WACO, Texas—Meet Corey Coleman out of uniform, and he will smile frequently. He will laugh. The Baylor receiver will turn down the fire that burns within his chest to a socially acceptable level. It's still hot in there, but Coleman doesn't want to scare anyone away. He doesn't want to be mistaken for a jerk. He knows his need to win—at everything, no matter how insignificant—can be off-putting. So he has learned to hide that need until he trusts a person enough to reveal it. There is, however, an exception to this policy.
In a game, Coleman has license to unleash his true self.
There are two plays from Baylor's 62–38 win over West Virginia on Oct. 17 that can help explain Coleman to the uninitiated. The first is a catch he made along the left sideline early in the fourth quarter. He does not score on the play, but he damn sure wins. Coleman catches the ball ahead of the line of scrimmage. Almost instantly, Mountaineers safety Jarrod Harper breaks down and prepares to tackle Coleman for a minuscule gain. Coleman spots Harper and crouches. Then he leaps. Harper sails underneath, grabbing air. Within a fraction of a second, West Virgnia senior Rick Rumph III arrives. Coleman slides, hops and dances away as Rumph crashes over the sideline. Coleman accelerates to full speed, running past four more defenders. He has run 23 yards since the catch when he realizes safety K.J. Dillon has too much help from the sideline for the play to continue. So, Coleman hits the gas again and bursts past Dillon and out of bounds before Dillon can get the satisfaction of bringing Coleman to the ground.
"I don't like losing," Coleman says. "If you get tackled, you pretty much lost. Especially if it's the first guy." Or the second guy. Or the sixth.
The other play of note is the first of Coleman's three receiving touchdowns on the day and the 14th of his 20 receiving touchdowns on the season. It's first-and-goal from the two-yard line in the first quarter. Cornerback Daryl Worley has the temerity to attempt to jam Coleman at the line of scrimmage. Coleman swims Worley like a defensive end would swim an offensive tackle and catches a slant from Seth Russell in the end zone. Then Coleman turns to Worley and starts talking. "It was disrespectful of him to try to jam me," Coleman says. "Like he doesn't think I'm any good." Kaz Kazadi, Baylor's associate athletic director for performance, wasn't privy to the precise wording of this conversation, but he knows Coleman well enough to approximate the themes Coleman may have covered. "He's not just yelling at him for that play. He's yelling at him for every thought he had," Kazadi says. "He's trying to destroy that guy. That's the thing that frustrates him the most—that you believe you can. If you act like you think you can, that's when the beast comes out."
This squares with the description Bears coach Art Briles offered of Coleman's playing style. "He'll rip your heart out," Briles says, "and watch as you pass away."
Coleman knows how all of this sounds. That's why he's reluctant to show his competitiveness to anyone but his friends, family, teammates and opponents. "After he realizes that you're not going to take it personally and that you're confident enough in who you are that you're not going to be offended by how competitive he is, he'll show that to you," Kazadi says.
When asked about this trait, Coleman tries to qualify it since he knows some people simply won't understand his need to emerge victorious. "I really don't lose," he says. "I don't want it to sound super cocky or anything, but I have a hard time losing." This isn't limited to games. Coleman estimates the Bears took part in 300 different competitions during their off-season conditioning program. "I probably lost twice or maybe three times," he says. "I told the people they were cheating. I said, 'You've got to put it on camera.' Because I don't believe I lost."
Coleman's team has yet to lose this season. The 8–0 Bears, who came in at No. 6 in the College Football Playoff selection committee's rankings released on Tuesday, will face their biggest test to date on Saturday when 12th-ranked Oklahoma (8–1) visits Waco. Coleman also hasn't lost many individual matchups. The fourth-year junior has made 58 receptions for 1,178 yards this fall and needs eight more touchdown catches to break the single-season record (27) set by Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards in 1998.
Coleman isn't just another athlete expressing his desire to win. They all do that. Remember when your parents explained the difference between needs (oxygen, food) and wants (video games, a car)? That's the difference between Coleman and most of the people he plays with and against when it comes to winning and losing. "He acts like his life is on the line. He really does," Kazadi says. "He doesn't act like it's just a game. He acts like it's life or death. You can want to have a good game against him. Or you can want to beat him in a sprint. The difference between you and him is he needs to beat you."
That need isn't enough to create an unstoppable receiver. Coleman was also blessed with some physical gifts that more than compensate for his one obvious physical limitation. Were the 5' 11", 190-pounder three inches taller, every school in the Top 25 would have begged him to come play receiver. Instead, only a few of the coaches who recruited Coleman out of Pearce High in Richardson, Texas, wanted him to catch passes. Others saw him as a future cornerback. Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles understood this line of thinking; Coleman's size and speed made him a prototypical corner. But Kendal and his father Art noticed something else that made them lean toward recruiting Coleman as a wideout. They had watched Coleman play tailback and quarterback at Pearce, and they had seen Coleman run routes during a camp. If Coleman could combine the best traits he showed playing each of those positions, he would be the perfect receiver for Baylor's offense. The Bears spread defenses so wide that cornerbacks often have no help from a safety. So, if a receiver can shake one would-be tackler and then race away at high speed, he can turn a low-risk, high-percentage pass near the line of scrimmage into a huge gain. "A lot of times, it's hard to find a guy who is really fast who has great shiftiness," Kendal Briles says. "Corey's the exception. He has that."
