Feb. 12, 2010
He shied away from attention all season long. He never felt what he was doing was any more significant than the guy next to him. He never sought the spotlight, but it found him. However, it never shined as brightly as it did on Saturday, February 6 as Huskie defensive end Jake Coffman, the Marine Corps veteran turned walk-on, turned team leader, turned inspiration, was honored by the Touchdown Club of Columbus as its 2009 Male Athlete of the Year at their annual banquet.
The evening was a who's who of college football. Universities like Ohio State, Boise State, TCU and Houston were represented, and some of college football's top players past and present, such as Stanford's Toby Gerhart, Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor and two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin, were in attendance. Former Heavyweight Champion Buster Douglas was honored on the 20th anniversary of his historic fight with Mike Tyson.
Coffman described it as a "surreal moment" to be in the company of those he had watched on television. Any uneasiness he was feeling went away when one man walked into the room; NIU head coach Jerry Kill.
"Having Coach there was great," Coffman said. "When I first saw him walk in, I felt relieved because it was nice to have a familiar face there. He also introduced me to a few people."
Coffman and Kill share a special relationship. Since his arrival, Coffman has been impressed with the way Kill cares about his players, not just on the field, but off it as well.
"He's one of the coaches I got to know off the field," he said. "Like I said in my speech, he cares about the growing and molding of the man and not just the player. He cares about you succeeding in life beyond the football field."
Kills' feelings for Coffman are very strong for his former defensive lineman.
"Jake stands for all the things you'd want in a human being," Kill said. "He served our country, spending two tours in Iraq, played college football as a walk-on and excelled. If I had a son, I would want him to act like Jake. Those are the best accolades I can give anybody."
Coffman toiled in relative anonymity at NIU. While he and the Huskies had a solid season, and he earned recognition locally and conference-wide, they were not on the national stage like some of the other players there that night. As a result, many people in the audience were unaware of Coffman's accomplishments. The awards banquet was his chance to take that stage and tell his story, which has been documented and told by so many others, in his own words.
When told he was going to receive the national award from the Touchdown Club of Columbus, one part of the weekend Coffman did not look forward to was giving an acceptance speech. One sleepless night, he put pen to paper and crafted his words. As he wrote his speech, any apprehension he had was slowly replaced by excitement.
"It just came to me," he said. "I wrote it all out in one sitting. It just came out smooth. Once I put it down on paper, I felt it would be fine. I was nervous to have to write a speech, but I was kind of excited because nobody knew who I was and nobody knew my story.
"I don't like to talk about myself, but if I have a goal, it's better. My goal, going into the speech, was to thank my family, Coach Kill, my teammates and service members. If I got that across, then that was fine."
As Coffman was introduced and began walking to the podium, he was caught off guard as he received a standing ovation from the crowd. He stepped to the microphone and delivered an emotional address.
"I never saw Jake stand up and deliver his story and his message," Kill said. "He did an outstanding job. I think he did as good a job as anyone else at the banquet, and you're talking about speakers like Archie Griffin, who I respect tremendously. He just did a great job representing himself and the university."
After he finished, Coffman received yet another standing ovation as he returned to his seat. When the banquet ended, several people approached him and thanked him for his service to our country. He was impressed to see the troops were still on people's minds.
"What I got from the people there was a sense of gratitude," Coffman said. "I met a handful of veterans [from the Vietnam era] that just came up to me, expressing how much they knew exactly what I was going through because they played too.
"A lot of other people came up to me and told me about their family members and friends serving over in the Middle East right now. That was what was really special about me being there too, is that people are still thinking about our troops over there."
If the banquet wasn't special enough, it was only half of the story for Jake and his family. The night before was equally meaningful. When the Coffmans arrived in Columbus, they were picked up by a representative of the Touchdown Club of Columbus and treated like royalty. When they arrived at the hotel, Jake and his parents, Tim and Vicky, headed down to the hospitality room where they met some of the other players and their families.
The Coffmans struck up a friendship with one family in particular, the Gerharts. The two families spent two and a half hours talking about life and became fast friends. They found out Toby's father, who played football at Cal-State Fullerton, was a member of the 1983 team the Huskies defeated in the California Bowl.
When Coffman heard the Heisman Trophy runner up was coming to the event, he made a point to meet him. The German Valley, Ill. native and the Stanford running back from Norco, Calif. developed a friendship during the two days in Columbus and on the podium, Coffman even made a joke about Gerhart as they showed the clip of Jake's 79-yard interception return and touchdown against Western Michigan.
"The weekend was as much fun for my parents as it was for me," Coffman said.
"We really enjoyed getting to know so many of the parents of the other honorees," Vicky Coffman said. "We now have friends in California, Florida, Texas and Ohio."
The proud mom continued; "Jacob gave a very moving speech with humility and eloquence. Overall, it was one of the best experiences of our lives."
"It was a once in a lifetime trip and it was great to end my career on that note," Coffman said.