Janine Patterson read all the books about raising twins. She and her husband, Leroy, bought two of everything in preparation for the arrival of two boys in the winter of 1998.
Jaret and James Patterson entered the world in December, one after the other. But when the parents placed Jaret and James in separate cribs, they weren’t prepared for the crying. James began to howl, a loud bawl that continued through their first night at home.
Then, Janine and Leroy had an idea. Put the twins in the same crib. It was completely contrary to what all the books told them, and all the advice parents had given them.
But the crying stopped. Once James and Jaret were snuggled together, the Patterson twins became inseparable. That wasn’t just a childhood standard, either.
They weren’t going to go to college without one another.
“We decided, in high school, this path would be better for both of us,” James said. “We didn’t want to put the pressure on our parents to have to go see us at separate schools, and this is something that we’ve wanted to do, since the ninth grade. It’s been our dream.”
In less than 21 years as fraternal twins, Jaret and James Patterson insist on doing just about everything together. That’s no different at the University at Buffalo, where they became two of the Mid-American Conference’s breakout football players as freshmen with the Bulls in 2018.
Jaret, a diminutive running back, led the Bulls in rushing and was the MAC freshman of the year. James, a linebacker, started 14 games.
A common bond
At 26 weeks pregnant, Janine was shocked to learn she was carrying twins. Leroy said he nearly fell over when he saw a sonogram that pictured two babies huddled in his wife’s womb.
Doctors expected James to be the first born, but Jaret, the smaller of the two babies, somehow wiggled his way around James in utero, and entered the world 20 minutes before James.
“You made us wait 20 minutes, James?” Janine Patterson said, laughing at the memory. “Other twins’ parents I talk to, it was maybe one or two minutes between twins. But Jaret is so driven, that he pushes his brother like no other can. I think James came with Jaret into life because each needed someone to push the other.”
It’s not uncommon for twins to have an innate bond, and to develop similar interests, according to Dr. Nancy Segal, a psychology professor at California State University, Fullerton, founder and director of the school's Twin Studies Center.
And while it may seem unusual, at first glance, for college-aged twins to have such an emotional bond, Segal likens the connection to a close friendship.
“Some twins use college as a chance to see what it’s like to be apart, and I don’t know if there’s separation anxiety in all cases,” said Segal, who has authored several books about twins, including Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior. “But if you have a close companion and you go into a new situation, nobody raises an eyebrow if friends go off to college together. So, it shouldn’t raise eyebrows if twins want to go to college together.”
In some cases, having a twin in college makes for an immediate support system.
Also, Segal said, it’s not uncommon for twin siblings, whether identical or fraternal, to have similar interests.
“A lot of that is genetically based,” Segal said. “With fraternal twins, there’s some overlap, but the togetherness for twins is comfortable. They’re used to one another.”
For the Pattersons, those interests always involved sports. The children of former high school athletes, Jaret and James played soccer in kindergarten, then began playing football as seven-year-olds in Glenn Dale, Md., about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
Ian Thomas, the Pattersons’ high school coach at St. Vincent Pallotti in Laurel, Md., had never coached twins before Jaret and James joined the program in the fall of 2013.
“It was unique how similar they were, but how different they were at the same time, the strength and the power and the energy each of them brought every day,” said Thomas, who is now a linebackers coach at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore. "But they also did things their own way.”
James says Jaret is very serious, almost intense about football and extremely competitive, even at a young age. Jaret says James has more patience and is more cerebral, but when he’s serious, his face takes on a particular expression. They do a lot of things together, but while James is more into adventure video games, Jaret prefers video games involving sports. When James wants to relax and take a few minutes to himself, Jaret is ready to walk out the door, in search of the next social event or a bite to eat.
Yet Jaret and James understand each other in a way many teammates do not. And they have never been apart for more than a week in their lifetime. The last time, they were seniors in high school, and James went on a senior class trip.
“And he called me, every day,” Jaret said.
A path to college
The Patterson brothers made an unofficial visit to Eastern Michigan as high school sophomores, where James received his first scholarship offer.
A few minutes after James met with Eastern’s coaches, he wondered where his brother was. After a search of nearly half an hour, he found his brother in the bathroom, sobbing.
“He didn't get a scholarship offer, and that broke my heart,” James said. “But that’s how passionate he is about the game.”
At that point, James realized that if he was going to play college football â — Division I college football, at that â — he was going to go to college with his twin brother.
“But that’s a very hard road the boys had to go through,” Janine Patterson said. “It was especially hard, because (Jaret) wasn’t getting as many offers. He’d go with James to college visits, but he didn’t get the offers James did. My husband and I had to keep encouraging the boys, ‘Keep the faith, and don’t give up. God will not keep you astray.’ ”
The colleges that recruited the Pattersons primarily wanted James, a linebacker, to join their programs. But James put a stipulation on the table in each meeting with a coach: If you’re going to recruit me, you’re going to recruit my brother, too.
College coaches were hesitant, the Pattersons said, in part because of Jaret’s size. He’s listed on UB’s roster at a generous 5-foot-9, yet doesn’t fit the mold of a bona fide Division I running back.
