By Tom Williams
AND Joe Scalzo
“Everyone in Poland looked up to him,” Poland High graduate Colin Reardon said of his former teammate Darius Patton. “He was that person you would go to watch, to see him make plays.
“And not just in football, but basketball too,” said Reardon, a freshman quarterback on the Kent State University football team. “I’ve just been in shock about the whole thing.”
Reardon was referring to Patton’s death on Thursday in Farrell, Pa. The 20-year-old former student at the University of Pittsburgh was found dead at his mother’s residence in the 600 block of Beechwood Avenue in Farrell.
The death was confirmed a suicide by Southwest Regional Police Chief Riley Smoot, who said police were called to the residence at 7:13 a.m.
The official time of death was 8:06 a.m. Mercer County Coroner J. Bradley McGonigle ruled the cause of death asphyxiation by hanging.
Patton was a 2011 graduate of Poland High School where he played football and basketball, and ran track for two years. Considered the Mahoning Valley’s top football prospect for the 2011 class, Patton earned a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.
“I hope people can remember what a great athlete he was, what a great competitor he was and what an idol he was to so many people,” said former Poland standout Luke Wollet, now a junior safety at Kent State. “I hope that doesn’t get lost.
“There’s so many young kids who grew up playing in their backyards wanting to be Darius Patton.”
Patton’s time at Pittsburgh had challenges.
In August 2011, Patton collapsed during a non-contact drill in a Panthers practice and was rushed to the emergency room. After being hospitalized overnight for an unspecified medical condition, he returned to practice.
Last fall, Patton played five games for the Panthers, catching six passes for 25 yards. He also had two rushing attempts for minus-16 yards.
Pitt spokesman E.J. Borghetti said Patton left the Panthers football program in March. The spring academic semester was his last at the University of Pittsburgh.
“We are all very saddened to hear this news and give our deepest sympathies to Darius’ family and loved ones,” Borghetti said.
Ken Grisdale, Patton’s varsity basketball coach for two seasons, said, “People know Darius as an athlete, but there was a lot more to him that I will miss. His smile would light up a room.”
Reardon agreed, calling Patton “a great guy to be around all the time. He was a lot of fun. He’d always make you laugh, always had something fun to say.
“And obviously he was a great athlete — extremely talented,” said Reardon who graduated in June. “I’m just at a complete loss. I don’t know how to take it, really. All my thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”
Kevin Snyder, Poland High principal, said that as news of Patton’s death spread, school officials gathered the juniors and seniors to let them know grief counseling was available.
“We addressed our older kids who remembered him to reach out to offer support,” said Snyder who came to Poland as an assistant principal the same year Patton transferred from Penn Hills, near Pittsburgh. “They had walked the halls with him so we focused first on the students who knew him.”
Because they were newcomers together, Snyder said he and Patton bonded.
“We talked a lot,” Snyder said of their chats about joining the Poland community. “My heart goes out to him and his family.”
Brian Banfield, Poland’s athletic director, said Patton “was an extremely likable kid. I know the [other students] thought he was a lot of fun to be with — he always had a crowd around him.
“It’s tragic — there’s just a loss for words when you hear something like this.”
Wollet, who had to pause several times during a brief phone interview, said he was in disbelief about the news.
“It’s so sad,” he said. “He was a great competitor, definitely someone who pushed me every day in practice. Off the field, he was a caring person who put people before himself.”
Patton’s father, Shawntel Patton, is facing legal challenges. A running back on Youngstown State University’s 1994 national championship team, Patton, 39, was one of 28 people charged in a federal indictment with participating in a drug ring with ties to Mexican drug cartels.
On Feb. 16, the elder Patton pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute at least 11 pounds of a cocaine mixture, at least 3.5 ounces of a heroin mixture, at least 1.1 pounds of methamphetamine mixture, at least 1.7 ounces of crack cocaine mixture; and less than 110 pounds of marijuana between 2006 and 2010.
After his guilty plea, Shawntel Patton was placed in detention in U.S. Marshal’s custody. He will be sentenced by U.S. District Judge Lesley Wells in Cleveland on Nov. 27.
Reardon said Darius Patton is “always going to be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, player to come out of Poland. The things he did in just two years were unbelievable.”
As a senior, Darius Patton caught 49 passes for 800 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also returned kickoffs and acted as the quarterback in the team’s Wildcat formation.
“My first high school pass was to him,” Reardon said. “It was against Hubbard in the first quarter. It was 7-0 after E.J. [Kosec] scored first. It was a 70-yard touchdown pass. And every time we threw it in practice, we had it timed perfect. It was my first touchdown.
“He was that guy, that receiver for me.”
Vindicator staff writer Jeanne Starmack contributed to this report.