Character (Ac)Counts: Steelers Wide Receiver Sammie Coates
by Rebecca Rollett
I was aware, vaguely, that third-round pick Sammie Coates was a so-called “high character” guy. These days, as far as I can tell, “high-character” mainly means you don’t actually have much of a rap sheet, and a team doesn’t have reason to believe you are likely to accumulate one if they draft you.
After Coates was drafted I read a short item indicating he was indeed one of those “high character” guys, that he wanted to start a foundation for kids without fathers in his hometown. But until I started researching for this article I didn’t realize that Coates blows the “high-character” moniker out the window. The problem with this article is not to stretch a few promising hints into a narrative but to reduce the flood of information and incidents to a manageable amount. So what’s so special about him?
The Genesis of Sammie Coates’ Heart for the Hurting
Like so many NFL players, Coates spent a portion of his youth in a single-parent home. But in his case, the lack of a father was not the usual story.
As Joel A Erickson of AL.com tells it:
When Coates first started playing sports, his father was always there.
His dad came to every game. Attended most practices, too. Sammie Sr. worked a lot of jobs, according to Justin Besteda, Coates’ best friend since he was in kindergarten, but he always seemed to find time to make it to the stands or the sideline to watch his son play.
And on days they weren’t playing, Coates and Besteda would go to the grocery store where his father worked, just to hang out.
“We were all close to Sammie’s daddy,” Besteda said. “His dad was such a great person when he was growing up. He’d help anybody. That’s the way I remember him.”
Sammie Sr. died in an industrial accident when Coates was in fifth grade.
“When he first lost his dad, it was rough,” another childhood friend, Andrew Williams, a walk-on running back at Auburn, said in an email. “He felt like love had been taken away from him, and he didn’t trust anyone.”
In the midst of dealing with unspeakable grief, Coates needed somebody to stand by him the way his father always had. His mother, Sharon, provided the kind of strong leadership that made Coates the man he is today, but he also needed somebody to be there when she couldn’t be.
Besteda and Williams, his best friends growing up in Leroy, stepped into the gap.
“They’ve been my best friends since I was 12,” Coates said. “They’ve always been there for me, and I’ve always been there for them. It built us into who we are today.”
Take a good look at the picture heading the article. He is wearing two wristbands, one on each arm. One is for Kayla Perry, a student at Auburn who is fighting cancer. The other is for Kenzie Ray, a little girl with a rare form of leukemia. Kenzie Ray and Coates have developed a relationship so close that she calls him her older brother, and her mother considers Coates to be part of the family. What intrigues me most about the story, though, more than the four-hour round trips he made to see her in the hospital during his off-days or getting special cleats with her name on them made for the Combine, is how he came to know her in the first place.
Kenzie Ray was at a September 2013 Auburn game by special invitation, so that she could talk with offensive tackle Shon Coleman, a cancer survivor. After the talk, she was sitting outside the locker room, tired and waiting to go home, when Coates walked by. He had no idea who she was or why she was there, but he stopped to talk, and they have been talking ever since.
Maybe my expectations are set too low, but this is a college kid who has just played in an exhausting game and probably has schoolwork left to do. (Before you laugh, keep reading…) I found myself wondering how many of his teammates even noticed Kenzie, much less bothered to stop and talk to her. But he did, and as he tells it this has benefited him as much as her.
Kenzie helps Coates maintain some perspective. “This little girl has more faith than I do,” he says. And Coates helps Kenzie feel normal—Keisha [Kenzie’s mother] noticed this early in their friendship. “He would get down to her level, like a kid again,” she says. “[Kenzie] needed that.”
Last summer, when Kenzie contracted pneumonia and doctors said she might never leave her Birmingham hospital, Coates supported her entire family with his visits and calls. If Kenzie wouldn’t answer, he would blow up Keisha’s phone, worried that something had happened. When he could sense Keisha’s stress, he relayed one message over and over: It’s going to be O.K. “I know he doesn’t fully get it, because he’s a kid himself and not a parent,” says Keisha, “but when he lays eyes on his firstborn, he’ll understand what he has done for our family.”
One day Keisha Ray called Coates to tell him Kenzie might not live through the night. He made the two-hour drive to the hospital and stayed for hours with the unconscious girl, holding her hand and praying. The family was stunned to find him there, and even more stunned when he assured them she would make it. And of course, she did.
Greg Ostendorf wrote in his ESPN blog last fall:
With Coates, it’s about more than football. He led Auburn with 42 receptions, 902 yards and 7 touchdowns last season, but he will be the first to tell you that it doesn’t matter how many catches or yards he has… He just wants to use his abilities to help other people, people like Kenzie.
