Games of chance

Why are men like Dave Coleman Jr. willing to risk so much to play a game?

Updated: December 19, 2012, 11:24 PM ET
By Kevin Van Valkenburg | ESPN.com

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n a hot summer evening, when you drive the stretch of highway that snakes its way through water tower towns and the green and golden fields of farmland that make up the landscape between Northeast Indiana and Western Ohio, it's easy to get lost inside your own head.

There are vast stretches of Middle America where the ground is so flat, if you stare out at the horizon line long enough, you can almost make out the gentle curve of the earth. Large white clouds loom overhead, casting shadows that give shelter to livestock and cool the steady string of rusting grain silos that dot the topography. But when the road is straight and the sky feels infinite, the mind wanders.

Especially when you're chasing a dead man.

[+] EnlargeDavid Coleman
courtesy of Shawn AllportDave Coleman played for a semi-pro team in Portland, Ind.

So much of the mythology surrounding "The Heartland" is just a fairy tale. It's slogan, something that politicians and writers like to use to manipulate us, to tap into the nostalgia many of us feel for a time and a place that were never as perfect, or as peaceful, as we choose to remember. If you travel enough, eventually you realize how absurd it is to imply that any part of this big and complicated country is somehow more "real" than the rest. The plains of Indiana are no more representative of our collective values, no more a slice of true Americana, than the streets of Queens.

But not every piece of Midwestern mythology is bogus. There is something truly simple, beautiful and finite about the straight lines we carve into the dirt to grow crops and make a farm. What feels hokey in a speech is actually majestic in person. Maybe it's corn, maybe it's soybeans, maybe it's organic vegetables. In Indiana and Ohio, it varies with each field, or with the changing of the seasons. No matter what a farmer grows, the crop cannot exist without resplendent, symmetrical rows of tilled earth. If you stare at the straight lines long enough -- even as you fly past them at 70 mph -- they begin to feel less like the scenery and more like an attempt to bring order to an increasingly volatile world.

At the moment, I'm comforted by the illusion of structure, of the things we can control. It takes my mind off the truth about why I'm here, driving this stretch of road, trying to remember teenage sins I thought I'd long forgotten.

The dead man's name was Dave Coleman Jr., and though we never met while he was alive -- though I never even knew he existed until I saw a story about his death in The Toledo Blade -- I understand now, we had much in common. We weren't far apart in age, in stature, and perhaps even in temperament. Coleman was a father to five little girls, and I have two daughters of my own that I could not live without. Perhaps most importantly, we both loved to play football, and were drawn to its delicate marriage of order and violence. We each played the game because it filled a longing in our lives, because it made us feel like a part of a larger brotherhood, and because it offered a temporary asylum from our worries, from our burdens. I played in college, in a packed stadium full of thousands. Coleman played on rented fields, in front of dozens. But beneath our helmets, we were two different men. I was a hammer. He was one of the nails.

[+] EnlargeDavid Coleman family
courtesy of Shawn AllportDave Coleman with his family.

In May, Coleman was playing for a semi-pro team based out of Portland, Ind., a manufacturing and farming town that has only nine stop lights and fewer than 6,300 residents. It's rural enough that the local Wal-Mart provides a place to tie up your horse in the parking lot while you shop, should you arrive by hoof. Coleman loved football so much, he would make the 2 1/2-hour drive each week from his home in Napoleon, Ohio, just to attend practice, and then drive 2 1/2 hours home, burning up gas money he could scarcely spare. On May 12, his team, the Jay County Panthers, agreed to travel to Springfield, Ohio, to play in a loosely organized, full-contact charity fundraiser against another semi-pro team, the Northwest Ohio Knights. The two squads were hoping to raise money for ALS research.

The night before the contest, Coleman called the coach of the Panthers well after midnight to express how excited he was to get back on the field. He drove semi trucks for a living, but lately he'd been struggling to find a job that would let him see his daughters regularly. Bills were piling up, and the repo man was a frequent concern. He was discouraged because he'd just learned his two oldest daughters -- girls he shared custody of with his ex-wife -- wouldn't be able to attend the game. He wanted them to see how much their dad loved football.

Though he was 6-foot-1 and weighed 235 pounds, he was not a particularly gifted athlete. An old ankle injury that could be only partially fixed by surgery relegated him to the offensive line, but on a team where getting a full squad of players to pay their fees and show up on time was difficult enough, Coleman was a rock.

The game was a sloppy, violent affair, the way many semi-pro games tend to be. Medical personnel were on hand, but aside from a few twisted knees and a broken arm, early on, the game produced nothing out of the ordinary. But on a punt return, late in the second quarter, a Knights player blasted Coleman in the chest with a block he never saw coming. Something went wrong with his heart, he lost consciousness, and his friends, teammates and family were left to sort out the chaos of real life, the consequences of risk, and calamities that aren't supposed to intrude inside the straight lines and right angles of a rectangular athletic field.

The game of football -- a game I love, and a game I've long defended -- killed Coleman just a few months shy of his 32nd birthday.

David Coleman
courtesy of Shawn AllportThe photo that ran with the story about Dave Coleman's death.

