Throughout the National Football League Draft, prospects usually wait on the edge of their seats for their turn on stage to shake hands with Commissioner Roger Goodell or sit anxiously by a phone, waiting for a call from their future employer.
It’s perhaps the biggest event of these players’ lives as they wait to see if their dreams of playing professionally will be realized. As prospects watch eagerly, their nerves and stress run high, their fates out of their hands.
And then there’s former UCLA running back Derrick Coleman.
“I wasn’t really watching the draft, I was kind of playing basketball with my friend at the time,” Coleman said.
But there was little reason to watch. After three days, 253 players had been selected in the draft, but Coleman’s name was still on the draft board. His name was not called.
At UCLA, Coleman did it all. He was a running back, as well as a dominant force on special teams with unparalleled versatility.
Angus McClure, who was special teams coach at UCLA throughout Coleman’s career, said Coleman could play in all six phases of special teams if need be.
Although Coleman made his mark on special teams ““ he was named the most valuable player on that unit this past season ““ McClure feels Coleman’s potential hasn’t been realized as a running back even though he scored 19 touchdowns in his career.
“Initially, we recruited him to be a fullback, we thought he was going to grow into a fullback, and when we recruited him we were still running the West Coast offense,” McClure said.
Because of the nature of UCLA’s offensive schemes under then-coach Norm Chow, Coleman never had the chance to develop as a fullback and instead had to adapt to a role as a running back.
He was known as a hard, downhill runner in the backfield, often likened to a bowling ball or a baby bull ““ relentless in his ball carrying, fighting for every inch.
While his position and playing style often fluctuated, his work ethic never did.
“He studied our opponents and did a nice job of being prepared,” McClure said. “It’s easy to do that for offense and defense but it takes a special guy and a special attitude that Derrick has to come in and get prepared on a Monday for a Saturday game on special teams.”
During his college career, Coleman set out to prove that a genetic hearing disability, which renders him legally deaf, would not affect his ability to play professional football.
“That can never be a part of the situation at this point,” Coleman said regarding his hearing. “I started playing football in seventh grade, and I made it to a Division I college football team, played in big
games, so if I’ve gotten this far, what makes you think going a little bit further is going to stop me?”
After the conclusion of his senior season and his UCLA career, Coleman continued working out in preparation for the draft.
He trained every day for four months in Westlake. He worked on measurables, such as speed and agility, to impress scouts.
Although he didn’t get an invitation to the NFL combine, UCLA hosted a Pro Day, which scouts from most NFL teams, attended to watch draft-eligible Bruins perform.
The scouts were impressed and several teams told Coleman they would select him in the late rounds of the draft. After that, Coleman no longer worried about being selected in the draft.
He was going to play professional football.
As the draft came to a close, Coleman’s name was still on the board.
Although his name had not been called at the draft in Radio City Music Hall, teams were already lining up for Coleman’s services.
“Before the draft was even over, teams started calling me and saying, “˜If nobody picks you up, we want you to sign with us,’” Coleman said.
Coleman narrowed his choices down to four franchises ““ the Seattle Seahawks, the Miami Dolphins, the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings.
After talking it over with his family and agent, he felt that the best decision was to go to Minnesota as a priority undrafted free agent.
The decision on which team to sign with was a trying one. Coleman weighed multiple factors, instead of just looking at which team presented the best signing bonus.
“The most difficult thing for these guys is that they need to make a decision that’s about the opportunity to perform, to play, not necessarily the signing bonus,” said McClure, who is also the liaison between UCLA and the NFL.
“People throw out all types of figures for signing bonuses and it’s easy to say, “˜I’m going to the team that’s going to give me the highest signing bonus because they want me the most.’ Well, that’s not necessarily true because each team has a certain amount of money they can spend. … But for the long run in their career they need to find the right fit.”
The fact that Coleman wasn’t drafted may have been a blessing in disguise. Lower round draft picks, like undrafted free agents, aren’t guaranteed a spot on the roster of the team that drafted them, but they are still bound to that team. However, Coleman had the freedom to choose which team he wanted to join.
In the end, that team was the Vikings because he felt they gave him the best chance to make the final roster.
Coleman said his bruising style of play will add a much wanted dimension to the Viking’s backfield, which already features one of the top running backs in the league, Adrian Peterson.
Despite signing with the team, Coleman isn’t assured a spot on the final roster. With that uncertainty in mind, he has taken precautions.
“Derrick chose to still maintain classwork so he could graduate in time and just focus on the NFL afterward. So he balanced both academics with basically preparing for the biggest job interview of his life,” said Mark Bloom, Coleman’s agent.
Finishing up his political science degree also sets him up for life after football, a job that isn’t known for its longevity.
“Football is not exactly a career. Going to the pros is just a stepping stone to the next point in your life. It’s not a career; it only lasts two to seven years,” Coleman said. “You have to get your degree so after football you’ll have doors open so you’re not struggling.”
Coleman remains optimistic that he can make the final 53-man roster that the Vikings will take into next season.
“All I really wanted was one opportunity to prove myself and that’s all I need,” he said. “I knew I was going to get the opportunity to go and showcase my skills at somebody’s camp whether I got drafted or not.”