“Sammie’s got a big heart,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “Obviously he loves football, loves to compete, but he’s got a big heart for things outside of football.
“Usually if you’re around Sammie and he doesn’t have a big smile or he seems down, it’s because one of those kids that he’s gotten close to is struggling. It gets him in a funk, and that’s how close he gets to them.”
That’s why when Coates finally got some time away from the football field, he didn’t waste any time, and went to see Kenzie. After all, she’s his source of inspiration, too.
“You can’t get down when you see people like that, that fight every day of their life,” Coates said. “That’s one thing I take out there and try to tell my teammates to do. Play this game like you’re happy to play it. Don’t be down about little stuff, like a nick or a bruise. You’ve got people out there fighting for their life every day.
“That’s the attitude you’ve got to have. You’ve got to be happy for every opportunity you get. That’s what I take from [Kenzie]. She means a lot to me.”
But despite the time Coates spent at Auburn at football practice and the time he spent off the field visiting patients, he also took the long view about his education.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be the norm. There are many players who take advantage of the education they can get at the college they play for, and a great many who don’t seem to value the opportunity.
I recently had lunch with a retired professor of music who taught at a school with a fairly well-known sports program. He recounted an experience as a young, naive professor, when on the first day of class he noted three burly young men sitting in the back of his Introduction to Music class.
At the end of the period the three students came up to his desk, introduced themselves to him, and told him they were on the football team. “Well, isn’t that nice!” the novice professor said. They seemed a bit non-plussed, and after a few pleasantries re-iterated that they were on the team. Said professor once again expressed his interest in this fact, and the players left. They never re-appeared, and soon dropped the class.
Confused by this experience, he mentioned it to a fellow faculty member, who clued him in on what his response was supposed to have been. Apparently the word got out, because he didn’t have any more football players signing up for his class.
In contrast, Coates saw the value of getting an education. As recounted in the same SI article cited above:
Some athletes gloat about their hunger. Not Coates; he remembers real hunger. There were enough financial rough patches after his father’s death that a growling stomach can still bring a flood of unwanted memories. “You never want to feel it again,” he says.
He found ways to survive. In Leroy, he observed that some girls rarely finished their lunches at school, and often one would give him a loaded tray that might get him through the day. Other times he would eat at a friend’s house; or Williams, who worked at a restaurant in Jackson, would hook his pal up. The same kind of scrounging carried on through college—until 2014, when the NCAA began allowing schools to provide unlimited food for their athletes. Then Coates’s budgetary woes vanished as if by magic. (Before that, his scholarship checks all went toward bills.)
In December, after only 3½ years on campus (he left Auburn as a redshirt junior), Coates procured a document that he believes will ensure that he never hears that growl again: a bachelor’s degree in public administration. For a kid who once needed Leroy High’s basketball coach to wake him in order to get his butt to school, this was a towering achievement. If football doesn’t work out in the long run, Coates wants to be “a Fed”—maybe with the FBI, maybe the Secret Service. But not until after he gets his master’s degree, which he hopes to procure while playing in the NFL. “You don’t want your future family to struggle like you did,” he says. “I don’t want my kid to be like I was. I want him to have better.”
When questioned about declaring for the draft so soon, Coates said “I’ve got a diploma. That’s what you come to college for.” It’s a shame that so many of his peers don’t seem to realize that.
Sammie Coates, The Son
After Coates’ father passed away his relationship with his mother deteriorated as he first withdrew and then grew to rely upon his friends. But a sermon preached by the Auburn chaplain on forgiveness made a deep impression on him. After the service was over he felt a strong urge to call his mother. As detailed in the SI article:
“He said he was holding on to some stuff that he needed to let go,” Sharon Coates says. “If he didn’t, it would hinder where he wanted to go.”
Sammie had grown distant from Sharon during his high school years as they continued to struggle with Sammie Sr.’s death. Rather than talk it out, the youngest of Sharon’s four children retreated to his room, and the silence wedged them apart. But after that sermon, Sammie needed to get close again. “She’s hurt like I’ve hurt,” he says. “She lost the same person.”
Sammie told Sharon that he loved her. She told him that she’d tried her best, but she hadn’t known how to replace what Sammie lost when his father died.
After that call, the relationship healed. Sharon came to more Auburn games and called regularly to tell her son that she was proud of him. She was most proud in December. “I wish his father could have been there to see him graduate,” she says.
In a “Meet the Draft Prospect” video on SI.com, Coates’ answer to the first question, “Who is the biggest influence in your life?” was unhesitatingly answered with “My mother.” He even sang a few strains of a song for her. I don’t know that his voice is going to improve the annual Steelers Christmas carol video, but his heart is definitely in the right place.