At one point, they realized they may have to go to college separately, but Kent State became the first school to offer a football scholarship to both James and Jaret. Jeff Burrow, who is now UB’s safeties coach, recruited them when he was a safeties coach at Kent State.
Again, Jaret sobbed. This time, it was out of relation and relief.
“It was like that weight was off his shoulders,” James said.
But only a handful of football programs gave both brothers scholarship offers, including UB.
Bullish on UB
UB was always on the radar for the Pattersons. Justin Winters was a linebacker at UB from 2007 to 2010, and was an assistant coach at Pallotti. He introduced them to former Bulls Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver. The Pattersons' former high school teammate, Justin Mulbah, joined the Bulls as a freshman linebacker in the fall of 2016.
Thomas also was actively involved in the recruiting process with the Pattersons, and spoke to every coach who recruited each one.
“Coaches were definitely higher on James than Jaret, for the majority of the time,” Thomas said. “It was a struggle for them because they really wanted to be together, and the smart coaches who knew football gave offers to both of them.”
UB offered James a scholarship during his sophomore year of high school. Jaret received an offer late in his junior year. Even when they committed to UB in 2016, before their senior year of high school, they couldn’t immediately join the Bulls.
UB had already given a scholarship offer to a running back and didn’t immediately have a scholarship available in that position group.
UB coach Lance Leipold presented an option: Grayshirt â — defer enrollment for a semester â — and join UB on scholarship for the second semester of the 2017-18 academic year.
“It always seemed like if you didn’t go to a school or commit to one right then, that was it,” Leroy Patterson said. “For me, I loved that idea (of grayshirting). You may be a little undersized, so you have a whole six months to get yourself in shape, physically, for football, and even getting yourself mentally ready for college.”
James asked to defer his enrollment, as well, in order to start college at the same time as Jaret.
“We wanted to make sure we would honor that,” Leipold said.
The Pattersons spent the fall training in Maryland, and became assistant coaches with Thomas at their high school.
“I wanted them to understand how beneficial that year would be for them, to take the time to get their bodies prepared, to get their minds prepared and to take that time to hone in on the game of football, the Xs and Os of it,” Thomas said. “They got better with that, in coaching, but they found new ways to lead. They saw other leaders when they were younger, and now they’re looking at it from a different position. On the field (as players), I’m sure they never had that experience, but I knew it would help them.”
They also spent the fall training with Edward Page, a Maryland-based strength and conditioning coach who is now a strength and conditioning intern with the New York Giants.
Each night at the dinner table, Janine, a high school principal in Baltimore, and Leroy, a supervisor for the Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission, set expectations for their sons as they prepared for college.
Meet people. Network. Put your name out there. Know that college won’t just be about football. It’s about preparing for life.
“Be a coach, be a mentor and help someone else,” Janine said. “You can still pass on your passion to someone else.”
But something still nagged at Jaret, as they spent six months coaching and preparing for college.
“James, being the guy he is, he stayed back with me, the whole six months,” Jaret said. “That was hard for me. I felt like that was my fault.”
James wasn’t going to allow his twin brother to shoulder the burden of denying him an opportunity.
“There were a lot of emotions in this journey, and a lot of obstacles,” James said. “Jaret went through every one, and I went through all of that, along with him. Staying together, working, closing out all the outside noise and just stay focused.
“I wasn’t going to leave my brother, for anything. My family always taught us to stay together. I didn’t want to leave him and have him home by himself, doing anything and everything. I’m his keeper. He’s my keeper.”
Making an impact
James and Jaret enrolled at UB in January of 2018. As Leipold and his staff evaluated their personnel during spring practices in 2018, they saw the Pattersons as potential contributors.
“We do two weeks of spring practice before spring break, and before we left for spring break, it became apparent James was going to help us,” Leipold said. “Jaret was on the verge. Jaret’s opportunities were a little different because of the depth we had at the running back position. But by the time we left spring practices, one of our departed players said, ‘Hey, you’ll redshirt Jaret, won’t you?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know about that. He has a chance to help us.’ ”
But Leipold didn’t project that either would make the impact they made as true freshmen.
Jaret was the Bulls’ leading rusher with 1,013 yards and 14 touchdowns on 183 carries in 14 games. He ran for 104 yards and two touchdowns in his fourth college game, a 42-13 win Sept. 22 at Rutgers, ran for 121 yards Oct. 6 at Central Michigan, then ran for a season-high 187 yards Nov. 6 against Kent.
James started 14 games at outside linebacker and had 77 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery, four forced fumbles and two pass breakups.
The Pattersons, now sophomores, didn’t think they’d make that kind of impact so quickly, either. But in the same manner they made a vow to play college football together, they plan to keep their approach to playing college football simple.
“Me and James, we had talks and we’d say to each other, ‘I just want to have fun. I just want to play where I can get in, and I just want to win,’ ” Jaret said. “That’s our mindset, that we just want to win and contribute any way and any how. We worked for it. We didn’t expect to be the starters. We had to work for it. We had to compete. We had to stay humble.”
All they needed was a chance. Together.