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November 7, 2013

Small town hero

Untitled

AUBURN | It was Saturday morning and Sammie Coates simply wanted to sleep.

Coates' high school teammate, however, had different plans.

The Leroy (Ala.) High School standout was committed to Southern Mississippi, the only program to have offered Coates a scholarship at the time. Still, the Auburn coaching staff was paying attention and desperately wanted Coates to attend their final summer camp in July of 2011.

That's where Coates' former teammate, Andrew Williams, comes into play.

"Andrew begged me to go and I wasn't going to go," Coates told AuburnSports.com. "He came to my house that morning and woke me up and took me with him. That was the best thing that ever happened to me."

Why were Williams' actions so important?

That camp changed the trajectory of Coates' future, and Auburn's, forever. Coates attended the camp and dominated. He recorded back-to-back 4.31 40-yard dash times as offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn watched.

"He showed out," former Auburn receivers coach Trooper Taylor told AuburnSports.com. "Everybody looked at their clock five times and then everybody came together to watch him run again."

Coates took advantage of every opportunity available.

"Sammie kept getting to the front of the line," Taylor said. "He was going from one line to the next and the next. Sammie would run one route, then switch to the inside, then to the next, and he'd have twice the reps of anyone at the camp. He kept trying to find the best corner to go against."

Former Auburn secondary coach Phillip Lolley recruited an extremely talented, but under-the-radar receiver from Huntsville, Ala. in 2010. Lolley campaigned hard for Auburn to extend an offer, but it didn't happen. Jordan Matthews ended up at Vanderbilt and became the SEC's all-time leader in receiving yards.

Lolley wasn't about to watch another one get away.

"I didn't want to make that same mistake again," Lolley told AuburnSports.com. "I don't want to let this go by again and us miss one. Everything I heard from people I trusted, it was a can't miss.

"He put on a show."

Following Coates' performance, there was no debate -- an offer was on the way.

"Gus told me, 'I like him and I like him a lot'," Lolley said.

The Auburn staff filled the office of former head coach Gene Chizik following the camp and extended the offer that Coates never thought would come.

"We needed to close the deal; he was the real deal," said Taylor.

The camp was on a Saturday. The same day, Coates switched his commitment from Southern Mississippi to Auburn. He never received another scholarship offer, but that didn't matter. Auburn had secured a diamond in the rough and Coates was elated.

"I'm telling you -- I didn't want to get out of bed for nothing. I wasn't going to go," said Coates. "It was one of the best things that ever happened in my life and for my future. I thank Andrew."

***

Coates finished his Leroy career with 2,435 receiving yards and 28 touchdowns. He won Class 2A Back of the Year and earned MVP of the 2010 state championship game with 87 total yards and three touchdowns.

Coates' talents on the gridiron were undeniable.

"When you get to the 20-yard line and in, you know we're going to throw it to Sammie," former Leroy High coach Danny Powell told AuburnSports.com. "We're going to throw Sammie a fade -- it's too easy."

Powell, now the head coach at Jackson (Ala.) High School, recalls one spectacular play among many. Leroy was facing arch-rival Jackson and trailed 21-0. Leroy was backed up against their own goal line, needing 99 1/2 yards for a touchdown.

Powell decided to gamble.

"We're going to put a tight end on Sammie's side and hopefully they give us one-on-one coverage," he remembers. "I told our quarterback to take three steps and sling it up. He did and hit Sammie in stride. 99-yard touchdown."

Coates scored four touchdowns that day, but Leroy fell, 28-24.

Coates, now a redshirt sophomore, currently averages 26.58 yards per catch. That's the highest total in all of college football.

He has 638 yards receiving and five touchdowns on 24 catches this season. Coates has recorded three straight 100-yard receiving games -- the first Auburn receiver to accomplish that feat since Tyrone Goodson in 1997.

"He's a folk hero in Leroy, I'm telling you. He's going to be a Sunday afternoon guy," said Powell.

Talent runs in Coates' blood. His uncle, Billy Coates, was a high school star years before and went on to a successful college football career at Oregon Tech before signing a free agent deal with the New England Patriots.

Coates' passion for football, however, was equally rivaled by his passion for baseball.

Phillip Ervin made school history at Samford University earlier this spring when he was drafted in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Cincinnati Reds. Ervin signed for over $1.8 million after hitting .337 with 11 home runs during his senior season.

Ervin is product of perennial Class 2A baseball power Leroy, a program that's won three state championships in the last 13 years. Current baseball coach Matt Braun coached Ervin, but believes Ervin's got competition as the most talented baseball player to wear the Leroy uniform.

"Sammie's as good a high school baseball player as we've ever had," Braun told AuburnSports.com.

Coates stayed busy. He played football and basketball during his high school career and excelled at both. Before his sophomore year, Coates decided to give baseball a try.

"He's an excellent football player. He's an excellent basketball player -- the best basketball player anywhere around here his last two years," Braun said. "He decided he wanted to dominate baseball, too."

Coates played sparingly during his sophomore season. He became an everyday player as a junior, hitting .280 with just one home run. Coates struggled with strikeouts and showed no plate discipline just two years into his baseball career.

Coates' inconsistencies wouldn't last. During his senior season, Coates hit nearly .500 with 11 home runs. Braun wasn't surprised.

"He's one of those kids that can do whatever he wants. He can pick up a ping pong paddle and do well," he said.

That was never more true than the fourth game of Coates' senior season. The basketball team was playing in the state playoffs, but were eliminated earlier in the day. Coates made it back to campus following the loss and walked into the baseball park to watch his teammates. Braun noticed Coates walk in the park and called to him.