His coach at Auburn, Gus Malzahn, had this to say when asked about Coates declaring for the NFL a year early:
I’m very proud of Sammie. It just seems like yesterday a real quiet, skinny kid from Leroy, Ala., was up in our office. I think he was either a two-star or a three-star and after a camp we offered him. I’m real proud to sit here with a guy like Sammie. To watch him grow, he’s represented Auburn football in a great way, he’s represented us off the field in a great way and he’s got a bright future.
I’m real proud of him. He’s got his degree, like he said, and that’s very important to Sammie. We’re excited for him and his future, and we got him for one more game. He’s going to be ready to play and go out with a bang.
Sammie Coates could have looked at his sore knee, considered his NFL future and maybe sat out of the Outback Bowl.
But that’s not Sammie Coates.
The junior receiver said he wanted to play and always planned to play in his final Auburn game. He did enough in practice to get the go-ahead and the junior who said he’ll enter the NFL Draft caught four passes for 24 yards in Auburn’s 34-31 overtime loss to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl on Thursday.
It wasn’t like his record-setting performance against Alabama in the previous game, when he had an Auburn Iron Bowl-record 206 receiving yards, but it said something about Sammie Coates.
“I don’t care how banged up I was going to be, I was going to play the game,” Coates said. “I’d say I was 85 percent. But I went out there and played for them, I played for myself and I played for Auburn. I didn’t care how I felt, I just had to go out there and give it my all.”
Coach Gus Malzahn said Coates “had trouble practicing until the last day or so. He wasn’t 100 percent. I think everybody could see that.
“He’s been a big factor for us the last two years, even if he’s not 100 percent, he’s important.” ([Duke] Williams, Auburn’s leading receiver, didn’t play after he broke an undisclosed team rule.)
…Coates said he wasn’t in too much pain, except maybe for the loss.
“It was really difficult,” Coates said. “It was the last time I was going to battle with them, and to come out with a loss it really hurts. This was the last time I get to play with these boys and I love them so much, of course you want to do everything you can to come out with a win.”
Coates said Auburn played on without Williams.
“It’s no different,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great guys that can make plays at any given time.
“To have teammates that will step up when someone is down, we did that today.”
Writing for SteelersWire of USA Today, Simon Chester had this to say:
There was a lot written in the media in the run up to the draft about the off field issues of a number of highly ranked prospects. If you watched the coverage of draft weekend on a channel like ESPN or The NFL Network you would have heard names like Randy Gregory, Shane Ray and Jaelen Collins discussed at length as they slipped down the draft boards. The problems of La’el Collins were brought up consistently round by round, even long after the draft had ended.
By contrast when the name of Sammie Coates was announced as the Steelers selection in the third round the brief summary of his significance was based around his speed, athleticism and hands. So much about his hands.
What nobody providing the coverage I was watching made any mention of, was the sort of character Coates had shown off the field …. and that was a shame.
Sammie Coates is one of life’s special people. A person with the ability to see there is more to this world than just himself. In a sport that seems to be characterized by selfish egos and divas, especially at wide receiver, Coates has taken steps to be a better person…His perspective on life is that of a much older and wiser man and a level of compassion and understanding that is not often seen in a 22 year old man.
Coates does not strike you as the sort of player likely to go whining to the press about lack of balls being thrown his way or sitting because of some minor injury. Despite being the clear number one among the Auburn wide receivers he demonstrated a team first mentality not often seen by players at his position…
His personality and generous spirit can be nothing but a benefit to the locker room and if these characteristics can rub off on some of his new teammates, then so much the better.
The scouts may question his hands but no one should question his heart. Regardless of how he develops as a professional football player Steeler fans should be happy to have a player of the character of Sammie Coates wearing the Black and Gold.
Oh, and that foundation I vaguely heard about? Here’s the explanation, again from Andy Staples of SI:
Sammie Coates has an idea. At some point, with a chunk of the NFL money he is bound to make because he is fast (a 4.43-second 40 at the combine), explosive (41-inch vertical jump), strong enough to toss a jamming cornerback onto the sideline (23 bench-press reps at 225 pounds, best among receivers) and proficient enough at catching footballs, Coates wants to start an organization. He wants to reach into communities like Leroy, Ala., the no-stoplight dot-on-a-map where he spent his formative years, and he wants to help kids who’ve lost a parent. The former Auburn receiver lost his father in November 2003, when Sammie was 10 and in fifth grade. Sammie Coates Sr. was killed in a car crash while driving to one of his two jobs, but his son also understands that some parents disappear without leaving this mortal coil. He wants to help those kids as well.
I’m so thrilled he is a Steelers and I fervently hope he will be able to use the money his great talent and hard work will, Lord willing, bring him, to do just that. Welcome to Steeler Nation, Sammie Coates.