he can, he’s confident his son is in good hands at Alabama. This year, the sophomore cornerback has received even more guidance as cornerbacks coach Karl Scott, safeties coach Charles Kelly and head coach Nick Saban all oversee the defensive backs during practice.
“It was a different transition learning from different people’s perspectives and stuff,” the younger Surtain said. “My dad probably coached different than coaches up here. But they still got the same philosophy on how things should work. I basically use that as a learning tool and learn from each and every coach. It has been a great learning experience for me.”
The elder Surtain knows full well the level of instruction his son is receiving. The former NFL defensive back spent a few weeks working under Saban after the head coach signed with the Miami Dolphins 2005. In fact, he said he shares a similar coaching style with his old boss.
As for who comes down the hardest, the younger Surtain says it’s close, but he’s still going with his dad.
“I don’t know; Nick takes care of them corners now. Those are his babies,” the older Surtain said with a laugh. “I don’t know though. I’d still say it’s probably me. I’m a guy who will yell out there. Nick is too, but he has different guys who he can bounce off of. With me, I’m going to give it to him raw. I’m going to give it to him the way he needs to hear it.”
He’ll also be in his son’s ear Saturday morning for a pregame chat and another reminder that he’ll always have his back.
“It’s been all that you dream about,” the father said. “You don’t have an idea how it will all turn out. I still remember him running around the Dolphins facility with a football when he was one year old. To just see the way he’s grown not only as a football player but as a man, it just makes you proud. Now he’s playing for the greatest program in the country and all his dreams and goals are right there. It's everything we talked about.”