It didn't kill me, but it left a few scars. That's why I'm flying past a maze of corn and endless rows of beans, retracing the last few months of Coleman's unlucky, unhappy life. There is a picture of him I can't get out of my head, a picture that ran with the story about his death. In the shot, he's wearing an Ohio State Buckeyes hat, he's nursing a five-o'clock shadow, and he's delicately holding one of his newborn daughters on the day she was born. I'm haunted by the look on his face, by the sadness I detect in his dark blue eyes.

I need to find out who he was, and what his death means, even if, ultimately, it has no meaning at all. Football has killed men before, and eventually it will kill again. That's the unspoken truth about a game that is, by far, this country's most popular sport. (Nine of the 10 highest rated television broadcasts in 2011 were NFL programing.) Academics and intellectuals want to know, in light of concussion studies and the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, is football too dangerous? Too violent? The answer is easy. Of course it is. But the danger is part of its appeal. Anyone who buckles a chinstrap or puts on shoulder pads and tells you something different is in denial, or lying.

I've come to the heartland in search of something. Who was Dave Coleman? And why are men like him -- and, if I'm being honest, men like me -- willing to risk so much to play a game?

How do you love something when you know, deep down, it could kill you?

Helmet, Inhaler & CigarettesSteve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comAre the risks worth it? Panthers players have asked themselves that question.


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ackle football is never going away in this country. Not for the next hundred years, at least. It doesn't mean the debate about the safety of the game can't continue, it's just that we already know the answer. Football is here to stay. It would be easier to enforce a ban on alcohol or abortion than it would be to ban football. It doesn't matter what scientists learn about how much damage the game is doing to the brains of players young and old, or how much hand-wringing there is on the editorial pages of newspapers, or on the Sunday edition of "The Sports Reporters." Football is arguably the third-most powerful cultural force in this country, trailing only politics and religion. It's not just the most watched "sport" on television, it's the most watched "anything" on television. And while it helps, you don't need to visit one of the game's modern cathedrals like Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or "The Horseshoe" in Columbus, Ohio, to grasp its influence.

The underground world that Dave Coleman was a part of can tell you almost as much about our obsession with the game as NFL television ratings do. There are somewhere between 900 and 1,000 teams in the United States like the Jay County Panthers and the Northwest Ohio Knights, teams that are loosely classified under the umbrella of "semi-pro football." They have no governing body, very little oversight, and few standards players must meet if they want to play. Some leagues play high school rules, others NFL rules. Except for rare exceptions, no one is paid to play.

Many teams, like the Jay County Panthers -- members of the Crossroads Football League, which was made up of 12 teams in Indiana and Ohio -- have no standards at all. Players are not even required to pass a physical. They buy their own helmets, pads and jerseys, they assume the risk for all major and minor injuries suffered in games (they have to sign a waiver saying they won't sue the league), and they're responsible for whatever medical care they might require. The Panthers' roster fee this year was $50 -- primarily to cover paying referees -- and out of the 40-plus players on the original roster, fewer than 10 paid it.

Semi-pro football leagues are, in many respects, the equivalent of a backyard wrestling circuit. Except they are even further removed from the glitz of the NFL than the teenagers on YouTube who spend their Saturdays hitting one another with folding chairs are from WWE's "Monday Night Raw." The games are typically watched by dozens of fans, not hundreds. They're usually held at high school stadiums, assuming the teams can scrape together the cash to pay a rental fee. It's not unheard of for a semi-pro player to catch on with a team in one of the dozens of indoor football leagues in the United States. But for the most part, the men who play are the epitome of weekend warriors. Some of them show up for their factory jobs with bruised ribs or broken fingers, worried they might get fired because they can't do what the boss wants.

They play for love and camaraderie, not money or glory. They suit up each weekend because football is to them what big-game hunting, boxing and bullfighting were to Ernest Hemingway -- a test of manhood. It's a bonding experience, and a reminder that there is something primitive and honest about smashing another man in the face, having him return the favor, and then walking away to tell the tale.

I know all this because Coleman's teammates take turns explaining it to me when I attend the first practice the Panthers hold following his death. It occurs a week after the funeral, on Portland's youth league football field, a slab of green and brown earth that's covered in crab grass, dandelions and empty plastic water bottles. It's near the edge of town, beyond the train tracks. The air is thick with humidity, and mosquitoes and flies nip at exposed legs and arms. I have shown up with the blessing of the team's coach, Zeb Sutton, a round and weathered ex-offensive lineman who has run the team for several years, emptying his bank account several times to keep it afloat. Sutton, 33, is an ordained minister, but he scrapes together a living mostly as a security guard and doing factory work. Four knee surgeries ended his playing career, but he can't let go of the game. He obsessed over it so much -- watching film late into the night, diagramming plays in notebooks and on napkins -- he's convinced it played a role in the disintegration of his marriage. Coleman frequently stayed with him when he came to town, and the two men would talk late into the night about football, about fatherhood and their fear of failure. Sometimes they'd wander the aisles of Wal-Mart for hours, just telling stories.

"I keep telling myself there has got to be a reason why God took Dave," Sutton says. "I don't want to believe he died for nothing."

