Tim Patrick still remembers his first NFL touchdown like it was yesterday.
As the sun warmed a packed Arrowhead Stadium on a cloudless day, Patrick blew past the Chiefs defense, snuck behind a safety in the back corner of the end zone and hauled in his first ever NFL touchdown — a 24-yard bomb from QB Case Keenum.
"It was amazing — it was like everything you worked for, you finally get to score a touchdown on the field and you get to keep the ball," Patrick says. "I always said when I get my first touchdown ball, I'm gonna give it to my mom. It was like a dream, it was really like a dream."
Patrick's touchdown also represented something more significant than his first NFL highlight — the start to a new chapter in his life and career.
Since that moment, the undrafted receiver's star has only grown brighter. But before becoming a starter for the Broncos, Patrick had to endure and overcome a winding path to the top full of hardships and challenges.
That he made it to this stage is impressive enough to those who might recognize him only as an undrafted player who has finally found his place after being cut from two other teams.
But for those that know Patrick's story, his achievements carry even greater weight than what you can see on the surface.
Growing up in San Diego, Patrick's life at home was marked by fluctuation and uncertainty.
"My dad did 15 years in federal prison, and my mom, I think she did three or four," Patrick says. "I was raised by everybody — my mom and dad, my stepmom, my grandma and grandpa — everybody played a part."
While it was challenging at times, that Patrick's foundation was formed by so many family members also became his greatest inspiration as he put himself on a path to pro football.
"My biggest motivation is just to make sure my family's good," Patrick says. "We had a lot of stuff happen in my family, and me being out here playing on Sundays, achieving my goals, being able to provide when it's needed and putting smiles on their faces because people are talking about me on TV — that's all I want to do."
Patrick's path to the NFL would not prove easy, despite his succeeding as a promising dual-sport athlete in high school.
While he ran the table during his senior year at University City High School in San Diego, earning first-team all-league and team MVP honors in football and second-team all-league and team MVP honors in basketball, Patrick received no substantial Division I offers,. Instead, he attended junior college at Grossmont College.
Patrick was immediately a standout in JUCO football, but poor grades derailed his hopes of transferring to a D1 college.
"I lost 10 offers out of junior college," Patrick says. "I was gonna go to Georgia, but they pulled my offer once they saw my transcript. Utah was the only big school that stuck around. They said 'If you pass all of your classes, we'll have a spot here for you.'"
Patrick held up his end of the deal and so did Utah — but while the Utes did have a place for him, like nearly everything else in Patrick's life, he had to earn it.
Patrick impressed immediately, walking on at Utah and coming away with a scholarship offer after only one day of practice.
"They ran out of offers [coming in]," Patrick says, "so I had to come in as a walk on. I got offered after the first practice."
Patrick had finally arrived at a big school where he could showcase his talent on a big stage. In his first season, he came on quickly, appearing in nine games and making four starts. But during that ninth game, Patrick suffered a brutal compound fracture in his left leg.
The injury sidelined Patrick for over a year, but it also gave him a chance to step back and reevaluate his priorities.
"It was my first injury, so it was an eye-opener," Patrick says. "My thought process when I first got [to Utah] was to play one year and enter the draft, no matter what. I was sick of school and that injury kind of slowed me down. It pretty much opened my eyes to more things — it allowed me to be able to graduate college, and I feel like I came away a better football player after it, mentally. Just going through something like that, I became mentally strong."
While the injury cost him a season of football, including several months where he couldn't walk, Patrick looks back on it as a positive in his life. The injury shifted his perspective, preparing him for the long road to a roster spot in the NFL.
"I just had a simple mindset, and [the injury] kind of humbled me to appreciate more things," Patrick says. "I tell people to this day that I'm glad that it happened, because it made me who I am today."
The challenges Patrick has faced in his life, including his injury, have played a big part in shaping the foundation of humility that keeps him grounded in the NFL.
"I think I appreciate things that some people probably don't appreciate, because I know how it feels to have nothing, and obviously now I know how it feels to have something," Patrick says. "I got 'God is greater than the highs and the lows' [tattooed] on my hand, because I've been at the bottom and I've been at the top. Some people [at the top] kind of get stuck in that lifestyle and they usually end up falling off. I'm just trying to stay in that middle range — appreciating everything that's happened to me but also staying humble at the same time."
Patrick returned from his injury to complete his final season at Utah, racking up 711 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games. He did not receive an invitation to participate in the NFL Combine, but put up an impressive performance at Utah's Pro Day, including a 4.47 40-yard dash.
Despite his potential, Patrick went undrafted in 2017. He signed as a undrafted free agent with Baltimore, but was waived by the Ravens less than three months later. His release proved to be another learning experience for the rookie receiver, who was rattled by the transaction.
"The first time I got waived, [Baltimore] waived me and I snuck out the back door so I didn't have to talk to anybody," Patrick says. "I thought nobody would find out, but I didn't know in the league when you get cut, they literally post it on their social media. So everybody was blowing up my phone, and I had to hurry up and call my mom and dad to let them know. I kind of just went into hiding — I didn't even go back home, I went straight to Utah just to get away from everybody."
