All Johnathan Coleman can remember is that he was in a house full of people, and that the house was in Connecticut. He remembers his mother, Vanci, being there, and then suddenly disappearing. He recalls adults milling around the house, and that each night, he and his younger brother, Osiah Rivers, would find a beat-up cushion in some corner of a congested room to sleep on. There was a debit card Vanci left her sons. There were the vacuous looks of despair that surrounded them. Other than that, everything else was sketchy.
Coleman and his brother were there for a week - with no idea where they were or what was going on around them. Johnathan, 11 years old at the time, somehow managed to get home from that drug house with the help of two adults he had never met before.
So when Coleman puts pen to paper today to sign his official national letter of intent to attend Boston College, it will be the culmination of a fascinating, sometimes petrifying, sometimes comforting journey. And it all comes after playing 1 year of organized football.
The 6-4, 210-pound Radnor High senior wide receiver endured enough hardships to last a few lifetimes. He was first saved by his maternal grandparents, Vaughn Coleman and Linda Williams, then found refuge in the ABC ("A Better Chance") program, which led him from the hard-core streets and tenements of the Bronx, N.Y., to suburban, affluent Radnor.
He moved 10 times in the first 10 years of his life, and didn't find any stability until moving in with his grandparents in the Bronx when he was 11. He has been living the last 4 years in the ABC House in Wayne during the school year with eight other student residents and an adult moderator. He returns to the Bronx in the summer.
When they lived in South Carolina, there were times when his family's apartment had no electricity for a week. There were times when they subsisted on lettuce, chilled in a sink. Times when Christmas came and went with a small token as presents. But Coleman never shed a tear. He says he was never scared, until that one time in September 2001 when . . .
"My mother was gone and we didn't even know where she went," Coleman said. "She left a debit card for us and we would go to the grocery store and buy stuff. But we didn't even know the people where we were staying. I had no idea what was going on. This was the first time I cried and was afraid. I'd ask around for my mother and these people had no idea. No one was telling me anything."
Vanci was arrested for transporting drugs over international lines. She did 6 months as a first-time offender at a state facility at Lakeview Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility, in Brocton, N.Y. She still carries the guilt. It wasn't unusual for Vanci to have two or three jobs at once, but when she became unemployed in the summer of 2001, desperation gripped her.
"It was a desperate time in my life and I lost my job and was out of work for 5 months," said Vanci, 38, who currently works two jobs in New York City and speaks publicly to women's groups who were formerly incarcerated. "I was willing to do anything for my children, consequently, I took the wrong path. I'll play it back a million times and I'll always regret it. I think Johnathan's survival instincts come from me. He's seen me go through enough to never make the same mistakes I made.
"I'm just grateful he got out of that house in Connecticut. That was a drug house. I got caught and was never able to get back. I called my family to get the boys, and eventually a cousin came and picked them up. The whole scenario saddens me. My children didn't deserve that. But people can change. I'm very far from the person that was arrested in 2001. But I'm proudest of my children. They took a better path."
Vanci will be there when Johnathan signs his letter of intent today. Tears will no doubt flow.
Her son's path is far different. He's going to be a project for the Eagles, and probably red-shirt his first year to bulk up (he's 17 and wears a size 14 shoe, so he could grow another inch or two) and get a better grasp of the game. But he's heading somewhere most high school players are left dreaming about, with the opportunity to play for a nationally ranked program.
Once he committed to BC on Dec. 22, Penn State and Vanderbilt followed with offers, and Purdue, Pittsburgh, Alabama, Temple, Villanova and Delaware showed interest. But Coleman felt loyal to BC, since it was the first school to offer a full ride. After BC named Frank Spaziani as head coach on Jan. 13 to replace Jeff Jagodzinski, who was fired for interviewing with the New York Jets, the first recruit the Eagles' new coach visited was Coleman.
"I don't consider my journey a miracle, it's my life and the way things happened," Coleman said. "My grandparents, [Radnor] coach [Tom] Ryan, they're the real heroes, and I have to give my mother a lot of credit. She's been through a lot, but she always believed in me." *
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