It's clear from the beginning I'm an interloper here. The players look at me like I'm a vampire in a polo shirt. The handful of local media has been circling ever since the incident, asking the team for interviews about Coleman, wondering whether or not the Panthers plan to go on with their season. It's an awkward situation, in part because half the team barely knew Coleman even though he'd been with the Panthers for three years, and would frequently call around and offer rides to anyone who didn't have gas money to get to practice. With the team drawing players from Indiana and Ohio, the roster has typically been a loosely stitched-together quilt. To call the team a weekly underdog would be a generous description. Many of the players hold factory jobs, or work on family farms, and their availability to play often depends on how many shifts they're getting at work. One of the players, Dave Ennik, tells me he's been unable to find a job for months and has been living on food stamps. He rode his bike to practice, and by my estimate, he can't weigh more than 115 pounds.

The truth is, many of the Panthers aren't sure if they'll continue. Only 12 players are at practice. Several have already told Sutton they won't be coming back. They're too shaken up over what happened. They have families to think about, and wives and girlfriends who can't understand what's compelling them to play football in the first place. One player's girlfriend gave him an ultimatum: Either stop playing, or I'm ending our relationship. No one wants his kids to grow up without a father over something as trivial as a blind-side block on a punt return. But several players don't want to let fear govern their lives.

"My wife and I are about to have a baby, and she really doesn't want me to play anymore," says Brian Robinson, an Ohio police officer who knew Coleman for years. "I told her, 'If my dad died in a car accident, am I going to stop driving to work?' You can't live that way. I'm not going to live my life scared. My wife knows how bullheaded I am. It's something I love so much, it's too hard to give it up because of one freak thing."

The fact that I'm here asking questions makes everyone wary. "It's hard to figure out why ESPN would come to a s----- little town like Portland," says Matt Miller, a specialist in the Indiana National Guard, and one of the Panthers' linemen. "We were just out there playing football because we love it. We were having a lot of fun until somebody died. I've been to Iraq. I've seen some pretty awful stuff. A lot of these guys, they've never experienced anything like that."

Exactly what happened that day is still difficult for many of the players to re-live. They can't help but calculate the randomness of fate, the consequences of happenstance. It was a beautifully sunny day, and a crowd of more than a hundred people had shown up. The Panthers struggled early on to handle the more organized Knights, but the game was still close. Only a few minutes remaining before halftime, the Panthers lined up to punt, and at the snap, Coleman blocked the man in front of him, then hustled down the field to try to cover the kick. The returner for the Knights bobbled the ball, dodged a tackle and then sprinted past several Panthers.

"I keep thinking, what if I had made that tackle?" says Todd Schwiebert, a Panthers cornerback. "Dave and I both realized there was no way we were catching this guy. He was blazing fast. We started slowing down and, out of nowhere, Dave just got smacked."

[+] EnlargeAnthony Coleman and Shawn Allport
Steve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comDave's brother, Anthony Coleman, was one of the Panthers' best players.

The hit, in football parlance, is called a crack block. In a technical sense, it's completely legal. In a moral sense, the issue is a lot more complicated. Coleman, who never saw the block because his eyes were on the returner, was hit in the chest with such force, the coroner later told his family it was like being in a car crash at 60 mph. No flag was thrown on the play. Schwiebert -- a rail-thin Ohio factory worker who describes himself as "130 pounds when I'm soaking wet and wearing cinder blocks tied to my feet" -- was the first person to reach Coleman. He was lying face down and not moving.

"At first, you think, 'C'mon, shake it off," Schwiebert says. "You knew his bell was rung. But then I looked at his face, and I knew he was unconscious. Subconsciously, I knew [he was dying,] and I couldn't even vocalize it. I'm trying to get paramedics over, and I couldn't get the emotions out. I could not say a word. I mean, who dies playing football? Even paralyzed you get it. But deceased? That's not something you see on the injury report when you're playing Madden growing up."

Silence fell over the field as the Springfield paramedics scrambled to try to revive Coleman. Players from both teams milled about, many of them fighting back tears, and then they gathered together in a circle to say the Lord's Prayer. As a police officer, Robinson had been trained in CPR, but he was too grief stricken to move. He decided to leave it in the hands of the EMTs. "You witness a lot of stuff as an officer, but nothing to somebody close to you like that," Robinson says. "I felt helpless. When you know someone so well, you're almost scared to help."

No one attempted to call Coleman's family. It wasn't necessary. Anthony Coleman, the Panthers' best player, their standout linebacker, was standing on the sideline when it happened.

In addition to being his older brother, Dave Coleman had long been Anthony's protector. The two brothers had played semi-pro football together for years. It had become the most important bond in their relationship.

In the hospital, when a doctor came to tell Anthony that Dave was dead, that his brother's heart had stopped beating after the hit and there was nothing more to be done, he refused to hear the words. Somehow he knew what the doctor was going to say, but he asked him to wait until his mother arrived to break the news. At that point, Anthony looked at Brian Robinson and blurted out a question he couldn't stop asking in his head: "Is this game worth it?"

"At the same time," Anthony says. "We both said 'No.'"


"I

'm not angry about what happened," he says now.

