Coker’s career shows guts, patience and hustle are rewarded

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 25, 2006

May 25, 2006.

When I was 11 years old, I quit the youth football league after one practice because they wouldn’t let me play quarterback.

I had a better arm than anyone and was accurate, but had a little trouble getting out of the pocket. Boys like me, they said, play on the offensive line.

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Fuming at the decision – based obviously on physical dimensions instead of football prowess – I walked off the field and never returned.

Never got yelled at or even talked to about. I just quit and that was that.

Now I think of Kevin Coker and am ashamed at my decision more than 20 years ago. He’s suiting up in the Conference USA baseball Tournament as the Golden Eagles’ starting catcher. Not bad for a one-year high school starter who earned a Division I scholarship on no more than guts and grit.

Coker’s the guy every opponent hates, but teammates and fans love. He sat on the Warren Central High School bench for three years while waiting for his shot, which came in his senior season.

He played catcher well, no Johnny Bench in high school, but he controlled the field from his perch behind the plate. He pestered opposing batters, carried on humorous conversations with umpires and spoke just loud enough for most of the crowd to hear him.

He was the sparkplug, the freak of Physics whose battery never runs down. When he talked, people heard him.

As a favor to then-Warren Central coach Sam Temple, a Southern Miss assistant coach came to Viking Field to look at a catcher.

Coker had a less than stellar day at the plate, but earned his way into a scholarship because of his attitude and his hustle. That was a piece of the puzzle missing at Southern Miss and Coker was the best fit.

He redshirted his first year, then saw very limited playing time the next two seasons. As a junior, he began to get mid-week starts and quickly earned a place in fans’ hearts. He would run full speed on walks, stretch singles into improbable doubles and became the signature of a team with players much more talented.

Sound familiar?.

As in high school, he waited and toiled for his chance to start. This season, he has started every single game, is hitting .328 and, most notably, was honored by his teammates as the captain.

The chances of Kevin Coker advancing past the college level in baseball are limited. No matter what happens, though, he will never be forgotten for those that followed him on the youth fields, to Warren Central and on to Southern Miss. In his four years in Hattiesburg, the Golden Eagles have gone 206-98.

You could learn a lot from a guy like Kevin Coker. Every youth league player that is unhappy about sitting the bench, waiting for a turn at bat, wondering if it will ever happen.

Think of Kevin Coker and how amazing a person with non-stop pep and gusto could sit and wait so patiently for his chance.

Then think of how it has paid off for him, and how it could do the same for you.

I never had a Kevin Coker to follow. If I did, who knows, I could have had a heckuva football career.