LAND O'LAKES — Darin Patmon broke his leg in eighth grade while playing football.
It changed his life.
Patmon's regular bi-weekly visits to his doctor's office intrigued him. He liked watching his specialist at work, learning about the human body, seeing the X-rays.
He decided it would be cool to become an orthopedic surgeon.
So Patmon, now 18, focused himself at Land O'Lakes High School with that high academic goal in mind, while still finding the time to play ball and run track. After four years, he's well on his way.
This fall, he heads to Columbia University to play safety and get his coveted Ivy League pre-medicine education.
"Most people think I'm crazy, like I'm the nerd of the football team," said Patmon, who will graduate tonight with top honors. "I just have a passion for learning."
When he first entered Land O'Lakes, Patmon enrolled in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program. He tried to balance that heavy work load with his training as both a hurdler and a football player.
After a while, he made the transition to honors and Advanced Placement courses, which demanded less structured time than did IB. Not that his academics got easier. They just fit better with his busy training and competition schedule.
By junior year, his desired path was clear: He wanted to play football at an Ivy League institution, on his way to medical school. His mom was not surprised.
"The biggest thing, being Darin's mom, that has always impressed me is he has his goals and he has his dreams, and he absolutely, positively goes for them," Julie Riekki said. "I haven't really had to stay on Darin for anything. I haven't since the fifth grade ever had to check his homework to see if it was done."
Patmon prepared his own highlights video and sent it to all the Ivy coaches — Harvard, Yale, Princeton and the rest. Columbia and Dartmouth came calling.
Then potential disaster struck. Patmon injured his knee at the start of his senior season, and had to sit for three games.
He had the grades to get into the schools. But his injury threatened to drop him off the recruiting radar screen.
Instead of fading away, he came back with a vengeance. He set the school career record for blocked punts, logging three in 2012 — including two against Mitchell High — to add to four from junior year. He also won conference titles in the 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles.
With the help of Bill Schmitz, Patmon's track coach and assistant football coach, he was back on his path to his dream. Schmitz said he gladly contacted the coaches he knew on Patmon's behalf.
"He's got an unbelievable work ethic and a maturity level that's not often seen in high school seniors today," Schmitz said. "And his game is only going to get better."
The Ivies aren't for everyone, he observed. But Patmon "was a perfect fit, and I let the coaches know."
Now Patmon looks forward to the new challenge of living in New York City — a "big culture shock," he admitted — and tackling college while also training for his first season of collegiate football.
He's especially excited to be somewhere that education matters to everyone.
"You have kids who are not only from all over the country, but all over the world, who are just as smart if not smarter than you," he said. "I'm not going to set the bell curve any more. It's just a better atmosphere. Everyone who is there wants to learn."
Patmon already has met his roommate. Otherwise he knows almost no one where he's headed.
Still, he's not nervous. And neither is his mom, who already has three trips booked to New York for the season.
"I think it's absolutely exciting," Riekki said. "It's going to be hard work. But I know he can do it. I have no doubt."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.