Anthony, 27, is sitting across from me in a booth at Buffalo Wings and Rings, a Portland sports bar, trying to explain what the last several weeks have been like. The day his brother died, he didn't get home until after 2 a.m., and he told his girlfriend that, for the first time since he was a kid, he needed to sleep with the lights on. Anthony and his brother have the same square jaw, I realize, and the same smile, but Anthony is leaner, his features more chiseled. Showing up for the first practice after his brother's death was difficult, he says. He sat in his truck for several minutes, just staring into space, trying to muster the courage to put on his cleats. But he stepped back on the field because he wanted to send a message to the rest of the team: This is not a reason to walk away from a game you love.

"Some of my family is angry," Anthony says. "They want someone to be held accountable. But I know that guy's intentions were not to kill my brother. He was trying to make a big play. That's what we're all trying to do out there. I know if I could talk to that guy, he would take back that hit if he could. But that's the nature of the game."

[+] EnlargeZeb Sutton
Steve C. Mitchell for ESPN.com Concussions and health concerns have the game of football at a crossroads.

Anthony is an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Montpelier High School, and an assistant varsity football coach. When he talks, he radiates the quiet confidence of an athlete turned educator. Football has been an important part of his life longer than he can remember. It's difficult -- perhaps even more so now -- to describe what the game means to him, and what it meant to his brother, and how it strengthened their relationship.

Why do people go bowling every Wednesday night? Anthony poses the question to me as he's nibbling on boneless chicken wings. Is it because the joy of that simple act, however brief, makes them forget the rest of the world exists? That was what football meant to the Coleman boys. Dave was such a big Ohio State fan, his family draped a Buckeyes T-shirt on his coffin at his wake, and they buried him with his Ohio State baseball hat.

"My parents worked second shift [at a factory] a lot when we were growing up," Anthony says. "My brother, being the oldest, was always responsible for us. By the time he was 17, he was looking after five kids every night until a parent came home. He wasn't a great student, but I don't know if I would have been one if I was in his shoes. He couldn't play high school ball because of the responsibilities he had."

They butted heads a bit, never really connected as teenagers, and in time, came to lead very separate lives, hours apart. They didn't see much of one another outside family gatherings. Dave became a truck driver, and Anthony went to college at Bowling Green. Anthony got his teaching certificate, and Dave fathered two kids, got married, then divorced. Dave bounced from job to job, had two more kids with another woman, and struggled to make that relationship work. He felt directionless, frustrated his life wasn't unfolding the way he wanted.

When Anthony asked him if he wanted to play semi-pro football with him, Dave was elated. It was like someone was offering to give back a piece of the childhood he lost holding his family together. "He just wanted to go out there with the rest of the guys and be a part of something," Anthony says. "I think it was like being in a fraternity for him. It was an escape from all the bickering and worrying."

Anthony regrets what he said in the hospital about football not being worth it. The reality of how he feels about the game is more complicated. Would he and his brother have reconnected without football? Dave loved taking his daughters to the zoo, and to monster truck shows, but he was especially proud when he could bring his two oldest girls, Jasmine and Breanna, to football practice. He wanted to show them what sports meant to him, and demonstrate how many friends he'd made through football. How do you calculate what those moments are worth in a man's life?

The Panthers plan to continue with the season. The next game is in two weeks. Anthony has already started making calls to the players who've said they plan to quit, to the ones who feel reluctant or scared. He wants them to reconsider.

"The least I can do is keep playing, keep moving forward, and this team has to do that too," Anthony says. "Because if that's their last memory of playing football, my brother dying on the field, that's going to hurt them as parents when their kids step on the field someday. I don't want them sitting on the edge of their seat someday thinking, every time their kid gets hit hard, he's going to die. I just can't let that happen."

Anthony Coleman and Shawn AllportSteve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comAnthony Coleman talks with his mother, Shawn Allport, before a game.


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he Knights player who threw the block that killed Dave Coleman doesn't want to talk. Not to Anthony, not to the local media, and certainly not to me. Several Knights players came to Coleman's funeral, and said their teammate is so devastated by what happened, he can't even leave his house. He's a father too. The guilt he's feeling, everyone suspects, must be overwhelming.

I'm lying in bed one night, staring at the ceiling fan and trying to imagine what's going through his head when something crystallizes. It dawns on me how easily I could have been him.

For years I've been toying with the idea of going back to college, of playing one more year of football at the lowest level, NAIA or NCAA Division III, and writing about the experience. I played two seasons of college football at the University of Montana, a Football Championship Subdivision powerhouse, but quit in frustration after my sophomore year. I was too slow and too short to get on the field with any frequency, and made an emotional decision to turn in my helmet for good after the season. I still have lingering regrets I didn't have the courage to stick it out. Football had shaped me in ways it took a decade to understand.

The thought of one more season full of violent collisions wasn't rational, especially at age 34, but I still couldn't let go of it. In my head, I've been going over imaginary scenarios where I die on a football field, and my wife is left to explain to my two daughters why they must grow up with a tremendous void in their lives. But now I understand I have it backwards. I have more in common with the player on the Knights who delivered the fatal blow than I do with Dave Coleman.

