Former NFL player Coates 'at home' helping CSU football program

WILBERFORCE — It’s just one flight of steps up a dark, musty stairwell from the Central State football locker room to the old, second-floor offices in McPherson Stadium, but when you make that climb it’s kind of like scaling Everest.

The air is pretty rarefied up there when it comes to football pedigree.

Sitting behind his desk in the head coach’s office Friday afternoon was E.J. Junior, a two-time All-American linebacker at Alabama who played for two national championship teams there, was a first round pick in the NFL draft, played 13 years in the league and twice was a Pro Bowl selection.

Hunched over a projector with some players gathered around him in a meeting room was Chad Eaton, who was drafted out of Washington State and spent nine seasons in the NFL as a massive defensive lineman.

Down a hallway was the cramped office of Ben Coates, who was an NFL tight end 10 years with New England and Baltimore, was a five-time Pro Bowl selection, twice was named All Pro, played in two Super Bowls and won the big ring with the Ravens.

Floating around in the air up there are the ghosts of three other former NFL players — Carl Powell, Larry Moore and Ron Carpenter — all who recently coached CSU football. Just across the parking lot from the football stadium, in the athletic offices at Beacom-Lewis Gym, you’ll find Marauders Athletics Director Kellen Winslow, an NFL Hall of Fame tight end with the San Diego Chargers.

While Junior said he looks at the NFL guys on his staff as having “their Ph.D in football,” none has more in common with the CSU players than does Coates.

Once upon a time he was them.

The other guys came from big schools and BCS programs, but Coates played at Livingstone College, a small, historically black school in Salisbury, N.C.

“For me this is a case of been there, done that,” Coates said. “I’m at home here. I came from a school of the same magnitude as Central State. We didn’t have a lot of scholarships and as football players, a lot of us were kind of under-sold and overlooked.

“People look at the level of competition we play against and say, ‘Yeah, that’s fine, but can they do it against the big boys?’ They doubt you and you must prove them wrong. It’s a feeling that stays with you throughout your career.

“Quite frankly, I think I speak for all guys who come out of small schools. All we’re looking for is a chance to showcase what we’re capable of doing.”

Who is this guy?

Coates grew up in Greenwood, S.C., where he said his parents worked at the local cotton mill.

“My mother worked third shift, my father first,” he said. “There were eight of us kids and we lived in a three-bedroom house. The four boys had one room, the four girls had another and our parents had the other. I was the first person in our family to go to college.”

And that only happened because he went out for football for the first time ever as a high school senior. He ended up with just three college offers — Savannah State, Johnson C. Smith and Livingstone.

Although he set all kinds of records in the Blue Bears program, NFL teams still were hesitant and he wasn’t drafted until the fifth round by New England.

“I remember a couple of Boston Globe writers asking ‘Why did they draft this guy? ... Where’s this guy from?’ ” he said with a smile. “I’m pretty sure they’re not writing that anymore.”

The script changed for Coates in his third season when the Pats hired Bill Parcells as the head coach and made quarterback Drew Bledsoe the No. 1 pick in the draft.

The often-bombastic Parcells is a guy who likes to utilize his tight end and Coates went from 30 catches in his first two years combined to the Pats leading receiver with 53 catches for 629 yards and eight touchdowns.

“If you do your job and do it on a consistent basis you’ll have no problem with Parcells,” Coates said. “But if you’re an emotional roller coaster, he’ll be on you. I’ve seen him ride guys and they drop their head and go into a shell and when you look up the next time the guy’s been traded or cut.”

But the biggest boon to Coates’ career was Bledsoe. “There was just something with Drew when we first met,” he said. “There was a bond there. I’d talk to his grandmother and his father, Matt.

“In a clutch situation Drew went to me even though everyone in the stadium knew what was going to happen. He knew wherever he threw it, I was going to be there and I was going to hang on.”

From 1993-98, Coates led his team in touchdowns. Although the Pats made it to Super Bowl XXXI, they lost to Green Bay. But after he was released and picked up by Baltimore in 1999, he made it to Super Bowl XXXV, where the Ravens were victorious.

Coates was chosen to the NFL’s All Decade Team of the 1990s and three years ago was enshrined in the Patriots Hall of Fame. Ranked among the league’s all-time top 10 tight ends in career receptions, yards and touchdowns, he’ll almost certainly make the pro football Hall of Fame, as well.

For the past several years, he’s been a coach on every level. He returned to Livingstone, then joined Frankfort with NFL Europe, did an internship with Parcells and the Dallas Cowboys, coached the Cleveland Browns tight ends and when head coach Romeo Crennel and his staff were let go, he joined a friend at a North Carolina high school for a season before coming to CSU as the offensive coordinator in 2009.

Seeds of change

CSU never has quite recovered from having the football program put in mothballs for eight years beginning in the late 1990s. In the six seasons since football has been reinstated, the Marauders have won just 12 of 54 games.

Until last year, the program had no scholarships even though it had jumped from the NAIA to the NCAA’s Division II. Now Junior has the equivalent of 13 in-state scholarships to be parceled out among the 103 guys out for football.

Against the tough backdrop, his teams have gone 1-10 his first two seasons, but he believes the seeds of change have sprouted. He has more players out for football and he likes the makeup of his staff.

“Just because guys played in the league doesn’t make them a good coach,” Junior said. “But the ones we have here can teach the game. They’re good communicators and they also can be father figures and we can use that, too.”

Although he retired from the NFL 11 seasons ago, the 42-year-old Coates said the Marauder players know who he is.

“They YouTube you and Google you before you get here,” he laughed. “They know some of your stats better than you do.”

And in turn he said he knows them better than they imagine. “Like I said, I’m from a place just like this,” he said, only to pause, smile and then amend that last thought. After all, North Carolina – first Salisbury and now Charlotte, where he has a home and two sons ages 12 and 8 — is not quite rural Greene County.

“I’m still getting used to everything being flat and corn growing everywhere you look and the deer jumping out in front of you at any time,” he said.

But as surprises go that’s nothing like the rarefied air you find once you scale that dark, musty stairwell at McPherson Stadium.

About the Author