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Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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November 11, 2010

Finishing What You Start

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He came back from war, then he came back for his teammates.

Jake Coffman. Courtesy photo.Jake Coffman. Courtesy photo.

That, in a nutshell, describes recent developments in the eventful life of Northern Illinois defensive end Jake Coffman.

A Marine, a football player, a graduate – and a football player again.

The 26-year old Coffman, from German Valley, Illinois, is not your typical college student. He took a “detour” after high school before attending college.

Not receiving any football scholarship offers, Coffman enlisted in the Marine Corps upon graduation.

“I needed something to pay for school because I didn’t want to put a strain on my parents,” says the sociology major (with a history minor). “I thought the military would be a good way to pay for it. I thought the Marines would be the right fit for me. They’re the toughest.”

And it was tough going for Coffman. He served two tours in Iraq. Showing an aptitude for electronics, he became an engineer, setting-up equipment for combat units.

“I was 18 years old and going into war,” he says. “That experience opened my eyes and made me appreciate a lot of things.”

Jake Coffman waves the American flag while leading the Northern Illinois football team onto the field at Huskie Stadium before a game last season. The practice has become a pregame ritual for the Huskies and Coffman, a veteran of the Iraq war as a marine. Photo courtesy Scott Walstrom/NIU media services.Jake Coffman waves the American flag while leading the Northern Illinois football team onto the field at Huskie Stadium before a game last season. The practice has become a pregame ritual for the Huskies and Coffman, a veteran of the Iraq war as a marine. Photo courtesy Scott Walstrom/NIU media services.

While playing intramural football at Camp Pendleton in California upon returning to the States, Coffman contacted a Northern Illinois assistant coach who had coached his brother-in-law.

He walked on at NIU, red-shirted, and then went full-time in 2007 (although he suffered a broken foot that year).

In what he thought would be his final season (2009) – he would graduate in May of 2010 – Coffman ranked first among Huskie defensive ends with 39 tackles and led the team in sacks with 8.5. He was also honored as the 2009 Male Athlete of the Year by the Touchdown Club of Columbus.

And that was it for football, even though he had one more year of eligibility? He initially thought so and would pursue a career in business.

But something happened.

Coffman was on campus during spring football, living across the street from NIU’s stadium. He could hear the sounds of practice and he started thinking about “finishing what I had started” with some of the people he had entered school with.

Jake Coffman (54) kneels in the middle of a pregame ritual for the Huskies. Coffman is a veteran of the Iraq war. Photo courtesy Scott Walstrom/NIU media services.Jake Coffman (54) kneels in the middle of a pregame ritual for the Huskies. Coffman is a veteran of the Iraq war. Photo courtesy Scott Walstrom/NIU media services.

“He walked into my office and said, ‘I’ve finished everything in my life, and I want to finish this,’” says NIU head coach Jerry Kill.

So the big Marine came back (heading into Veterans Day, he is among the leaders of the team in tackles for loss (7.0 for 24 yards) and sacks (2.5). Coffman was recently named as a finalist for the 2010 Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award. The national award – with its name being an acronym for “Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School” – celebrates college seniors who have exhibited excellence in character, in the community, in the classroom, and in competition, while showing commitment to their universities and their teams by completing their college eligibility.

“Very seldom in life do you run into somebody who has fought for your country, played football and stands for the things he does,” says Kill.

Jake Coffman has done all three.

Easy Day:

It wasn’t training camp, it was basic training camp.

And head coach Mike Stoops’ idea to take his University of Arizona football squad to preseason training at an Army base for the past three years has paid off big-time.

The Wildcats had not been to a bowl game or had a winning season since 1998, but have done both in theUniversity of Arizona head coach Mike Stoops directs traffic at the training camp. Courtesy photo.University of Arizona head coach Mike Stoops directs traffic at the training camp. Courtesy photo. last two years and are 7-2 heading into Veterans Day. Arizona is believed to be the only non-service academy school to ever train at a military installation – that being Fort Huachuca, an Army post 75 miles southeast of Tucson.

“This is the only good decision I’ve made in six years,” kids Stoop, who takes his team for five days of intensive, Army basic training drills in August.

The players sleep in cinderblock barracks, just like the real soldiers, and follow many of the same drills as the soldiers, such as the “Leadership Reaction Course,” a small fenced-in area with walls, tubes, posts, zip lines, platforms, and shallow pools of water. Soldiers – and the players – have to master the physically demanding course – or they “die.“

“We were always asking (the soldiers) questions, like how do you react in certain situations?” Wildcat defensive end Apaiata Tuihalamaka says. “The confidence and courage they have is something I admire. We’re just playing sports on TV, and sometimes I don’t think they get recognized enough for the sacrifice they make.”

The Arizona Wildcats definitely share that recognition.

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Vince Casey worked in public relations for the NFL for 16 seasons, and is now a freelance writer.