OLB Coleman shoulders heavy load

The circumstances were rarely ideal for Bills college free agent Antonio Coleman growing up. Born the youngest of five brothers, all of whom had been in and out of prison, young Antonio had only one true outlet, sports.

The Mobile, Alabama native played everything from the time he was four-years old. Football, basketball, baseball and soccer kept him busy, gave him a sense of purpose and made him responsible. Budgeting his time between school and sports however, would pale in comparison to the five new responsibilities he was about to inherit.

One Sunday when Coleman was leaving church he was presented with the horrifying news that his older brother Anthony had taken his own life.

"He had been locked up," said Coleman. "His fiancé was the reason he got locked up and when he got out he found out she was cheating. The guy she was cheating with was putting his hands on his kids. He said he was going to do it, but knowing what type of person he was I didn't take it seriously, but he said it."

With his brother suddenly gone Coleman was handed the responsibility of raising his five nieces and nephews. He was 15-years old.

"I was in the ninth grade," said Coleman. "My mom didn't work. She was on social assistance. She lived in the projects. I tried to help around the house as much as I could and I'd work different jobs."

Coleman still had four older brothers, but with all of them running afoul of the law the burden was on Antonio. His three nephews and two nieces were between the ages of eight and 12.

"It was tough, but I knew that my brother would want me to take care of them," Coleman said. "They had no one else besides me and my mom. I was around them since they were born, so the relationship part was easy, but balancing school and work was difficult. If I wasn't playing sports I was in the books or helping my mom with the kids."

Coleman got a job at the city's housing board. He also worked construction in the summers.

"The summers were tough," he said. "I'd get up and go to the high school and work out. I'd come home and take a shower and go to work from 8-to-4 and then go back to school and work out again. Then I'd head home and help around the house. I had a level head. I was humble. I knew what I wanted out of life."

Learning from an early age not to repeat the mistakes of his older brothers, Coleman stayed on a good path by remaining immersed in athletics despite all the other responsibilities at home. All that hard work soon resulted in an opportunity that he did not expect.

"Playing football in high school I didn't know anything about college scholarships," he said. "I was just playing for the love of the game. But I got a scholarship offer and had an opportunity to go and better myself to make a better life for the kids."

Coleman was offered a scholarship to Auburn. The opportunity of a free education was overwhelming, but it would also present new challenges with campus almost three hours away from his home in Mobile. Tending to the needs of his nieces and nephews would be even more challenging.

"It was tough during football season," Coleman admitted. "My mom would come up to the games and bring the kids sometimes. They supported me as much as they could. But whenever I had some down time, I would be down in Mobile, or I'd bring them up to campus with me for a while."

Excelling as a pass-rushing defensive end, Coleman would earn 1st Team All-SEC honors as well as SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors in his college career. He led the Southeast Conference in sacks as a senior. Those awards paled in comparison though to being named the first recipient of the Hard Fighting Soldier award by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was also recently named the Unsung Hero by the FCA chapter in Clinton, Alabama, an Auburn Alumni group.

"Those awards for off the field excellence mean more than the All-SEC and SEC Defensive Player of the Year," said Coleman. "It wasn't about football for me. It was about going to school, getting an education and making a better life for my family. Football just enabled me to do that. I hold football real highly, but my family is first and they're going to be there when football is gone."

Being the father figure to Terrence (20), Anthony Jr. (20), Anthony (19), Antwaneisha (16) and Talisha (15), Coleman has emphasized a college education. He also practiced what he preached graduating with degrees in criminal justice and health promotion. Coleman plans to get his master's degree and is considering law school after football.

One of his oldest nephews Terrence, appears to be on a good path. It's similar to that of his uncle's.

"My nephew he signed to play with Auburn," said Coleman. "He went to junior college last year, but he's going to be at Auburn in September."

Terrence plays defensive end, just like Coleman did for the Tigers.

"He was in Mobile when I was down there last week and we worked out together and he really looks up to me," Coleman said. "I just want to show him what hard work can get you. I told him I had to work for everything I got and that's just the way of the world. If you want it, you have to work for it. I feel like he's learned a lot from me and he wants to follow my footsteps."

As much as Coleman has been a father figure and support system to his nieces and nephews, he still thinks of their father and how Anthony supported him.

"The special thing about my brother was I started playing football when I was four and he was at every one of my football games, basketball games, baseball games, soccer games," said Coleman. "He was at every one of them. We had that bond and we were that close. He always wanted to see me excel and make it to the next level. He was proud of what I was doing."

Now he's facing a new challenge. Coleman will try to make an NFL roster as an undrafted rookie free agent. He'll do it while also taking on the task of a position switch, as the Bills have him lined up at outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive system. The Auburn product has clearly juggled more responsibilities than that before. That's why he's grateful just for the chance to prove himself.

"All I've ever asked for is an opportunity," he said. "It's been a long road, but I've never held my head down. I've always been positive and I've always been a guy that wants to work and earn everything he gets."

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