"You got your stuff?" said Braun.

"It's at home," Coates said.

"I said, 'go get it'," Braun recalled. "Sammie said, 'are you serious?' I told him I was absolutely serious." Coates rushed home and returned 10 minutes later with his uniform and cleats. With limited practice and no warm-ups, Coates entered the game.

"I probably shouldn't have put him in; he had done nothing to get ready to play," Braun said.

That didn't deter Coates. His first at-bat, he doubled. His second at-bat, another double. Leroy won the game.

Coates' dominance wasn't limited to the plate. He also wanted to pitch. Coates had logged zero innings as a varsity pitcher before his senior season, but Braun was short on arms and needed an answer.

Coates became the answer.

During his first varsity start, Coates recorded 16 strikeouts. He was 7-0 on the mound during the regular season, 12-1 overall, consistently throwing 88-90 mph and even topping out at 95 mph in the state playoffs, where his legend grew.

In the decisive first round game against Goshen High School, Coates threw a perfect game, striking out 12 and hitting a solo home run. Leroy won 20-0.

"That was one of the coolest things I did," Coates said. "I'll remember that for a long time."

In the decisive second round game against Millry High School, Coates threw a no-hitter, hit two home runs, including a remarkable inside-the-park grand slam.

"First pitch he sees, he hits in the opposite field gap," Braun recalled. "He gets near third base and the ball isn't even in the infield yet. I sent him. I've never seen that before."

Yet according to Braun and Coates himself, his most amazing baseball feat occurred in the state championship series against American Christian. Coates was standing on first base when he led off. The plan was for Coates to steal on first movement, but that's not what transpired. Instead, the pitcher attempted to pick-off Coates at first. Coates dove back to first, but the ball sailed over the first basemen's head, Coates was off.

Fans remember watching the first baseman race after the baseball, towards the tarp that sat along the right field wall. When the first baseman picked up the baseball, fans looked towards the infield assuming Coates was possibly rounding second base. He wasn't.

Coates was already rounding third and heading home.

"He gets to third and I send him," said Braun. "As soon as he scored, I looked up and realized there was nobody out. That was the stupidest thing I've done in my life, but he's so fast I had to send him. It was incredible."

Braun has no reservations about what Coates was capable of in the sport of baseball.

"I have friends that are scouts, one in particular was a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks," said Braun. "I asked him if Sammie had not signed to play football, would his name have been entered in the draft pool. He said, 'I would have, and all the other scouts would have too. He's scary special'."

Even Coates, while enjoying the individual and team success in football this season, always has baseball in the back of his mind.

"I wish I was still playing, I thought I was pretty good," he said.

***

The drive, ambition and motivation of any successful person always has a genesis. Unfortunately, Coates is shaped by a tragic event.

At the age of 11, Sammie Sr. was killed in an industrial accident. Like Coates' uncle, his father was also an immensely talented athlete who played football. When Coates lost his father, he gravitated toward the football field.

"He's the reason I started playing football -- it was hard," Coates said. "I just had to be strong and keep pushing in everything I do. I think about him all the time. I think about all the things he did for me in sports and I want to keep it going."

Coates' mother, Sharon, and community support from Leroy was all Coates had. The circumstances could have sent him down a path that could have avoided football entirely. Auburn would be a different place.

"It would be so easy for a kid like that to be bitter about losing his father. You see it all the time, kids go through a tragedy and get bitter at the world," Braun said. "That's not Sammie, his smile lights a room up."

Coates felt loyalty to his mother to work hard and make her and his community proud. That's a driving force. Taylor remembers having conversations with Coates about the loss of his father throughout the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

"The way his father died -- that was tragic for him," Taylor said. "We've had personal conversations, because I lost my dad at the age of 12, and it was an emotional deal. We teared up between the both of us. We talked about not having them and not having them in the stands watching you play, the frustration in that.

"We also talked about how to overcome that. Sammie wanted to make plays, and when he makes plays he'll look up and that's part of his celebration. I know his dad is looking down on him and is proud of him. I told Sammie, his father has the best seat in the house. To think that didn't impact that kid? It did, of course it did, he's just handled it well. He's mentally tough."

That desire to fight and succeed were never more evident than in October of 2012. In the midst of a disastrous season, Coates, then just a redshirt freshman, unleashed a rant in front of the media.

Coates questioned the determination, leadership and focus of last year's team. The Tigers were 1-5 at the time and Coates' words garnered much attention, and marked a turning point in Coates' career.

"That was me being me," Coates said. "That just bothered me and I felt like I needed to speak up. Nobody was disappointed in me at all. I've grown a lot from that, it woke me up. I can be one of those guys that steps up to the plate and has players look up to me."

To this day, Coates' positivity remains his most admired attribute.

"When Sammie walks in there and smiles, the whole room lights up," Powell said.

"He's a hero there," Lolley said.

"You couldn't find anyone to say a negative word about him. Sammie's got those people skills," Taylor said.

Those people skills are evidenced by Coates' budding relationship with a cancer patient named McKenzie Ray, whom he met following an Auburn game earlier this season. The two remain in contact through Twitter and often eat lunch together. Coates considers Ray his little sister and Ray refers to the Auburn receiver as her big brother.

Moving forward, Coates has no plans to detour from his unique persona filled with positivity and strength.

"I don't have anything to be mad or disappointed about," said Coates. "I have so much going for me, I should be happy. I'm at a great place and doing great things."

Twitter: @JHokanson

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