By Rob Gray
AMES — The handwritten note stood out to Vicki Coleman as she went through her son, Justin’s, room.
Vicki was tidying up, reminiscing.
And what a find she made at the family’s Beatrice, Neb., home.
“I was probably, like, a fifth-grader,” Justin Coleman, Iowa State’s leading receiver, said of the sheet of paper he’d marked up more than a decade ago. “It had the list of what places I wanted to go play football and No. 1 at that time, apparently, was Iowa State. I don’t have any recollection of that.”
Fate, indeed, has taken a hand for Coleman, a former Division II player at Nebraska-Omaha, who provided one of a handful of bright spots in Saturday’s 28-20 loss to Northern Iowa by becoming the first Cyclone since 1997 to total 100 or more receiving yards in a season opener.
It was another in a series of twists and turns past life’s sweet and sour signposts.
Coleman went through the sudden death of the Mavericks’ program in March of 2011 — cast adrift, with dozens of others when the school decided to cut football and wrestling for financial reasons.
The maneuver came as such a shock, longtime UNO Coach Sandy Buda didn’t even have time to convene a team meeting.
“There was no heads up,” said Coleman, a former ISU walk-on who was awarded a scholarship on the eve of fall camp. “So (Buda) called us on the phone, apologized. He had been at that program for a long time. I’m sure it hurt him more than anybody else. It was surreal. It didn’t seem like it was right, what has happening, but it did and we all moved on.”
Some, like Coleman, a 5-11, 188-pound senior, moved up and scattered.
But the bonds remain — even if tethered only to mobile phones and laptop screens instead of a locker room and football field.
“We’ve got a corner (at) North Dakota State,” Coleman said. “We had a middle linebacker that went to Colorado State. Our quarterback, he went to Utah and graduated. Got to keep an eye on a lot of different guys playing, doing other things.”
Within days of UNO’s moves, Cyclone assistant head coach Bill Bleil and Coleman were in contact.
Coleman visited a 2011 spring practice, then attended the spring game, and liked what he saw.
Bleil and ISU head coach Paul Rhoads saw a resilient, potential leader.
“He didn’t come in here and try to make people think that, ‘Hey, I’m getting the raw end of the deal here,’” Rhoads said. “He just came in and worked hard and that’s been his best leadership quality. He doesn’t worry about whether other people are thinking he can or can’t do this, he just goes out and tries to prove it to himself.”
Saturday, he proved it to a Jack Trice Stadium full of Cyclone fans.
His first career catch — in all its glory — began to take shape as Coleman approached the line of scrimmage.
He ran a simple pattern to daylight, lots of it.
ISU quarterback Sam Richardson hit him over the middle.
Fifty-nine yards later, Coleman looked back from the end zone.
“It didn’t look like anybody was going to be there except for a bunch of green grass,” Coleman said of his pre-snap view. “I felt pretty good about it and I knew Sam was going to see the same thing. It was just like practice. We’ve run that play a million times.”
Coleman — strictly a special teams player last season — understandably deemed his splash performance bittersweet, given the game’s final outcome.
But he’s where he’s supposed to be, on a long-standing route established by putting pen to paper.
“I’m there to get on the field,” Coleman said, “and try to make plays.”
As for that prescient fifth-grade note, he’s firmly convinced that mom saved it.
“I’m sure she did,” he said. “Somewhere.”
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