Every football player has a handful of collisions that are seared into his memory, hits they are able to conjure up and re-live even years after they took place. There is something primal and exhilarating about delivering a blow that knocks another man off his feet. Done right, it's as pleasurable and addictive as any drug. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the thunderclap of plastic, metal and bone ringing in my ears. Try to explain this sensation to almost anybody who has never buckled a chinstrap or put on shoulder pads and the reaction typically ranges from disgust to horror. They aren't wrong to feel that way either. Logically, the satisfaction of a violent collision is indefensible. But those emotions exist, regardless of how oafish it is to confess to them.

[+] EnlargeJay County Panthers
Steve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comA semi-pro player heads to a game.

In the fall of 1995 -- my senior year of high school -- I was one of the best prep players in the state of Montana. In the larger scheme of life, that meant very little. Montana is one of only seven states with a population smaller than a million people. But at times it meant the world to me. I was timid as a teenager, lacking the courage and self-confidence that seemed to come easily to my peers. Football helped chip away at some of those insecurities. Between the lines, I was fearless.

In a cross-town rivalry game that year, I lined up at tight end and crack-blocked an opposing linebacker with such fury, I was certain at the time I had knocked him unconscious. He never saw me coming, and I put my shoulder right into his sternum, exactly the way I'd been taught, then stood over him and let loose a primal howl. My team scored a touchdown on the play, and as I jogged to the sideline, glancing back only once to see the linebacker stagger to his feet, I was greeted by a hailstorm of chest bumps and high-fives. I earned a sticker for the hit, given out by the coaching staff to honor the "Hit of the Week," and I proudly displayed it on my helmet. In our weekly film session, the defensive coordinator replayed the collision several times in slow motion, and our team erupted in growls of satisfaction.

How close did I come that day to killing a man? For years, I thought I was the hero of that story. Now I wonder: Was I the villain?

The linebacker wasn't a stranger. I still remember his name: Ryan Wuttke. We went to middle school together, played on the same Little League baseball team. We wrestled against one another. I don't recall any animosity between us. He was a friendly guy, a good athlete, a loyal teammate. He had pale skin, a lot of freckles, and a deep, hearty laugh. And yet one Friday night 17 years ago, in front of hundreds of people, including his parents and mine, I sprinted toward him and drilled him with everything I had. I knew full well he might not see me coming, and I never once paused to weigh the consequences. That was football. I was doing what my coach asked me to do. I wanted to fire up my team, take him out of the play, and earn another sticker for the back of my helmet.

What if he had been my Dave Coleman?

I scour the Internet, hoping to find him. No Facebook profile, no Twitter account, but he shows up on LinkedIn. I shoot him a message, drop some hints about the peculiar guilt I'm feeling, assuming I'll never hear from him. Hours later, Wuttke emails me to say he's happy to talk. One thing though: He has no recollection of the block.

"I've really been trying to remember the hit, but I just can't," he says when I get him on the phone from his home in Phoenix. "It's almost as if I'm about to remember it, but then I think it's just that I want to remember it."

We laugh about the old days, and swap stories about mutual small-town friends. He got married four years ago, and he and his wife, Rebecca, are thinking about starting a family. He's the IT director for a family-owned office company in Phoenix. I can't help but think, as he's talking, these are the things I would have taken from him if something had gone wrong 17 years ago. Eventually, I circle back to the hit. The way I'm describing it, I ask him, does it seem like a dirty play? A cowardly act?

"It sounds like I should have had my head on a swivel," Wuttke says, and we both chuckle. It's a phrase we've heard a hundred times, from the mouth of every coach we've ever played for. He played two seasons of football in college, at Concordia, before hanging up his helmet.

"I think those hits are just something we romanticize about football," he says. "You have those battles. I don't know if it's primal or what, but there is a definite one-upmanship in play. You put a guy on his back, you feel pretty tall. You get put on your back, you feel pretty small. It goes both ways. No hard feelings."

A few years ago, Wuttke tells me, he went to see a neurologist as a precaution for a hereditary issue. The doctor did a full brain scan, a picture of a head that showed various colors denoting varying levels of activity. He was looking for abnormalities and building a patient history. When it was over, the doctor walked into the room, glanced at the results in his hand and said, "So you were a football player, huh?"

The test, Wuttke says, showed signs of decreased activity in certain areas. Nothing serious. Nothing severe enough that it would affect his quality of life. But it was there. In ex-football players, neurologists can just tell.

"It kind of makes you think a little bit," Wuttke says. "Football, it's the national game. But then you look at all these lawsuits, you kind of wonder what the future holds. I still miss it at times. I miss the camaraderie. There was a lot of good things came out of it. Shoot, look at us. We've reconnected after 17 years because of football, didn't we?"

Jay County PanthersSteve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comSemi-pro games tend to be violent, sloppy affairs. And just like in the NFL, players get hurt.


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n a high school parking lot in Knightstown, Ind., Shawn Allport is sitting on the back bumper of my rental car. She's brushing her sandy blond hair out of her eyes, and trying not to cry. It's still hard to talk about her son. It doesn't make sense yet that he's dead, the victim of a hit in a football game. That might never make sense. But she believes Dave would have wanted her to be here today. The Panthers' game against the Knightstown Revolution kicks off in an hour.

"Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?" she asks. "I'm sweating to the point where I can't even think."

