After finishing high school, when most kids are preparing to set up posters and mini-fridges in their new college dormitories, Rory Coleman put aside an itch to play college football and instead went to talk to his grandfather.
The result from talking to William Coleman, a World War II airborne soldier, Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient and prisoner of war who jumped into Normandy during the D-Day invasion, helped Rory realize one simple truth that only a natural soldier would understand.
“There are other things to life outside of football,” Coleman said. “I love it, but there are other things outside of it and other people need you. Your teammates might need you on the field, but there are soldiers who need you by their side on the front lines fighting.”
The Purple Heart veteran served four years as a combat medic in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and is currently serving in the reserves as a medical instructor while pursuing a degree in psychology at UCF as a full-time student-athlete. Beyond his duty as a soldier, Coleman also serves as a defensive tackle for the Knights.
“I tried to come out here with no expectations, but I knew these guys were gonna be good,” Coleman said. “I’m out here practicing and, to tell you the truth, I’ve been getting my tail whooped, and it’s a good thing. It keeps me humble. These guys are good, and this new fast-tempo offense is looking nice and real polished.”
Coleman and his family are no strangers to Central Florida. Born and raised in Orlando, Coleman attended Lake Brantley High School, where he was offered football scholarships from multiple Division II and Division III college football programs. He has always had a passion for playing football but decided to continue his grandfather’s legacy by joining the Army straight out of high school at age 18.
Rory Coleman is only two of 40 spring walk-on players to make the UCF football team. But before arriving at UCF, stepping on the football field and putting on pads and uniforms, Coleman found himself following the advice of his grandfather by choosing a life of bullets and bandages rather than pigskins and grass stains.
A year after enlisting, Coleman deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom. His tour of duty was tragically cut short two weeks before going home after being hit by an enemy grenade and sustaining a gunshot wound to the head during a firefight.
After being medically evacuated, Coleman woke up nine days later and 30 pounds lighter from a medically induced coma while hospitalized in Germany. He underwent multiple severe trauma surgeries, including an emergency bowel resection.
“I was never scared of dying,” Coleman said. “I had the mindset before deploying that I may never come back. Accepting my fate allowed me to become the best soldier I could without fear or limitations to help the other guys around me get back safely. I was always the last person on my mind.”
Despite his severe injuries, Coleman regained his health and continued the rest of his service using his combat experience to train new combat medics in his unit, which he considered his biggest military accomplishment. Shortly after leaving the Army, his unit redeployed, but this time with no deaths or serious injuries.
“That was one of the best feelings for me, being able to teach those guys and have it successfully pay off,” Coleman said.
Coleman made the decision to leave the Army in 2013 in pursuit of a higher education.
He found himself at Tallahassee Community College with his brother and best friend. However, he struggled with connecting and adapting to the normal everyday college life. By the end of his first year, Coleman decided to return home to Orlando to his family and friends for support. Upon finishing his Associates degree at Seminole State College, Coleman transferred to both his parent’s alma mater, UCF, for his first semester this spring.
As a combat medic, Coleman viewed health sciences as the next progression in his career but found himself having a change of heart. His close encounter with death has led him to a newfound passion in psychology.
After starting to understand how little is known about the psychology of veterans, Coleman knew he could relate, and wanted to work more closely with them.
“I’ve seen and experienced firsthand the traumatic physical and mental injuries veterans go through and what it causes afterward. I joined the military because I love helping people and making a difference — something I want to continue doing outside of the military, especially with veterans,” Coleman said.
Although Coleman’s desire in life changed, one thing never did: his desire to play college football.
“I couldn’t watch college football games in the Army because I was jealous,” Coleman said “I didn’t like feeling jealous because choosing the Army over football was my own choice. It filled me with resentment, but also a passion to play again.”
Coleman has adapted his experiences and lessons he gained from the military into his everyday life on and off the practice field.
He wears a band on his wrist every day that serves as a constant reminder of how grateful he is to be alive.
“I should be dead,” he said. “If there is any day I wake up and don’t feel like doing anything, I start thinking about the 11 soldiers who were killed in action in my battalion, two of [whose dogtags] I wear on my wrist. [I] was present during both their deaths.
“It’s not fair to them for me to just give up on something because they no longer have that opportunity. Who am I to just to take off a couple days at school or a couple of plays on the field? I feel obligated to give everything I have every day.”
Coleman originally tried out for tight end but ended up landing defensive tackle, a position that was unfamiliar to him
“If I were to lead these guys in to liberate Central Florida, I would have a lot of things to provide and teach these guys,” Coleman said. “But now my role has changed. Now I’m the one learning, I need to shut my mouth, be quiet and watch how everyone else is playing, and I need to learn from them in order to be a contributing factor on this team.”
Defensive line coach Mike Dawson also sees the advantage of having Rory on the team.
“Rory is a big, strong athlete,” Dawson said. “He can do a bunch of different things. He probably could play tight end for us, but we need help on the defensive line since we don’t have a lot of numbers from where we are transitioning.”
But his ability to compromise and adapt to the needs of the team doesn’t end there, Dawson said.
“We don’t lose sight of the things he’s done and what he’s given to this country,” Dawson said. “These guys sometimes forget football is hard to train for, but you could do a lot worse things. For a guy like Rory to put the helmet on, strap the pads on, I know he loves doing it every day and he attacks it.
He’s the first guy on the field just about every day we go out there, and he’s always looking to get better and always asking good, smart, intelligent questions, and he’s really been a pleasure to have in the room.”
Evan Abramson is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. You can follow him on Twitter at @Evan_Abramson and email him at EvanA@centralfloridafuture.com.
Donovan Meno is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.