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Eagles' Mike Coccia has one tough sister

Kristina Coccia was an international elite athlete until a slew of injuries forced her to focus on college gymnastics.

Eagles offensive lineman Mike Coccia. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Eagles offensive lineman Mike Coccia. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)Read more

EAGLES CENTER Mike Coccia is the biggest person in his family, but he's not the toughest, or the most determined, or even the best athlete.

"That's my sister, Kristina," he said.

Mike Coccia, a Bethlehem kid whose family has had season tickets for 15 years, realized a dream when he signed a rookie free-agent contract with the Eagles. He's got a good shot. The team needs depth on the offensive line. Coccia (pronounced KO-sha) played at New Hampshire, where they still run a version of Chip Kelly's offense. At 6-3, 302 pounds, he dwarfs the other centers in camp, and has the size and athleticism to play guard.

He is fully recovered from shoulder surgery that cost him part of his 2013 season. It was a long and painful rehab . . . but nothing compared to what he had seen growing up.

"Everything she went through, watching her battle back, that definitely helped me," Mike said.

When Mike was in fourth grade, Kristina, in seventh, already had spent 7 years ascending to the level of international elite gymnast. She was international elite for more than 4 years. That's like playing 10 years in the NFL.

Kristina and her toothy smile were introduced to the world as "Sharky" in a CNN documentary that detailed the amazing dedication the Parkettes girls in Allentown invest in pursuit of medals and scholarships.

Medals never came for Sharky.

She suffered excruciating growing pains in a heel in seventh grade. In eighth grade, she fractured the tibia and tore the patellar tendon in her right leg on a botched tumbling pass. Later that same year, she developed a stress fracture in her left tibia. Eventually, she underwent microfracture surgery on her left knee.

"That cost me a good year," she said. "A lot of up and downs, taking two steps back."

It was not over.

Kristina was healthy for a year . . . then injured an ankle as a sophomore, then again as a junior. At 16, a broken toe sustained during a beam routine cost her a final shot at the national team. Later, as she prepared to compete for the University of Denver, she blew out an elbow and needed Tommy John surgery.

That would have afforded her a redshirt year . . . but Denver needed her to compete for regionals. She did, and Denver went to nationals.

"She is, pound-for-pound, probably the toughest athlete you ever saw," said her father, Silvio. "She's a pack of dynamite."

When Mike blew out his right rotator cuff, he never called her for support.

"He didn't need to rely on me to give him comfort or advice," said Kristina, 26, who now works in Denver's admissions offices. "He'd seen enough."

He'd seen it all her life.

He saw her miss dances and dates because she had to be in bed by 9 p.m. He saw her diet and he saw her pain. He saw her home schooled until her sophomore year to allow more time to practice while he goofed around with his football and basketball buddies from Freedom High.

Kristina did attend Freedom as a junior and senior, and she made it to senior prom. All along, she allowed herself one indulgence: Mike's football games.

She beamed with pride when, after those games, he was surrounded by special-needs kids who worshiped him. Slowed by an ear problem as a toddler, Mike always has had a soft spot for people with disabilities. He worked the Special Olympics in junior high and high school. He plans to enhance the sociology degree he earned at UNH with a master's in special education.

When she went to Denver, new technology helped Kristina watch from almost 2,000 miles away. Service Electric Cable broadcast high school football games back in Bethlehem. She bought a Slingbox so she could watch him play.

That's how she spent her Friday nights in college.

That's how the Coccia family rolls.

Silvio, who owns a specialty flooring company in Easton, and his wife, Robyn, drove the 5 1/2 "hard hours" in his Chevy Avalanche to Durham, N.H., more times than they care to recall. In fact, they missed only one of Mike's games, during his junior year.

That's right. They attended every other game, home and away, even when he was hurt. They flew to Hammond, La. They made it to Fargo, N.D.

"We formed a very close relationship with six or eight families at New Hampshire," Silvio said. "It didn't matter that Mike wasn't playing."

Similarly, some of Kristina's coaches from Parkettes attended Mike's NFL party last week.

That's what the Eagles are getting in Mike Coccia: toughness and loyalty. Serious loyalty.

After the draft ended 8 days ago and Mike chose the Eagles over the Raiders and Falcons, the Coccias were delirious.

"It was, hands-down, the best day of my family's life," Kristina said.

This, from a gymnast who at national team camp trained under Bela Karolyi with future Olympic gold medalists Gabby Douglas, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson. Now, Mike has a chance to train under Chip Kelly next to Jason Peters and DeMarco Murray. To his family, Mike's success seems inevitable.

Maybe it is.

Kelly, a former quarterback and assistant coach at UNH, retains excellent relations with his alma mater, which in turn retains vestiges of his fast-paced scheme; the Wildcats' 36 points per game ranked second in FBS (formerly Division I-AA). Kelly will know everything about Coccia.

Coccia figured he would quickly assimilate to Kelly's current system. The footwork and hand positioning, the calls and the concepts already are second nature. He expects to make the 53-man roster.

"If there's one scheme I'll succeed in in the NFL," he said, "it's definitely this one."

It didn't hurt that he already had deep ties.

Mike and Silvio went to Super Bowl XXXIX to watch the Eagles in Jacksonville; another missed perk for gym-bound Kristina, a rabid Eagles fan herself. They spent endless hours freezing in the 700 level of Veterans Stadium, and, now at Lincoln Financial Field.

Of course, without Kristina and her career they might not even be fans. Mike was a Cowboys fan as a little kid.

Then, in 1999, Robyn won two tickets for the Eagles' 15th game. The source: a silent auction to raise funds for Parkettes.

Silvio and Mike used the tickets and watched Andy Reid's first team beat the Patriots. They were hooked. Those season tickets will come in handy . . . to watch the Coccias' No. 2 jock.

"No doubt: I'm the second-best athlete in the family," Coccia said.

The best athlete already had her day.