It was already dark by the time Drew Massey pulled the hearse up to the gates of Dudy Noble Field, his father-in-law’s body in the back.
On New Year’s Eve, hours after getting the call that John Howard Patton, 65, had died earlier that day, the Louisville funeral director wanted to do one last favor for the man who meant so much to him.
Massey picked up Patton’s body at Baptist Memorial Hospital—Golden Triangle in Columbus and began to make the return trip.
As he neared the Highway 12 exit in Starkville, Massey remembered a distant conversation with the man he’d called “Pops” ever since they met in 2001; the beloved Starkville High School coach and diehard Mississippi State fan; the grandpa Massey’s kids loved.
“I want you to ride me through campus one more time,” Patton had told Massey, the two of them joking, back before Patton ever went into the hospital for good, back when death was just a faraway worry and not a reality.
So Massey took the exit and turned left, driving through the empty streets and pulling up in front of the great dark stadium. He put the vehicle in park, looking up at the front gates, and began to cry.
“Pops,” Massey said. “I promise you we’re going to win a national championship in baseball, or at least something, at Mississippi State. We’re going to win something for you.
“And if you could just help any way at all, if you could give the good Lord a little encouragement to shine down on us just a little bit, that would be great,” he added.
Six months later at the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, MSU fulfilled Massey’s request — without the man who waited all his life to see it.
It’s why Patton’s family and friends made sure “Pops” was there in spirit — all the way through.
“He touched a lot of people, and everybody knew how big of a Bulldog he was,” Patton’s son John Alden said.
Becoming ‘Coach Patton’
Patton was such a devoted Mississippi State fan that when his ashes were buried Jan. 5 in his hometown of Durant, an old, battered MSU hat was sent down with them.
So was one of the Starkville High hats he got every year for more than two decades as an assistant football coach for the Yellow Jackets. His specialty was defense, particularly the secondary, but his impact went far beyond the field.
Every year, Patton contacted area middle schools to see if there were any students with tough situations at home. He christened them team managers, a status which gave them something to do after school, free meals with the team after practice and free shorts and T-shirts. In and around Starkville, he became a positive role model for players and managers who might have fallen prey to drugs or crime.
“It gave them something to do, and they had somebody to fall back on,” Massey said.
Patton retired in 2010, but the time he spent with the Jackets’ program earned him nearly legendary status around town. Whenever he and his son were out and about, he was constantly recognized as “Coach Patton” by his former players.
“It just made his day to know that he made a positive light in some kid’s eyes,” Massey said.
Patton was also a devout MSU fan like his parents, with his mother Sara scoring every baseball game.
Both held season tickets at the old Dudy Noble Field, with Patton’s seats close behind home plate.
When renovations were completed in 2019, he found a new spot in the front row in Section 211.
But the COVID-19 pandemic cost Patton his chance to watch the Bulldogs live in 2020. A week before Christmas, with symptoms of his diabetes getting worse, he checked into OCH Regional Medical Center. A kidney issue prompted a transfer to Baptist, where John Alden spent the holiday with him, opening two boxes of football trading cards on Christmas Day.
Patton’s health made steady progress. Doctors hoped he would be home in early January. Then things took a turn.
“He was getting better, and then all of a sudden, boom, he passed away,” Massey said.
‘He just loved life’
On Dec. 30, Patton had decided to call his old friends.
Three or four of them heard from him that day, talking from his hospital room about visiting them, about the Lynyrd Skynyrd and James Taylor concerts he wanted to see when he felt better and the pandemic was over.
He FaceTimed the Masseys, talking with Drew, his wife Kristie and their three kids. Last, he called John Alden, talking about the Bulldogs’ win in basketball at Georgia and asking if his grandson, John Rawson, was awake. At 9 p.m., the infant was in bed, so the two hung up with plans to talk at halftime of the Armed Forces Bowl between Mississippi State and Tulsa the next day.
In the morning, John Alden got a call from Baptist informing him Patton had died shortly before the Bulldogs’ 11 a.m. kickoff. He had been bleeding internally, and with an ICU full of COVID-19 patients, doctors hadn’t caught it in time to reverse the damage, Alden said.
In the Massey house in Louisville, Kristie fielded a phone call and crumpled to the floor. She and Drew told their kids — Kade, 14; Mason, 9; and Ansley, 8 — about their grandfather before breaking the news to the rest of the family.
“Pops was that guy,” Drew Massey said. “He was fair, he was fun, and he was just (as) hard-headed as he could be. He just loved life.”
‘The best seat in the house’
Understandably, John Alden and his wife Tori Brooke took a day to process the news before driving up to Starkville from New Orleans on New Year’s Day.
Not knowing if a traditional funeral would be possible with the pandemic still getting worse, John Alden wanted to create a way for his father’s family and friends to commemorate the occasion.
They spent the four hours in the car brainstorming ideas for a fitting tribute. Eventually, something clicked.
At home, Patton had tubs and tubs of trading cards — baseball and football primarily — worth an incalculable amount. Tori used her graphic design background to make her father-in-law his own card, modeled on Patton’s 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Topps rookie card. She used a picture from early in Patton’s career at Starkville High, trading in the typical stats on the back for dates, cities and facts about his life.
On the front of the card, the word “Topps” was replaced by “Pops.”
The Pattons had a few dozen cards produced on rush by Copy Cow in Starkville and handed them out, encased in the protective plastic sleeves of which Patton had many. A poster-size version of the card was on display near the gravesite.
From then on, his friends and family brought Patton with them, taking the card to baseball games at Dudy Noble Field and posing for pictures.
“Somebody sent us one and said, ‘Pops finally gets the best seat in the house,’” Massey said.
‘Life goes on’
John Alden brought a card along when he booked a flight on short notice to Omaha for Game 3 of the College World Series on June 30. Along with the card, he brought a small Ziploc bag with a small amount of his father’s ashes.
He arrived three hours before first pitch and sprinkled the ashes in the russet dust at TD Ameritrade Park.
He’d done the same over the fence in right center field during Game 1 of the Starkville Super Regional against Notre Dame, weighing the ashes down with beer to prevent them from blowing into the air — “only the way that Pops would like it,” Massey said.
This time, a boy of eight or nine, pressed against the wall near where MSU players warmed up, saw him.
“Is that Mississippi State dirt?” the young fan asked John Alden.
“Something like that,” he replied.
The Bulldogs routed Vanderbilt 9-0, building a big lead throughout the game. When the final out was made, it was like a “religious experience,” John Alden said. Strangers hugged in the bleachers and the chairback seats. Tears flowed freely down ruddy cheeks — John Alden’s among them.
“You just felt like there was so much more there than just those people in the stands,” John Alden said. “It was a heavy feeling, but it was a comforting feeling.”
He pulled out his iPhone and sent his dad a three-word text: “We did it.” Instantly, the reply came: “Who u?”
AT&T had reassigned Patton’s old phone number.
“It was kind of a harsh reminder: Life goes on,” John Alden said.
‘Very, very blessed’
For the Pattons, life indeed has continued, even without the man they miss.
John Alden and Tori bought a house in New Orleans, and John Rawson celebrated his first birthday May 1. John Alden said he remains glad his father got to meet the infant — like his grandfather, given the name John and his mother’s maiden name — before Patton’s health failed.
“That’s something that I’m proud of, for sure,” John Alden said. “That trumps him being able to see a national title.”
John Alden said he still hopes to hold a memorial service for his father in Starkville — maybe in conjunction with a football game — for those who couldn’t make John Howard’s funeral in January.
That way, those who knew him as “Coach Patton” can pay their respects.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.