She's spent the last several days negotiating an uneasy family peace. Dave's ex-wife Melissa Davis is here with his daughters Jasmine and Breanna. So is Heather Girardot, and the two girls she and Dave had together, Abbigail and Elizabeth. Allport thought it was important everyone come to the game, support Anthony, and that everyone get along for a few hours. That's what Dave would have wanted. Allport has always managed to find a way to hold their diverse, complicated clan together. She's a strong woman, physically and emotionally. She's been a semi-truck driver for years, and sings country music and gospel music in her spare time. She's funny, blunt, and fiercely protective of her kids.

"Other than his children, football was the only positive thing he had going on in his life," Allport says. "The rest of his life was just one heartbreak after another. He couldn't make his relationships work. He had five children with three different mothers. He wanted his family to be there for every game, and I was never available to go because of my job. That's what makes this so hard."

[+] EnlargeZeb Sutton
Steve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comPanthers coach Zeb Sutton spay-paints a number on a T-shirt in the parking lot before the game in Knightstown.

A few feet away, on the black asphalt parking lot, several Panthers are trying to spray-paint silver numbers on the fronts and backs of black cotton T-shirts. Sutton still hasn't collected enough money to buy jerseys, so some of the players are trying to improvise. They look like a band of outlaws piecing together armor on the eve of battle. Nothing matches. Helmets are chipped, face masks dented. One player forgot his cleats; another can't find his helmet. They agree to share a helmet during the game, one player using it on defense, the other on offense. A cloud of paint chemicals lingering in the 93-degree heat makes your eyes water.

Despite the uniform concerns, 20 players have shown up to play. Even Sutton has come out of retirement for one last clash and will be serving as a player-coach. If he ruins his knees, he'll live with that decision. He feels he owes it to Coleman, and the team, to suit up. Many of players are here to say goodbye, including Scwiebert, the first player to reach Coleman on the field after the hit.

"We were all going to stop," he says. "It was a mutual agreement. Some of us got kids and stuff. It was decided. But it was a rush decision. I know that will never happen again. It can't happen. You try and pick someone up on the football field that's dead, and it changes you. But we are going to play this for Dave. I decided if I was ever going to play a game again, I was going to make it to this one."

After her son died, Allport felt a desperate need for some answers. The autopsy didn't show any signs of an enlarged heart or ruptured aorta. Nothing was physically wrong with Dave. She and her oldest daughter, Jessica, spent six days going through his apartment, sifting through all his belongings, one drawer and one room at a time, looking for clues. They found nothing stronger than Tylenol.

"There was no evidence of drug use anywhere," Allport says. "I'll swear that on my grave. Obviously, if you die in a situation the way he did, you can't hide anything because you don't know you're going to die."

She shifted her search to larger, philosophical questions. Her husband, Duke, is also a semi-truck driver, and they ride together, taking turns driving their regular route from Ohio to Texas. Eventually, she had to climb back in the cab, even though she knew all that open road -- and time to think -- was going to torture her. She knew Dave hadn't seen his daughters in several weeks. He'd recently taken a job hauling scrap metal, but the pay wasn't great, and the bills were piling up. His van was repossessed because he couldn't make the payments. He owed child support money he didn't have. A woman he had a brief relationship with had just given birth to his fifth daughter, Alexandria, but he wasn't involved in her life. He was angry and hurt and lost.

"Do you think it's possible to be in that state of mind, where your heart is literally depressed, where it's feeling that much stress because you're so depressed and so distraught, that you take a hit like that and it causes you to die?" Allport asks. "I don't want to sound like a crazy person, because I'm not. But when I ask God to give me an answer, that's what I keep coming back to."

[+] EnlargeZeb Sutton, Nathan McBride and Amy Constant
Steve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comZeb Sutton (left), Nathan McBride and Amy Constant prepare equipment in the parking lot before to the June 16 game at Knightstown High School in Knightstown, Ind.

She's also convinced he wasn't wearing proper equipment when he died. The shoulder pads he wore that day were tiny, she says. As she was digging through his apartment, she found out he purchased them on eBay, dirt cheap. The pads covered his shoulders, but didn't extend down his chest to protect his sternum. Not like the ones Anthony wears. "Who buys pads online?" Allport says. "Well, a guy struggling financially who doesn't have a lot of money, but wants to play the game. Who do I blame? Do I blame David for buying his gear online? Or the equipment maker for putting out a crappy product?"

The game is about to begin, but the Panthers don't have enough cash to cover the $200 fee for the referees. Players are digging through their bags, pulling out wrinkled fives and ones, arguing with one another. Eventually, one of the players' wives, Ashley Spangler, a petite brunette in a pink sundress, decides to go to the ATM and withdraw the entire amount to put an end to the embarrassment. There are fewer than 100 people in the stands. Eminem's "Lose Yourself" is blaring from the loudspeaker.

"Let's play for Dave out there," Sutton says. "He's our 12th man for the rest of the year, and for the rest of our lives."

The first play of the game is a silent tribute to Coleman. The Panthers take the field with only 10 men. Two linemen are holding up a black T-shirt with pieces of white athletic tape stuck to the back to form a crude replica of Coleman's No. 58 jersey. The Panthers forfeit first down in his memory, holding the T-shirt over his regular spot at right guard while they snap the ball and take a knee. In the stands, Allport stares out at the field, then looks away and shakes her head.

