On Michael K. Williams, David Patten, Role Players, and Character Actors

Last week, former NFL wide receiver David Patten passed away in South Carolina. He was 47. Patten, a former Arena Football League player who caught passes in high school from 2004 World Series Champion Pokey Reese, played a dozen years in the NFL despite not getting drafted, and will forever be remembered in New England for his heroics in the early years of the Belichick and Brady Era.

After stints with the Giants and Browns, Patten found a role to play with the New England Patriots in 2001. He benefited greatly from working with the best quarterback and head coach of all time… except Tom Brady wasn’t Tom Brady yet, and Bill Belichick was still the brilliant Giants defensive coordinator who failed as a head coach in Cleveland. Patten scored New England’s only offensive touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI, a game that would change the trajectory of the NFL for the next 20 years.

With how quickly teams panic and fire their coaching staffs and overhaul their rosters when things get tough, it’s entirely possible that without David Patten’s heroics, Brady and Belichick are both out of New England in five years, and the odds of them still both being in the NFL in 2021 are incredibly low.

Yesterday, Michael K. Williams was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 54. Williams’ most iconic role was as Omar Little, the shotgun-toting Robin Hood of West Baltimore in the HBO series The Wire, and graced the screen in dozens of other shows from Boardwalk Empire to Community to Ava Duvernay’s excellent Netflix miniseries When They See Us.

Reflecting on Williams’ career, I am reminded most of Philip Seymour Hoffman, another New York actor gone before his time, and his Boardwalk Empire costar Steve Buscemi. All three were brilliant character actors who stood out in any setting, and made everything they were in better in ways the top-billed stars could not. Whenever Williams was onscreen, I couldn’t take my eye off him. Nobody could. I didn’t watch The Wire until a couple years after it ended, and when I did, it was because he was in the middle of his run on Boardwalk and his recurring guest role as Dr. Marshall Kane on Community. His presence translated perfectly from drama to comedy, and from the present day to the 1920s.

I was working on a mostly-scrapped column on David Patten when I learned that Michael K. Williams had passed away. It may seem like a stretch to lump these two men into one blog post, and I recognize that. But they had more in common than the proximity of their deaths. The thoughts I had about what made me like Patten so much, and other role players like him, have a lot in common with the attributes of the great character actors, sung and unsung. While David Patten embodied the Do Your Job mentality that defines Bill Belichick’s teams, the grind of the New York theater actor to multiple Law & Order episodes to beloved character of multiple HBO shows requires the same kind of drive, and the same level of appreciation from fans. The biggest difference is that actors have longer careers than wide receivers. While not as many NFL fans knew Patten’s name nationally, mention him to any Patriots fan over 25 and you’ll see a smile and a comment like “boy, that guy was clutch!” His supporting role on an all time great football team made him a legend.

Patten and Williams never forgot where they came from. Williams spoke in interviews about taking seriously his role in representing the black experience on TV and in movies, was open and vulnerable about his history of addiction and relapse, and was a devoted member of the Brooklyn community where he grew up. If you look at the other members of the 2001 Patriots, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and Romeo Crennel are still in the league, Troy Brown, Ted Johnson, and Jermaine Wiggins do local sports media in New England, Tedy Bruschi and Damien Woody are with ESPN, and Willie McGinest is with the NFL Network. Mike Vrabel is now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans, Kevin Faulk is the running backs coach on Ed Orgeron’s staff at LSU, and David Patten was on the coaching staff, since retiring from the NFL, at his alma mater Western Carolina University. Western Carolina is an FCS school and hardly the most glamorous place for a guy with three Super Bowl rings to work (for example, Faulk is also coaching at his alma mater, but he got a National Championship ring out of it in 2019), but for a guy who got to the NFL the hard way, that just seemed right. As improbable as their careers may have been, they were constant proof to their communities of what was possible, and a tragically young death should not change that.

Both men were met with heartfelt tributes on social from their famous former coworkers, whether they were Matt Chatham, Richard Seymour, and Charlie Weis, or Ken Jeong, Wendell Pierce, and David Simon.

David Patten and Michael K. Williams were greats at what they did, and are proof that there are no small parts. They left their mark on their respective line of work and inspired many. They will be missed.

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