Sunday, May 10, 2015

In Coates, a great catch by Steelers

Saturday, May 9, 2015, 10:42 p.m.

Wide receiver Sammie Coates catches a pass during the Pittsburgh Steelers' rookie minicamp on Friday, May 8, 2015, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo)

Sammie Coates can fly on the football field. He soars off it.

Pittsburgh will be a better place sooner than later even if it takes the Steelers' newest wide receiver a while to catch on.

“I just want people to know it's good to give somebody a friend, get somebody to be there to show them some support. It's important to a lot of people, and everybody needs it,” Coates said.

Friday wasn't a typical day in our part of the world. The sun was too bright, the air too thick for early May. The Steelers welcomed their rookies to a minicamp on the South Side, but the unseasonable heat and humidity promoted shouts from team trainers ( one Gatorade, two waters, repeat the process!) that normally would be reserved for after a morning practice on the fields of St. Vincent College at training camp in late July.

Few of the nearly 60 players who required rehydration actually will make it to camp. But that didn't stop coach Mike Tomlin, covered chest to foot in long sleeves, from sending the message he will then, too.

It's hot out here, men. It'll get hotter when the games start.

Not for Coates, and not because he's from Leroy, Ala., a town with fewer than 1,000 residents, most of whom wake up to summer temperatures hotter than our highest highs.


Coates can handle the heat. But this isn't about weather.

And it's not about whether he has the hands to haul in the long passes Ben Roethlisberger might throw his way because Coates' legs usually power his ripping the top off defensive backfields.

You can't teach speed, right?

If we must talk about Coates as a player, that talk will start with his speed. At the draft combine, he ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash.

If you remember Mike Wallace, he ran a 4.33.

If you like Martavis Bryant, he ran a 4.42.

If you're a part of Steelers Nation, you can see where this is going. Your favorite team makes a habit of finding big-play receivers after Rounds 1 and 2 of the draft.

Coates comes to the Steelers via Round 3. Had he proven better at catching footballs, he would have gone higher. Because he's big. Because he's fast.

But he's mostly raw. He's almost all upside. So he's probably a project, at least for his first season with the Steelers, who aren't exactly hurting at the position.

We might not see much of Coates when the games start. Thing is, that's when we should look to him.

He's the Steeler we need (even if he doesn't play) because sometimes we forget that football isn't life. And if we're lucky, Coates will get really good at catching footballs, so he can use the NFL as it should be used more often.

“A platform,” he said.

To teach our children — usually they end up also reminding us — that hardship needn't be crippling, that healing is about taking the tough steps, that helping is what humans do best.


Coates was 10, a fifth-grader, when his father died in a car crash. His story somewhat begins there because while loss begot struggle, it also gave birth to perspective. Friends pulled him through, then pushed him along, and soon the pursuit of friendship became the ball Coates vows never to drop.

When you see him, look first at his wrists. You'll see rubber bands, and they'll look like ones so many athletes wear. Coates wears them for his friends, the ones he has made at hospitals where kids fight cancer. One, a 12-year-old girl named Kenzie Ray, has leukemia that Coates said might be coming back.

“My little sister,” Coates said.

There are Justin Besteda and Andrew Williams, who have come to Steelers Nation via Leroy. They were there every time Coates couldn't turn to the father whose name he carries. They were there when Coates grew distant from his grieving mother, Sharon. They were there when Coates needed to study for the SATs. When he needed to talk about girls, then when he had to figure out how to talk to girls. They were there when the drops happened, when the scouts noticed the drops happening, when everything and anything became something that probably would have sent Coates in the direction of his father.

“When my father died, I learned you always need somebody to lean on when times are hard,” Coates said.

Sammie Coates Sr., won't be in the stands when his son hangs on to that first pass from Big Ben. Until that crash, the father never missed one of his son's games.


Memories linger. So can lessons.

If nothing is forever, friendship should come closest. And friends, Coates believes, can be found everywhere.

Just look around.

Troy Polamalu did. He spent as much time visiting Pittsburgh hospitals as he did studying game film. He never sought attention. He simply went looking for new friends.

At Auburn, Coates rarely wanted to stick around after games to take questions from the media. My first impression of him from Friday was that of an engaging young man, and I wondered why he preferred to escape at Auburn.

Turns out, he had better places to be, like the hospital, where there were sick kids who need a friend. He'll look for those better places here. He promised.

As he walked off the field after his first practice, Coates told me Kenzie might not make it to Pittsburgh for a game this season.

“I don't know if she can, but we get days off,” he said, “so I'll just go see her.”

He can fly on the field, and I hope Sammie Coates can catch a lot of footballs.

This guy is a catch.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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