Tevin Coleman may be the oft-overlooked option in the Falcons’ Medusa-headed offense. The bass player among all the rock stars. The salad fork of the sterling-silver place setting.
Yes, he had to transition from all-everything running back at Indiana to a more discreet role with the Falcons while Devonta Freeman carried twice the load. It’s an arrangement, Coleman said, that “is working amazingly.”
“We’re both playmakers. When he goes in and makes a play, that motivates me. He encourages me off the field. That’s what a brotherhood is,” he added. Into his third season as one piston of a muscle car, Coleman has had plenty of time to adopt the right attitude, down to the obligatory brotherhood reference.
But, then, can anyone else in that huddle of highlight-makers – and it would be useful if they all started to play in tune Sunday at Carolina – make a claim to being a president’s great-great grandson? William David Coleman presided over the African nation of Liberia from 1896-1900. Both Tevin’s Liberian-born father, Wister, and the internet say so.
And when in their down time, while his teammates might engage in comparisons about how tough they had it coming up, let any of them try to one-up Coleman’s origins tale.
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It’s hard to beat a 20-percent survival rate. That’s what doctors gave Tevin when he arrived 10 weeks early, all three pounds of him. Seven weeks later, he was sprung from the incubator and released to the care of his parents in suburban Chicago.
Size would be an issue throughout his young years. Even when he proved himself one of those two-way high school football phenoms, some colleges thought him too slight to be a dependable ballcarrier. They suggested cornerback. Might as well have tried to convince him to play tuba in the marching band.
(Georgia Tech was not one of those misguided institutions. The Yellow Jackets expressed interest in Coleman as a runner; and Coleman was quite keen on coming south long before the Falcons drafted him in the third round. Picture that 52-yard run he broke out against the Jets on Sunday, the one with the wicked change of direction that whiplashed the defense, the one with the combination of power and speed belonging only to the sport coupes among us. Now imagine what Paul Johnson would have made of that. But Coleman’s high school grades did not pass Tech muster.)
Size was not the only issue. There was this ailment that nagged him through high school. Headaches, fatigue and searing back spasms after periods of exertion were its calling cards.
It wasn’t until he arrived at Indiana that Coleman was diagnosed with sickle-cell trait. He learned that it was imperative to stay hydrated. “If I’m dehydrated, it’s over – everything is going to go downhill,” he said. When the Falcons played at altitude in Denver last season there was concern over how Coleman’s body would react. Carefully monitored, all he did was catch four passes out of the backfield for 132 yards and a touchdown.
The least of his childhood challenges was that wardrobe malfunction on his first touchdown carry. He and his father had just sort of stumbled into this youth football program near the house. A late-comer, most of the gear that would have fit the 8-year-old was taken. “I had no choice. Everything was big – pads were big, jersey was big, shoulder pads were big,” he remembered. So, he fields a punt and his pants go half-mast. He pulls them up and holds them up all the way to the end zone.
Tellingly, no one gained ground on the kid running with one hand on the football and the other on the back of his britches.
This is something for a father to behold, the son he once could rest in the palm of his hand now performing in the most physically demanding arena. “From the incubator to the NFL, God works things out,” Wister Coleman said.
It was Wister who bestowed upon his son the nickname that makes the rounds only among family and close friends. Atlanta has not yet seized upon it. “Rock.” As in sturdy as a rock.
“Every day I’m proud of myself for getting this far and not letting anything control that or stop me from I wanted to do,” Rock said.
Outfitted now in perfectly tailored official NFL clothing, Coleman is coming off his most productive game of the season – 82 yards rushing, one catch for 22 more yards at New York. Depending upon the soundness of Freeman’s shoulder, he may be called upon for a little extra Sunday.
He’ll be prepared. In Carolina, like every other gameday, Coleman will use his eye-black to trace a cross on his cheek. It certainly can’t hurt putting that accessory to use for a little extra divine protection.
Coleman is a particularly elusive interview subject when the topic is football and his place in the Falcons’ offense. Raised in the household of African immigrants, where quiet humility was a family trait, he is just not that interested in diving into the exaggerated glories and overblown controversies of professional football.
He’s much more apt to expand on the journey he made last offseason to West Africa, back to his parents’ origins in Liberia and Ghana. On a mission trip there with his father and his church, he oversaw the opening of a dozen wells delivering clean water where before there was none. He distributed clothing and books along the way. A country that had been long at war with itself was in need of everything.
“It had a real big effect, just seeing where my parents were born. That’s what I want to do, I want to help back home. It’s real bad, lot of poverty, seeing the kids drinking mud water. Not having any proper clothes or proper shoes. It touched me and humbled me,” he said.
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“He was extremely inspired by that trip,” his father said. “He is very devoted to helping out.”
But this is the season when football is the only thing anyone wants to discuss. And, then, it’s largely left to others to debate how Coleman and his gifts are being utilized.
The boss wants more carries for everybody, Coleman included.
“Devonta gets more carries, but Tevin is still a real factor in what we do,” Dan Quinn said. “We feel the two of them have such balance to what we do, try to feature them as much as we can.
“I’m pleased with how we’re running it. I’m just not pleased with the number of runs that we’re getting. We’re just not getting enough of them. Both Tevin and Free’s yards per carry are where we’d expect them. We’d like for them to have more opportunities.”
Coleman is averaging a carry less than a season ago, yet his average gain per carry is up a yard. Touchdowns are way down (Coleman had 11 rushing and receiving scores in 13 games last season, and has but two through seven games this year). The receiving numbers are roughly similar.
Hmmm, might be interesting to see what Coleman would make of a few more touches. The quarterback seems unconcerned about that theory. To his way of thinking the universe has a way of smoothing out the numbers before the concrete sets.
“The ball is going to find everybody throughout the year,” Ryan said.
And when the rock finds Rock, history shows there should be no reason for him not to make good on the opportunity.