But good news came quickly for Patrick, who was picked up by the 49ers on the same day.
"Thank God I got claimed off of waivers that night," Patrick says with a relieved laugh.
In San Francisco, Patrick had another opportunity to show his potential. He impressed through training camp, but the 49ers were loaded with depth at wide receiver and Patrick was waived ahead of the first game.
Though being cut for the second time could have been a similarly negative experience for Patrick, he was able to view this instance more as a turning point, as a conversation with 49ers general manager John Lynch reignited his self-confidence.
"This is what opened my eyes — John Lynch brought me in, and he didn't have to," Patrick says. "He brought me in and told me, 'No matter what happened here, you're not like these other players [who are being released]. You can play in this league; the numbers [for WR] were just difficult. But don't give up, man. I don't tell this to everybody, but you can play.' And ever since he told me that, I just had a positive mindset of I know I can play in this league, I just gotta keep fighting until I actually get my chance."
That chance finally came in Denver. After signing to the Broncos' practice squad in 2017, Patrick got his first career start and scored his first career touchdown in 2018. It was the culmination of years of hard work and relentless dedication.
And for Patrick, that feeling of elation hasn't faded. Each time he finds the end zone, he is reminded of everything he has overcome and everything he has achieved.
"It still feels like that every time I score," Patrick says. "When I'm playing a game, everything feels normal, I feel like I belong. But when you score a touchdown, it just makes you feel like a little kid again. When I score a touchdown, it's definitely an eye-opener — like, Damn, I'm in the NFL and I just scored a touchdown and everybody's cheering for me."
That cheering likely won't stop any time soon. Following a breakout 2020 campaign where he exploded for 742 yards and six touchdowns on 51 receptions in 15 starts, Patrick continues to shine as part of the Broncos offense.
And he's showing no signs of slowing down; with 360 yards and three touchdowns on 27 receptions through seven games this season, he is on pace to eclipse his breakout year with an even more impressive 2021 campaign.
Patrick's talent and unique road to the NFL have not gone unnoticed. His play and mindset have caught the attention of another Bronco who carved out a role for himself in the NFL after going undrafted — Ring of Fame wide receiver Rod Smith. Smith has become a mentor to Patrick, who frequently reaches out to Smith for advice. The two have developed a close friendship, and Smith speaks highly of Patrick as a person and a player.
"He's hungry," Smith says. "You can tell when a guy has this inner drive to prove something — not to other people, but to himself. Being an undrafted guy myself, I gravitate towards him because I know those internal workings are tough and sometimes we don't feel worthy and we gotta go prove it. I see that in him — it comes out of him in the way he plays, in the emotion, the fire that he plays with."
While his opportunity this season has come partially because of injuries to receivers Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler, Patrick has capitalized on every down. According to Smith, Patrick has more than earned his spot on the offense.
"In this business, we always say you're one play away from being a starter, and Tim took advantage of that," Smith says. "He earned his right to be one of the top guys in the league at his position. You can't control the opportunities that you get, but you control what you do when you get it. That, to me, has been the key for Tim, just like it was for me and any guy that makes it in this business."
Patrick has channeled his countless challenges in life into touchdowns on Sundays, and translated them to his work off the field as well, helping to provide guidance for children at the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center.
What started as a one-time community outreach event coordinated by the Broncos has become an ongoing endeavor for Patrick, who has held video-chat sessions with the children at the center more than 30 times over the last ten months.
"Working with the kids in the detention center, that's what I see myself doing in life after football," Patrick says. "I feel like I've been through a lot of stuff in my lifetime — I feel like I can guide a lot of kids to get onto the right path and not take the same path I took, because that path was hard as [expletive]."
Patrick has formed a special relationship with the children at the center, partly because his own life experiences allow him to relate to their circumstances.
"I definitely got lucky, I'm not gonna lie," Patrick says, shaking his head. "So it definitely could have been me."
While Patrick hopes he can help to lead the kids towards the right path, he also wants to bring positivity to their day-to-day lives. As part of his relationship with the center, Patrick has developed a rewards program where the children can earn sneakers or a meal from their favorite restaurant.
"They have a score system [for behavior], so I do things like if everybody gets over a 2.0 on their score, I'll send you guys some lunch," Patrick says. "If you get over a 2.5 — 2.6 is the highest you can get — I'll get you a pair of shoes. I've given out five pairs of shoes, sent them food damn near once every two weeks. It just makes them think of something positive that they can do in there, to work to achieve goals."
From his own experience, Patrick knows just how important hard work, dedication and a positive mindset are when it comes to achieving goals and dreams. As the undrafted receiver continues to defy the odds and chase his dreams, he hopes his story can help to guide the kids in the program towards broader horizons, or that anyone who finds themselves facing long odds can draw similar lessons from his journey.
"If you stay true to whatever you want to do and don't cheat the grind of whatever you're doing, God's always gonna circle back and give you that chance," Patrick said. "And when you do get that chance, you gotta make sure you're ready for it because that might be the only chance you get."