PLANTATION, Fla. – The front door swings open. A tall teenager with a gray Nike cap worn backward and sitting high on his head offers a brief “hello” and leads a visitor through what can only be described as a mansion.
Once in the living room, the teen’s father joins in and the conversation unfolds, detailing how a poor kid from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country – the Magnolia Projects in New Orleans – got to South Florida, and how his son became the consensus No. 1 cornerback prospect in the nation.
“Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher, Dabo Swinney, Jim Harbaugh – the who’s who of college football,” Patrick Surtain Sr. said of the elite coaches who have come to Plantation to recruit his son, Patrick Jr. “Just everybody – it’s crazy. It’s nuts.”
Surtain Jr., who is about to start his final year of high school at American Heritage – a private school located just two blocks from his house – has yet to narrow his list of college choices.
But his father mentioned LSU, Florida State, Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Miami and Florida as strong possibilities. The Surtains recently visited Southern Cal, but the distance may be a barrier.
“I think he likes that L.A. lifestyle, but it was a five-hour flight,” Surtain Sr. said as his son listened. “He was intrigued, but I don’t know if his mom will approve of that one. She wants him to stay close.”
There are several reasons why Surtain has become such a hot recruit, ranked No. 4 among all players and No. 2 in the state of Florida, according to the 247Sports Composite.
For starters, Surtain has rare size for a cornerback. In an era with huge receivers, tall corners who can run and cover are at a premium, and that’s what scouts see in Surtain, listed at 6-2, 185 pounds.
Surtain has been productive, too. He won a state title in track and field as a sophomore, running on the 4X100 relay team. As a junior last season, he won a state title in football, one of the stars on a 14-0 team.
Surtain Jr. will again pair with another of the nation’s top cornerbacks in Tyson Campbell, who is ranked No. 3 at the position. Campbell has 22 offers and visited Alabama on Monday.
Heritage will be tested early. It has a preseason game against Booker T. Washington on Aug. 18 and then opens the season against Bishop Sullivan Catholic (Virginia Beach) and Nevada state runner-up Liberty (Henderson).
The fact that Surtain Sr. played cornerback for 11 years in the NFL also helps explains Surtain’s instincts for the position.
Surtain Sr. is American Heritage’s head coach and has been guiding his son along the football path since “Pat” was 5 years old.
“(Surtain Jr.) is a very physical player,” said coach Matt DuBuc, whose Cardinal Gibbons team played Heritage twice last season. “He’s got pretty good ball skills and is able to recover quickly if he makes a mistake.
“When you have those qualities, and you get to go home at night and talk football and watch film with a guy who played your position in the NFL … it’s a benefit.”
COMING A LONG WAY
Although they share a name and a passion for playing cornerback, Surtain Sr. and Jr. are opposites in many ways.
Surtain, 41, is warm and talkative. His son, 17, is quiet and soft-spoken, at least around strangers.
Their bodies are different, too. At 5-11 and with a playing weight of 195 pounds, Surtain Sr. is shorter and thicker.
Surtain Sr. grew up tough. The Magnolia Projects in the 1990s became infamous for having one of the worst rates of violent crime in the nation.
“The living conditions were different (than Pat’s),” Surtain Sr. said. “But when you are entrenched, it doesn’t feel (different) because that’s what you are used to.
“Pat’s never had to go through things that I went through. But that’s not a bad thing.”
Thanks to his father’s NFL success, Surtain Jr. lives well, at the end of a cul-de-sac in a beautiful home with a stylish swimming pool and a full-court basketball setup, complete with lights for nighttime hoops.
Former Marlins baseball standouts Cliff Floyd and Charles Johnson live in the area, and it’s a long way from Magnolia.
“I didn’t have to grow up like him, but you can still be tough in certain ways,” Surtain Jr. said. “I still have to do chores around here – it’s not easy.
“Just getting up early for school, coming home and doing school work and just being a man of the house … (Surtain Sr.) has had to be after me at certain times, but I feel like I’ve gotten better at being self-disciplined, teaching myself the ways.”
Surtain Sr. met his wife, Michelle, when they attended different high schools in New Orleans, and the couple has three kids, Pat Jr. and two younger sisters, ages 13 and 8.
In high school, Surtain Sr. ran track and played football, basketball and baseball at Edna Karr in New Orleans. He signed with Southern Miss because the coaches promised him the chance to play quarterback.
But on the second day of practice, Surtain was switched to cornerback. Surtain went on to become a second-round draft pick of the Miami Dolphins, which is how he got to South Florida. He made the Pro Bowl three straight years, 2002 to 2004, and ended his career by playing four years with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“They knew something I didn’t,” Surtain said about his coaches at Southern Miss, “and look how my career turned out.
“That’s the game. They will lie to you to get you there. Most of it is BS. You sit down with these college coaches … you just have to read through the BS and see which university has your kid’s best interests at heart.”
Surtain Sr. said he remembers the first time his son put a helmet and pads on at age 5 in Kansas City.
“From the first day he was out there, you can tell this was something he loved,” he said. “Even though it was cold, he was enthused. It’s given him joy.”
It’s also made him a target for opponents, given what his father has accomplished in the game.
And that heat will only be turned up in 2018 when he goes up against college men – wide receivers who would love nothing more than to burn the kid with the big name and the even bigger hype.
Yet, so far at least, he’s handled everything thrown his way … even when very little, in the way of pass attempts, is thrown his way.
Last year, he intercepted two passes and recovered three fumbles, one of which he ran for a touchdown.
As a punt returner, he fielded three for fair catches. Of the two punts he actually returned, one went for 25 yards and the other went 42 yards for a touchdown.
A former running back in youth-league football, Surtain will play wide receiver this year in addition to cornerback.
“All the rankings and hype are for real,” said Manny Navarro, a Miami Herald reporter who has seen a half-dozen of Surtain’s games. “I’ve seen him lay people out with huge hits. He’s built like he’s ready to be a college star.
“He’s extremely athletic and gifted. When he gets the ball in his hands, he makes things happen. He’s been playing against top competition since his sophomore year. I’ve seen him play since he was 15 years old, and he never disappoints.”
DuBuc, the Cardinal Gibbons coach, watched Surtain make an interception against his team last season.
“It was a wheel route on the goal line,” DuBuc said. “He came over the top and made an impressive play.
“He shrinks the field for them (because of his coverage).”
A college coach from outside of Florida who is familiar with Surtain said he has a “rare combination” of size and speed and added that he could end up at safety at some point in his career. College coaches are not allowed to comment on unsigned recruits.
That coach also cautioned that Surtain – or any highly rated player – could eventually be a bust because “they’ve spent the past three years hearing how great they are.”
Surtain Sr. said that is not an issue with his son.
“With all this hype … he doesn’t let it get to him,” Surtain Sr. said. “He remains humble and steadfast.
“Some kids make videos of them signing. Pat will go to signing day and just fax it in, like, ‘I’m going to college.’ That’s the kind of person he is.”
Surtain Sr. bristles at any suggestion that his son was “given anything” as an explanation for his success.
“I’ve seen him put the work in,” Surtain said. “I don’t care if he grew up in Magnolia or here, he’s earned everything he’s gotten.”