For 15 months, Vicky Coffman feared the worst on her weekday drive home from work. The mother of Marine Jake Coffman prayed that someone in uniform would not be waiting for her along the driveway to her rural German Valley home on Stephenson County Highway 28.
“I would look to see if there was a military car there,” Vicky said. “There were just days I was just afraid there’d be a car waiting there sitting for me. Those were some tough days.”
Coffman, a Northern Illinois senior defensive end, served two tours in Iraq for the U.S. Marines, an eight-month tour in 2003 and a seven-month tour in 2004.
But those days now seem so distant for the Coffmans.
No longer does Coffman have to worry about IEDs, insurgents and mortar fire blasting his transport. No longer do his parents, Vicky and Tim, have to wonder if they’ll soon welcome home a wounded son or, worse yet, receive a folded American flag.
Watching her only son scrimmage on a sunny Saturday in August at Huskie Stadium, Vicky seems to be taking it all in. Those nightmare drives home have given way to the four-year joyride of watching her son play college football.
“A lot’s happened since (Jake’s tours),” Vicky said. “It’s kind of so far removed out of what we’re doing now because this is all so much fun.”
Jake Coffman could hear the pads crack and his coach’s all-too-familiar country twang from his Stadium View apartment – a two-lane street separated his home and the south end zone at Huskie Stadium – as his former teammates went through spring practice.
Even when Coffman – who decided to end his football career after his redshirt junior season – tried to get away from football, he couldn’t.
After the Huskies’ 27-3 loss to South Florida in the International Bowl last season, Coffman thought he had accomplished all he wanted in football and was ready to start his professional career. But a sagging job market and spring practice changed his mind.
“I was the guy with my hands on the fence watching practice not going to class,” Coffman said.
Coffman had had enough trouble departing his fellow Marines. Leaving the Huskies with one year of eligibility left ate away at him.
“I still have friends that are in (the Marines),” Coffman said. “I kind of felt the same way when I left the team in the spring. I felt, ‘Man, they’re still out there. They’re still there.’ I feel like I left them.
“I was kind of questioning who I was and if this was the right thing. But I love the game, so the love of it just kept pushing forward.”
Coffman never had quit anything in his life, his father and grandfather reminded him, so why start now?
So the NIU defensive end decided, at age 25, to play one more year of college football.
“I kind of looked at it that I’ve been playing football for 18 years,” Coffman said. “I didn’t want to look back and regret not playing my last year. I still love the game, and I’m still able to play. I’m healthy, my mind is right. I looked at everything and wanted to end my career right.”
Football was there for Jake Coffman when he needed it most.
Prevalent are the stories of soldiers who struggle adapting to the safe, sometimes mundane, civilian life after spending months in a war zone.
Coffman, who served as a combat engineer in Iraq fixing air conditioners, power grids and almost anything else that needed it, admits life was odd after entering Northern Illinois as a 21-year-old freshman in 2006.
“I said the first year I was here if I didn’t have football I probably wouldn’t have been at school because it was hard for me the first year to take general ed classes,” Coffman said. “’This is pointless,’ I thought. But football has kept me motivated in school and kept me goal-oriented.”
Added Vicky: “Football and NIU, I don’t want to say saved him – I don’t like to use that word – but helped him get over that when he was done.”
Kill said Coffman uses football as “a release.”
After two tours in the Middle East, Coffman said he doesn’t treat football like it’s life or death. He actually has lived through those situations.
“Here now, I just appreciate playing the game for what it is,” Coffman said. “I love football. It’s a big part of my life. I have so much fun playing it. I have fun hanging out with the guys. I try to bring them into the same mindset that I am. I just appreciate it every day, walking out onto the field.”
Coffman always has been a hard worker, his mother said. But he didn’t always appear cut out to be a Football Bowl Subdivision player.
Coffman weighed 180 pounds when he graduated from Forreston in 2002. Still, when he sought an armed-forces branch to join to offset the cost of college tuition, he chose the Marines “because it was the hardest,” Vicky said.
A first team All-Upstate Illini South Conference high school player, Coffman stayed close to the game by playing football on base at Camp Pendleton in San Diego as he was finishing out his service after the tours in Iraq. He was named the 2005 Mike Anderson Defensive Player of the Year.
In 2006, he walked on at NIU and immediately impressed former Huskies coach Joe Novak. The already muscular marine added even more girth in the Huskies strength program and became an impact player by 2008 and even started the Independence Bowl.
The team’s defensive MVP after collecting a team-high 8.5 sacks last season, Coffman thought his football days were over following the Huskies’ loss to South Florida in the International Bowl. So did his mother.
“He had the same look after his last high school game,” Vicky said. “I thought he was done. Tim was like, ‘He’ll be back.’”
Father knows best.
Kill said he welcomed Coffman, who has “leadership and instant credibility,” back with open arms.
“What he’s been through, he can walk through a room, players are going to listen to him,” Kill said. “He’s everything you want in a young man. He represented our country, fought for our country. I have two girls; they’re beautiful gals. If I had a son and I was carving up somebody, that’s who I’d carve out.”
The old man
Jake Coffman graduated high school when some of his freshmen teammates still were learning multiplication tables.
Not surprisingly, Coffman gets the ribbings from his teammates, who call him “everything you can imagine for an old man,” Coffman said.
“They keep me young, guys making fun of me,” he said. “They keep me grounded.”
Teammates also call him “Corporal Coffman,” referring to the rank he received while on duty – though his mother made sure to point out that he was promoted to sergeant during his four years in ready reserve.
But Coffman also has a level of respect from his teammates that never has had to be verbalized.
“His leadership, being through the Marines and everything, it just brings a whole different level that none of us would have ever experienced without him,” senior defensive tackle D.J. Pirkle said.
When teammates see the former Marine go through practice like a walk-on trying to earn his spot, they can’t help but feel energized.
“Jake is like the heart of the Huskies,” senior fullback Kyle Skarb said. “When we heard he wasn’t going to play it kind of took the air out of our sails. When we heard (he was) coming back, it was a good feeling.”
Seize the day
Coffman doesn’t talk much about his time in Iraq.
His mother learns most of his war stories from newspaper articles. He’s opened up to some inquiring teammates and Kill, with whom Coffman has formed a close relationship during the NIU coach’s three years in DeKalb.
But Coffman would rather not talk about his service like he’s some hero.
“To him, it’s not about him,” Vicky said. “This whole thing is not about him.”
Plus, six years have passed since he returned to the States. Coffman, a sociology major, would rather talk about what’s going on now: NIU football, his teammates or his career possibilities.
He hopes to work for the federal government. Not as a desk jockey, but as a field agent for the FBI or Department of Defense.
“I really enjoyed working in the military and I miss it some days,” Coffman said. “I’m definitely not like a thrill-seeker. ... I might be. I missed football until the point that I came back, so I need the adrenaline maybe.”
But Coffman said his career plans aren’t yet “set in stone.” That’s another-day worry for the Huskie standout. And if his time in the Marines taught him anything, it’s to take life day by day.
Right now, he and his family are gladly concerned about a trip to Ames, Iowa, and a season-opener against Iowa State.
“I think because of what he went through that he knows things will work out and he takes things for what they are,” Vicky said. “He doesn’t look so far ahead because there was a time in his life where he didn’t know what was ahead. I think he just appreciates what he’s going through right now.”