UTSA senior Nate Leonard: We all bought into coach Larry Coker's vision
I am notorious for singing. Take it as you will, but I'm pretty confident in my pipes. I think my teammates only cover their ears because they just don't want to be reminded of how good I am. Okay, fine, maybe "singing" shouldn't be the term used for my enthusiastic bellowing, but a positive attitude is half the battle, right?
One of my most memorable performances was at a McKinney High spring football practice in 2009. Special teams was the focus of the day and, since I was neither nifty nor fast, I found myself on a knee next to my fellow offensive linemen. I was mid-verse singing David Archuleta's "Crush" when my eyes fixated on a man dressed in blue and orange. I stopped singing.
At McKinney, we weren't keen to the blue and orange. You see, the Bulldogs of McKinney North High wore blue and orange and, needless to say, they weren't our favorite team.
However, I looked beyond the colors that this visitor was wearing because I immediately recognized the man. Due to my abrupt halt in singing, I had the full attention of my teammates, as they were worried about my well-being. I paused for a moment and said, "Well, I'll be damned. That's Larry Coker."
I knew that UTSA was starting a football program from scratch, but it was only until that moment that I knew they meant business. Having won a national championship at the University of Miami in 2001, Coker's reputation preceded him in the football world. As I returned to my locker that day, I found an invitation to UTSA's first-ever senior camp. I took full advantage of my opportunity at that camp and was somehow spotted by Coach Coker among the 400-plus participants. Coach Coker wanted me to come back to campus for an unofficial visit and I immediately obliged.
A week later, I found myself on my unofficial visit to the UTSA campus. I was wearing a tight-fitting polo with the sleeves rolled up in order to show my so-called "muscles." I also had four additional insoles in some thick-soled basketball shoes so that I could look like I somewhat belonged in a Division I football coach's office. Standing 6-feet on a good day I needed every bit of help I could get.
As I entered the office, Coach Coker was there to greet me. I went to shake his hand, but instead of extending his, he curled it up into a fist in order to give me a knuckle bump. I was impressed that a man of his … shall we say maturity … was up-to-date on teen culture, so I curled up my outstretched hand and attempted to give him a knuckle bump. I say attempted because we never actually touched knuckles. There was a national championship ring in the way.
I would have signed right then.
Coach Coker sat me down in his makeshift office and told me that he had nothing to show me. There was only one football to the program's name and some off-brand replica jerseys in the university bookstore. He asked me to picture something with him, however. He asked me to have faith in a vision, so I nodded my head and listened.
At the time, San Antonio was the sixth-largest city in the United States and only had one notable sports team, the Spurs. There was no professional football and no Division I football team. In a football-thirsty city, UTSA was soon to quench the thirst of the people that call the Alamo City home. We were to play in the Alamodome, which stays at a comfortable 72 degrees year-round. In Texas, only two other teams play in a dome, the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans. We were going to be San Antonio rock stars and I wanted all of it. I was sold.
When National Signing Day rolled around I was proudly wearing blue and orange.
The practice season that took place in 2010 was one of the hardest years of football in my life. We practiced just about every day except for Saturdays, which just resulted in us staying inside and watching every other college football team in the nation. We grinded out practices with one, maybe two, deep at some positions in the hottest part of the Texas day. For 14 weeks, we played football and wondered why.
Our first season of play was like an ice-cold drinking fountain at the end of a cruel mirage. There was football in San Antonio and we were going to make sure that it was here to stay. We were going to make sure that we built this program from the ground up and did it the right way. We knew that we were bound to leave a legacy and be a fiber in the fabric of something that would last forever.
We moved from the Football Championship Subdivision to Western Athletic Conference to Conference USA in just three seasons. We moved up faster than any team in the history of Division I football and we did it together as a family. We did it as Roadrunner Nation.
When we signed with UTSA, we blindfolded ourselves and stepped onto the ledge. We jumped because we were told that it would all be worth it at the bottom. We jumped but we found that we landed ourselves at the top.
It seems odd to say that we blindfolded ourselves when all we had was a vision, but what we had, and what can't be seen was faith. Faith in a man who wears a ring the size of a small baby. Faith in a city that had never sustained a football team. Faith in a student body that used to wear more University of Texas shirts than UTSA shirts. Most importantly, however, we all had faith in Roadrunners Football.
We found this faith and, upon it, we founded this program. The only singing that is happening now is the faint whisper of a nation freshly introduced to us and they are singing our praises.
Senior Nate Leonard is the starting center for UTSA, which beat Houston 27-7 in its opener and hosts Arizona on Thursday night.