BC's Coleman shows promise, progress

NEWTON, Mass. -- Johnathan Coleman has traveled a long road on his way to Boston College.

The 19-year-old redshirt freshman receiver was born in Manhattan. When he was very young, his mother, Vanci Coleman, moved the family to South Carolina for a few years. Unable to find work there, she again uprooted the family and replanted in the Bronx.

Back in New York City, things didn't get any easier for Vanci.

"We were living a hard life," said Coleman, who has an 18-year-old sister and 11-year-old brother, each with different fathers than his own. "She wanted to get some money, so she started selling drugs on the street."

Eventually, she got arrested for drug trafficking and a judge gave her a choice: spend four or five years in prison or take part in a one-year shock incarceration program -- also known as boot camp prison. Vanci chose the latter, allowing her to return to her children's lives sooner.

When Vanci was arrested, then-11-year-old Coleman went to live with his grandparents in the Bronx. That move -- one of many in his preteen years -- led to what would prove to be a significant change in his life.

That's when Coleman, with some encouragement from his grandfather, got involved in sports.

"My first sport was baseball," Coleman said. "It's always kind of been my first love."

But while baseball was Coleman's first love, it wasn't the sport that ultimately made him stand out. After enrolling in A Better Chance, a national program that puts gifted minority students from underprivileged backgrounds into better academic environments, Coleman left the Bronx to attend Radnor High School in Pennsylvania.

There, he played baseball and basketball. He played the latter well enough to be recruited by several Division I-AA schools.

He also displayed enough athletic ability on the hardwood to catch the eye of the school's new football coach, Tom Ryan, who recruited Coleman for the gridiron. Coleman played his first football game as a senior, and though he didn't even know how to put his pads on at first, he managed to make 34 receptions for 489 yards and seven touchdowns in his one season.

That production, when combined with his physical stature, was enough to interest several Division I schools, including BC, Penn State and Vanderbilt. Coleman said he wanted to go to PSU, but when he looked at the roster and noted how many wideouts the Nittany Lions already had, he realized he probably wouldn't get as much one-on-one attention from the coaching staff.

Plus, Coleman said his grandfather was sold on BC's academics.

After spending the past year redshirting to learn the game and get comfortable in the classroom, Coleman is not looking back. In fact, he doesn't even want to leave the Chestnut Hill campus when school is not in session.

"I have nothing to worry about here," the 6-foot-4, 214-pound Coleman said. "That's why I don't really like going home. I like to stay here during breaks."

Coleman said he never really had a childhood, so today he takes every opportunity to joke around and have fun.

"This is my chance to live what I missed out on," he said.

It's also his chance to learn, and Coleman's taking advantage of that opportunity, too. Coleman, who says he wants to be a history teacher, is tackling a full course load -- and, of course, he's been enrolled in Football 101. His tutor in that subject was also his recruiter, wide receivers coach Ryan Day.

Day said when he was recruiting Coleman, he knew he was taking a chance on an inexperienced prospect. But he had a feeling his gamble would pay off.

"You had to kind of project him as a football player," Day said before Wednesday's practice, "but you saw his athletic ability and asked around the school about his work ethic, and people had such great things to say about him, so …"

So the Eagles talked to Coleman about the commitment he'd be making if he chose to play college football -- the sharp learning curve he'd have to climb on and off the field.

"And at the end of the day, we decided that he had been through so much in his life that if he was willing to say that he was going to work through it, then we believed him," Day said.

The Eagles haven't been disappointed. In fact, they've been impressed.

"He has really no reason to have done so well in his life to this point, to be a good kid and to be a good student, be a good person and have the great work ethic that he has," Day said. "I look at my son, I look at who I know in my life, and look at what he's been through -- it's just such a credit to him. I think he's a very special person.

"He's just getting into football now, but in terms of off-field stuff, it's just a credit to what the kid is and what he's done."

Just one game into his collegiate career, Coleman has made an impact on the field, as well.

Quarterback Dave Shinskie, whom Coleman cites as a calming influence -- "If Dave is calm, I should be calm, too" -- said he told the rookie wideout to just catch the ball. Showing he's a quick study, Coleman did -- he had three receptions for 98 yards in the season opener to lead the team against Weber State.

"He has a lot to learn," Day said. "He's only been playing for two years, and he has progressed quickly but he has a long way to go."

Coleman, who said he talks to his mother every day, has come this far and he doesn't plan on stopping.

"I'm only 19," he said, "I still have my whole life ahead of me."

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and contributes to ESPNBoston.com.