Football is about a lot of things — the spectacle, the TV, the money, the trophy, the rings. But it is built on a lot of other things, such as great personalities and great stories. One of those people with one of those quintessential football stories is new Jet Lanier Coleman.
Whodat? Coleman is someone most fans have never heard of before, the 6’4″, 322-pound defensive tackle from New Orleans and Louisiana-Lafayette. Less than a week ago he went from longshot tryout at the Jets’ rookie minicamp to newly signed undrafted free agent.
But that only begins to scratch this story’s surface. Coleman was a longer shot than most tryouts in part because he’d been out of the game for three years. Well, out of the game but not far from it. As the friendly, intense big guy told me as we walked down the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center first-floor hallway last Saturday, when he was still an unsigned tryout, he’d spent those three years well in investing for his future by moving into the ranks of college strength and conditioning coaches. This past season he was one of the nation’s youngest strength coaches at the University of California.
“In my job, a lot of guys I work with and a lot of the mentors I have, they say to the guys they work with, ‘What do you desire? What do you want most in life?” he told me this week from his new spot in the Jets’ locker room. “When I look back on everything, in my youth, as a strength coach, my desire, my passion obviously is to help motivate and mold guys. But also, it was to still play football.
“So coming back into it was a huge thing on my part. I told some of my athletes I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t get back and give it a shot.”
Coleman was “in it” in the first place for his decent career for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns in 2007-08, which got him on NFL draft radars only to the extent that he received a tryout with Minnesota in ’09. And that may have come about due to the scouting of another product of Bayou country, then-Vikings D-line coach Karl Dunbar.
“Coach Dunbar is legendary in my part of the country in South Louisiana, for not only the type of coach he is but the type of man he is,” Coleman said. “When it comes to anything in sports, before we walk through those doors, we’re men first, in the community and as leaders. He’s one of those to me, somebody I’ve always looked up to and a lot of the coaches I’ve worked for and worked with have felt the same, that he’s a great man.
“The story goes that Coach Dunbar was at LSU’s pro day, his alma mater, and he just came down I-10. When he saw me at my pro day, he was pretty impressed and told my position coaches he was pretty interested in me,” Coleman said, adding of the trip north, “It didn’t work out. I felt like I had done a lot, I had done everything I could, and when they told me they weren’t going to give me another opportunity, that was pretty tough to deal with.
“Not that I used the three years to recover from it, but it really took me a while to refocus my emotions back from football. It was a very difficult thing to deal with at the time. But I came out of it OK, I guess,” he said with a chuckle.
Coleman began his post-football career path, first with UL, then Rice for a year and a half, then Cal. But he kept in touch with Coach Dunbar, who texted him to “Keep on fighting for it, find a way in.
“It was not a big speech, nothing overly motivational,” Coleman said, “but it was just something that was enough for me to keep on fighting for this goal I had for this coming season.”
Dunbar, of course, moved on in his career path, from the Vikes to the Jets before last season. Fast-forward to this offseason. The Jets brought 61 players to their rookie minicamp: their seven draft picks, 29 undrafted free agents, 25 first-year players. The odds are prohibitively against any tryout player making any NFL roster.
But Coleman showed head coach Rex Ryan, coordinator Dennis Thurman and Dunbar that he could stay play the game. And after the release of signed undrafted FA Roosevelt Holliday, Coleman found his way in.
“It was such a huge victory, so to speak, for me, my family, my loved ones, my support system,” he said. That support system is large and includes his mom and dad, Ané and Larry, his girlfriend Alyssa, and strength coaches Rob Phillips (Tulane), Rusty Whitt (Louisiana), Jared Kaaiohelo (Rice), his coaches at Cal and coaches Chris DiSanto and Derek Keyes with the Cleveland Browns.
And he’s got a bunch of friends and well-wishers from down home and around the country who are now with him on his dream ride.
“Some of my friends are like, ‘Your goal is to go out there and be a Hall of Famer.’ Ultimately, yeah, you want to be the absolute best you can be,” he agreed. “But right now my goal is to be in the best shape I can be coming into training camp. My goal now is to go have a good lunch, go have a good meeting with Coach Dunbar, then come back and have another great day on Friday.”
Lanier Coleman may have taken some time to fight his way off that writer’s block he had, but now he’s begun writing one of those fine NFL stories, and there’s no last page in sight.
Tags: Dennis Thurman, Karl Dunbar, Lanier Coleman, Rex Ryan, rookie minicamp
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