[+] EnlargeJay County Panthers
Steve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comPlayers from both teams take a knee after the first snap to observe a moment of silence in memory of Dave Coleman.

When the action finally begins, it's like a scene from "Braveheart." It's football masquerading as stylized brutality. Players limp to the sidelines with twisted knees and sprained shoulders. Schwiebert takes a shot to the chin and worries he might have a broken jaw. The Revolution are bigger, faster, more disciplined and more organized. Their uniforms and helmets all match. They score a touchdown, then another. They have a coaching staff of four, as well as an equipment manager. The Panthers don't even have a trainer on hand. When Raul Leyva, a wide receiver whom everyone calls "Dorito," dislocates his shoulder in the third quarter, he lies on the ground writhing and moaning in pain until one of the players' wives, a registered nurse, runs down from the stands to pop it back into place. Leyva downs two Advil and re-enters the game minutes later.

In the midst of the disorder, it's hard to take my eyes off Anthony Coleman. He's flying around the field at top speed, talking trash, bulldozing blockers with ease and wrestling running backs to the ground the way a rodeo cowboy drags down a steer. He's the one player the Revolution can't figure out how to block. Finally, one of their players catches Anthony jogging behind the play, without his head on a swivel. He drills Anthony in the chest, knocking him off his feet, then screams in his face, "You got to play to the whistle, baby!"

Anthony lies on the turf for half a beat, then breaks into a huge grin and pops to his feet. Three plays later, he sacks the Revolution quarterback.

The Panthers lose 40-0. It's an ugly game, with very few highlights. But fortunately, the team suffers no major injuries. At midfield, both teams take a knee and say a prayer. When they finish, Anthony steps forward. He tries to speak, but he can barely get the words out. His voice catches several times, and he touches his chest after each sentence. Players from both teams are crying. The stadium is quiet except for Anthony's voice.

"It means a lot to me that you came out today," he says. "You know, we give our heart and our soul to this game. This game is bigger than any one of us sitting here today. It keeps us together through the thick and thin. We put our families aside, we put everything aside, to play this game. And I respect every single one of you for coming out. It means a lot to me, and most importantly, it means a lot to my brother. Every day, just tell your family you love them. Because you never know, man. You never know when the man upstairs is going to say it's your time."

It turns out to be the Panthers' final game. A few weeks later, the team folds. Anthony makes an impassioned plea on Facebook, urging the team to stay together, but it fails.

There aren't enough players willing to risk it anymore.

Anthony ColemanSteve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comAnthony Coleman addresses both teams at midfield after the game in Knightstown.


I

came to Indiana and Ohio looking for black-and-white truths about football, and about Dave Coleman. I'm now convinced there are no such things. Football is messy. It can be honorable, and it can be immoral. At times, it's unnecessarily violent, but it can also be beautiful. Coleman's life possessed similar contradictions.

The day after the game, I drive three hours to Malinta, Ohio, the tiny rural town where Coleman grew up. I sit on Allport's back deck, and we leaf through old family photo albums as her dogs snarl and bark in the yard below. There's Davey on his 12th birthday, she says. The family could barely afford a cake, but she bought one anyway. Here he is in high school, when his hair was long and curly in the back. He had such an infectious laugh, she tells me.

Melissa Davis, Coleman's ex-wife, is sitting with us. She and Allport have grown close in recent years. Davis has remarried, but says Allport has always treated her like they were mother and daughter, despite how things ended between her and Coleman. The two women smoke cigarettes and tell family stories while I take notes and listen. A few feet away, Coleman's blond, bubbly daughters -- Jasmine, 11, and Breanna, 9 -- are giggling and splashing away the afternoon in Allport's aboveground pool. They were sleeping over at a friend's house when their father died. Davis decided the news could wait until the morning, to give them one more night that was free of worry, free of sadness. To be children, just a bit longer.

But eventually she had to tell them. They were devastated, of course, but Davis still isn't sure they really understood what dead truly means. Breanna tagged along the next morning when Davis went to work at her job delivering newspapers, and at some point, she whispered to her mother something she'd been turning over in her mind for several minutes: "Mommy, I hate the guy who hit Daddy."

"I don't want her to feel that way," Davis says. "Not at all. I tried to explain to her that he didn't do it on purpose."

Allport sighs. So much of Breanna reminds her of her son. Allport was only 16 when Coleman was born. The doctors told her, when he was very young, Coleman was developmentally slow, and that he'd always lag about six years behind his real age. By the time Allport was 21 -- the year Anthony was born -- she was the mother of four children. It wasn't long after that she needed to end her marriage to Dave's and Anthony's father, Dave Coleman Sr. He was mentally and physically abusive, she says, and she had to get out. (Through Anthony, Dave Coleman Sr. declined an opportunity to be interviewed.)

[+] EnlargeAnthony Coleman
Steve C. Mitchell for ESPN.com"Some of my family is angry," says Anthony Coleman. "They want someone to be held accountable. But I know that guy's intentions were not to kill my brother. He was trying to make a big play."

