Kurt Coleman and the right pick

Posted: October 22, 2011

In the small hamlets and towns that hang along I-70 west of Columbus, Ohio, the Friday night high school stadiums are illuminated like sparkling lights spread across a Christmas tree. They even seem to point in a straight line toward Ohio State. The huge school exerts such a gravitational pull on the young players that the lucky few good enough to play there seldom bother to resist.

"For these kids, it's like the Holy Grail to play for Ohio State," said Collin Abels, the defensive coordinator at Clayton Northmont, a high school that dangles along the interstate chain just west of Dayton. "It's a dream school for them."

That isn't unique in the United States. It is probably the same for young basketball players who wear out the driveway hoop in Indiana and dream of Bloomington, or the football players who grow among the fields of Nebraska and dream of Lincoln. But the kids in southern Ohio can match their dreams with anyone else's.

Abels was the defensive backs coach at Northmont before he became coordinator, and the best player he ever coached was Kurt Coleman, the Eagles safety who reclaimed his starting position with an exclamation point Sunday in a three-interception game against the Redskins.

"I knew he had something special when he was here, because he's such a good person and such a hard worker, and you start to think he can play Division I, but you're not sure how big a school," Abels said. "Then he goes to Ohio State, and you're not sure how much he will play. Then he starts three years and is captain, and then he's drafted by the NFL. And you think maybe he'll be able to play some special teams. And now he's a starting safety in the NFL."

Coleman was a very good high school player from the start, but it was his 2004 junior year that Abels calls the single-best season he's ever seen, and it was that year that caused the great eye of Columbus to settle on the Northmont Thunderbolts. It was that year, particularly against Springfield South, another charm on the I-70 bracelet, when Coleman intercepted three passes thrown by Brennen Glass, who would be selected first-team all-Ohio quarterback that season.

"I guess I should text Rex Grossman and tell him it's all good. It can happen to anybody," Glass said. "I threw 30 touchdowns that year and had 10 interceptions, and Kurt had three of those picks."

Glass went on to play baseball and football at Grand Valley State and then transferred back home to Kent State to finish his eligibility as a baseball pitcher. He is rehabilitating from elbow surgery and hopes to get a look from a major-league organization in the spring. Quarterbacks never stop being quarterbacks, though, and Glass had to laugh when he saw that Coleman finally had gone and racked up another three-interception game.

"I've followed him, for sure. We're not that close, but we've sent Facebook messages back and forth. He's a class dude, and I definitely wanted to keep up with him. I went to a few of his games at Ohio State," Glass said. "I knew if he got around the right people, he'd blow up and become a stud. He was a playmaker . . . fast, knew where to be, and he showed up in a hurry."

Northmont beat Springfield South narrowly in that game, but it took all three of Coleman's interceptions to do it. The third one, near the Northmont sideline, snuffed out the final Springfield drive, and Coleman came off the field and gave the ball to Abels.

"I played at Northmont," Abels said, "and he and I always kid each other about the school interception record. I've got the career record . . . but he has the season record. He had 10 just in that junior year. He asked about my single-game high, and it was three. He wanted to get it, too. So after he had two in that game, I told him we were going to need another if we were going to win. He picked off the last one and came by our bench, handed me the ball, and said: 'There's No. 3.' "

When colleges were recruiting Coleman, Abels accompanied him on trips to Kansas State and Iowa and some others. Finally, closer to the end of the process, they got on the highway headed east and went to Columbus.

"I'm a big Buckeyes fan, but I wasn't going to let my personal feelings influence him," Abels said. "We were halfway back, and he said: 'What do you think?' And I said, 'What do you think?' And he said, 'That's where I've got to go.' If you live in Ohio and you can go to Ohio State, you've got to go there."

Maybe nothing ever really stays the same. Springfield South no longer exists. It was merged with Springfield North three years ago. Clayton Northmont, always a power, is struggling with a losing record this season.

Coleman spent most of this bye week in Columbus, working out and visiting with coaches and friends. He called Abels and said he would be at Friday's Northmont game against Wayne High School, one of the Thunderbolts' biggest rivals.

"He said he had to watch us play," Abels said. "That's the kind of person he is."

Nothing stays the same, with the exception perhaps of football in southern Ohio, a force that shoots out from the state university like the electricity carried along the poles that line the highway. It is strong enough to light the fields - and sometimes, as when a young player might announce himself with three interceptions, to create a night worth remembering across the years.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com or @bobfordsports on Twiter. Read his blog, "Post Patterns," at www.philly.com/postpatterns. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/bobford

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