Coleman's physical strength also belies his size. Kazadi watches Coleman lift as much as linebackers in the weight room, only Coleman doesn't have their bulk to slow him down. Of all the players on Baylor's roster, Kazadi thinks Coleman's body type most resembles that of 6' 9", 275-pound senior defensive end Shawn Oakman, even if few would notice the similarities because of their comical difference in proportion. "When you see Oakman, you see the frame, so it's easy to buy," Kazadi says. "But that's the thing about Corey. He's the same guy. He's just shorter."
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Those gifts plus that inner heat make Coleman nearly impossible to cover, but what fuels the fire? Coleman has always run at a high temperature. He noticed it when he was five and playing football with the other boys in his apartment complex in the South Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas. Coleman's mother, Cassandra Jones, would shoo him back into their apartment because she feared for her son's safety in an area that has a reputation for being one of the most dangerous in the city. Coleman would simply sneak out again and play more, oblivious to his surroundings. "I was a little kid," he says. "I just wanted to have fun."
Jones wanted her three children (Corey has two older sisters, Kenosha Jones and Ashley Coleman) to have fun in a safer environment, so she moved them practically every year Coleman was in elementary school. Sometimes she changed jobs. Sometimes she didn't. But every move had a purpose. "Every time we moved," Coleman says, "we wound up somewhere safer than the last place."
The family made its final move before Coleman started sixth grade. That's when it landed in Richardson, a suburb about 15 miles northeast of downtown Dallas. Coleman initially struggled to adjust, because he'd been dropped in another world compared to where he lived before. But he made friends and grew to love the teachers who helped him catch up academically after all the moves and the school changes. When it became clear at Pearce that Coleman would be able to play football at a major-college level, he began planning for the day that he could truly show his gratitude to his mother for all her hard work keeping the family safe and strong. "That's my rock," Coleman says. "I want to make her so proud. I want to make sure she never has to work again and never worry about anything. That's what drives me to be me." (Coleman has spent much of his life separated from his father, Melvin Coleman. The elder Coleman is currently in federal prison in Texarkana, Texas, after being convicted in 2013 of conspiracy to possess or distribute cocaine. He is scheduled to be released in November 2021.)
Still, Coleman knows his drive can rub others the wrong way. He didn't realize that when he first arrived at Baylor. "Early in my years, when I'd be open, I'd come back to the quarterback and let him know," Coleman says. "I'd talk a little noise. I'd tell him, 'That corner on me can't guard me.'" Russell, the quarterback who started the first seven games of this year before breaking a bone in his neck, frequently helped Coleman realize when his competitiveness had become a hinderance. "Corey, don't let your emotions get to you," Coleman recalls Russell saying.
Kazadi estimates it took about eight months for the coaching staff to understand Coleman's personality. Once they realized what they were dealing with, they worked to help him control it and channel it in ways that helped the team. "That's the part where he's grown the most," Art Briles says. "He's learned how to turn it on and turn it off, and we've learned how to manage it." For example, it's quite difficult for a player—or a coach, for that matter—to slack off during a workout or a practice when in the vicinity of Coleman. He'll notice, and he'll say something. "You need to respond back," Kazadi says. "If you don't respond back, now he's saying, 'You have no will to compete.'"
That will has spread to many of his teammates, but no one during the Briles era at Baylor has been able to match Coleman's competitiveness. "We've had some very, very competitive athletes here—all the way back to RGIII's time," says Kazadi, who came to Waco with Briles before the latter's debut season at the school in 2008. "He is the most notorious assassin we've ever had here." The staff has also learned to accept some of the traits Coleman can't turn down. His standards for his own performance remain brutally high. If he drops a pass or two at practice, it might ruin an entire day. "If I have a bad day at practice, I'll be in my room the rest of the day," Coleman says. "I'll be thinking about ways to get better. What did I do wrong?"
Kazadi or another coach might respond to such a practice by sending a text message to Coleman, but Kazadi has come to realize nothing will make Coleman feel better in that moment. He'll need the night to stew, and he'll resume being his normal self the next day. "The rest of the day is pretty much scrapped," Kazadi says. "I know that. Coach [Briles] knows that. So, you've got to reach out and say, 'Hey, there's more to life than what just happened.' Now, the response is not going to be what you want to hear."
Because the coaches understand Coleman, this doesn't bother them anymore. They've helped him learn to manipulate his internal thermostat, but they accept the fact that while a fire's temperature can be lowered, it never stops being hot. They would never want to extinguish the flame, because it makes Coleman who he is. It also might make him the best receiver in college football.
When Kazadi thinks of Coleman's need facing off against another player's want, his mind wanders to a scene from the film Troy, released in 2004. The characters Hector and Achilles are about to face off in single combat, and Hector requests they make a pact in which the loser will be allowed all of the customary funeral rituals. Achilles scoffs. "There are no pacts," he says, "between lions and men."
Nor are there any between the Bear lined up at receiver and the men who think they can cover him.