"Out of the four kids, Davey is the one who remembered the physical abuse," Allport says. "I have a lot of guilt from when my kids were younger because I stayed with their dad for eight years. When I left my husband, I had no choice but to go to work. I put a lot of responsibility on Davey at a very young age. He didn't really get to be a kid."

Was it the right choice? Allport thinks so, but that doesn't mean there weren't consequences. Maybe he loved football so much because it was the one place in his life where it was OK to be angry, where he didn't have to think about the disappointments in his life.

"A lot of his actions as an adult were probably because of what I did," Allport says. "How do you live with that guilt?"

Coleman's adult life was a string of bad luck and worse choices. He could be so warm one minute, so funny and loyal, and then something would snap inside him and his anger would boil over. He wrote bad checks he knew he couldn't cover, Allport says, sometimes for thousands of dollars, but he justified it in his mind by using the money to buy presents for everyone in the family. He mouthed off to his superiors at work, and lost trucking jobs because of it.

Davis tells me Coleman was physically abusive -- a claim that Allport confirms -- and that's what ultimately ended their marriage. They tried counseling, but he wouldn't stick with it. He tried anger management classes, but eventually stopped going. He borrowed money from friends he'd never pay back. He bought things he couldn't afford, then pawned them almost immediately. Ohio court documents show he was charged multiple times with theft in Henry County and Fulton County. He violated his probation several times, and served a 45-day stint in jail in conjunction with a guilty plea for felony theft. He wrote bad checks to cover bad checks, and eventually it caught up with him. He was furious when Davis wouldn't let the girls visit him in jail on Father's Day. He couldn't understand why she thought it was a bad idea.

To his football teammates, Coleman was a hard worker, a generous friend, part of a brotherhood. He did whatever he could to keep the Panthers together. Away from the field, he was a different person. Eventually, his bad choices in life bled over into sports. Allport tells me she was embarrassed by what she saw in Knightstown. Calls it "pathetic" several times. She's especially angry that players were sharing helmets, and smoking cigarettes at halftime during the game. But it helped her understand why Coleman might have been wearing ill-fitting pads he bought on eBay.

"He was more worried about playing the game than he was about protecting himself correctly," she says.

At Coleman's funeral, players kept coming up to Allport to tell her what a great teammate her son had been. "To hear them talk about him, it's not the same Davey we knew," Allport says. "It's not that I don't miss him, and it doesn't mean that I don't love him. But it's hard to explain to you or anybody what kind of person he was. I want to paint you a pretty picture, but that's not me. I'm a realist. I can't say he was this 100 percent great guy and that he was wonderful to everybody. He tried to be. He just didn't know how to do it."

No matter what he did in his life, she never stopped loving him. She just didn't know how to fix him. She emptied her wallet for him countless times to get him out of trouble. She listened to his frustrations. She prayed for him often. It wasn't enough. Now she's determined to make certain his daughters -- all five of them -- grow up as friends, even if they do have three different mothers. She's going to make sure they know how much their daddy loved them.

It's important that I know the whole truth, she says. He was an imperfect person, but he still shouldn't have died playing football.

"I want the sport to be regulated," she says. "There should be a criteria they follow so that every possible measure is taken to make sure the safety of the players is a priority. If one of the players' lives can be saved by doing that, then it's worth it. If David's life was taken to make this kind of change come about, then he didn't die in vain, regardless of what kind of person he was."

She stares at me a long time, almost like a silent plea.

The Coleman FamilySteve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comAnthony Coleman with family. Among those pictured are Shawn Allport (middle), Dave's ex-wife, Melissa Davis (orange shirt), his ex-girlfriend Heather Girardot (brown pants), and his sisters Jessica Coleman (far left) and Shanda Babcock (far right).


S

ome nights, when I can't fall asleep, I close my eyes and replay old football games in my head. Did Dave Coleman ever do the same?

It's been years since I put on a helmet. I'm afraid of how it would make me feel. I might like it too much and -- logic be dammed -- I might talk myself back into pads. Some nights, especially in the fall, it's all I want. One more season somewhere. One more leaping catch. Maybe even one more perfect tackle. The thought fades, but it always returns. Is it worth it?

Weeks after the Panthers fold, Anthony sends me an email that arrives in my inbox late at night. He and several of the Ohio guys have joined another semi-pro team in the area, the Fulton County Bengals. It's a much better operation, he says, with a lot of enthusiasm and commitment. They have jerseys, even. He's excited about the possibilities. In his first game with the Bengals, he had three sacks and he intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown.

I wish my brother could have had the opportunity to play on this team, he writes.

He's still hopeful the player who hit Dave in the chest has found some measure of peace. Anthony hopes, someday, the guy will have the courage to lace up his cleats again.

After all, it was just a football play.

Kevin Van Valkenburg is a contributing writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at kvvespn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @KVanValkenburg.

Donations for Dave Coleman's family may be sent to: Dave Coleman II Memorial, First Federal Bank, P.O. Box 429, Napoleon, OH 43545. Anthony Coleman says all the money will go toward Dave's daughters.

The Jay County PanthersSteve C. Mitchell for ESPN.comThe Panthers pose for a team picture after the game in Knightstown on June 16.

Kevin Van Valkenburg | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine