The thought struck Glen Coffee where big ideas are so often forged: At a bar.
This happened almost two years ago in his hometown of Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Coffee, then stationed at nearby Camp Rudder with the 6th Ranger Training Battalion, was on leave and decided to hang out with some friends at a local watering hole. His old NFL team, the San Francisco 49ers, was playing on TV. Carlos Hyde was having a great game.
In that moment, as Coffee watched this younger version of himself muscle past defenders and through tacklers, the former Alabama running back got that itch again. He couldn’t shake it. He wanted to be back on that field.
“I was just like, ‘Man, I really want to play football.’ It just hit me out of nowhere,” Coffee told SEC Country. “I just all of a sudden missed it. I just felt I needed to at least try to play before I got too old.”
You heard him right: Glen Coffee, 30 years old and out of the league since 2009, is attempting an NFL comeback. He knows that might sound funny to some folks. After all, most players don’t voluntarily walk away from the game only to reverse course seven years later.
Then again, Coffee isn’t most players. The introspective former SEC star never has been. But his decision quickly begs the question: Why now? Why, almost a decade later, is football calling Coffee’s name again?
Call it the wisdom that comes with age.
“I was blessed with athletic ability. I never really appreciated that before,” he said. “Football just came so naturally and so easily I never really thought about it. I got to an age where I just really appreciated the fact that I could play professional football.”
‘A while in the making’
To really understand Coffee’s story, you should first rewind to 2008, his last and biggest season at Alabama.
Nick Saban, still in Year 2 of building his Crimson Tide dynasty, had hired Jim McElwain as his new offensive coordinator, hoping to get that unit playing as well as his defense. With game manager John Parker Wilson still under center, however, the Alabama offense ran the ball an SEC-high 40.5 times per game.
Coffee became the focal point of that attack, carrying the ball 233 times for 1,383 yards and 10 touchdowns. His yardage mark tied Shaun Alexander for fifth-place on Alabama’s single-season rushing leaderboard, and his 218-yard romp against Kentucky still ranks ninth in school history among single-game efforts.
After the season, Coffee surprisingly declared for the NFL draft, despite receiving a middle-round projection from the league’s advisory board. Outsiders thought the prospect of an NFL paycheck was too good for the 22-year-old to pass up.
But, deep down, Coffee was growing tired of football. The feeling had been building for some time. He needed a break, and not even the money could ultimately change that.
“Looking back, I would’ve stayed (at Alabama),” he said. “Just to be with my friends. Enjoy college and not necessarily worry about the NFL and the money, stuff like that. I definitely don’t regret it. You make decisions in life and you learn from those decisions.”
The 49ers made Coffee their third-round draft pick the following April and signed him to a 4-year deal. He tallied 302 total yards in limited action as Frank Gore’s backup, and then abruptly retired from football in August 2010.
“I appreciate his honesty and I appreciate him not coming out here and going through the motions,” ex-49ers coach Mike Singletary said at the time. “He said his heart isn’t in it. It’s his decision.”
Coffee, who had no concrete plan for life after football, called the decision “a while in the making.”
“Football’s just something people always expected me to do,” he said. “I just wanted to make a decision on my own, walk away from the sport and pursue other things.”
This we’ll defend
As it turned out for Coffee, “other things” included the armed forces. He spent months pondering whether he should join, weighing the massive commitment the military requires against a desire to serve his country.
Finally, on Feb. 4, 2013, he enlisted in the Army.
“If you’re able-bodied and you don’t really have anything holding you back from service, why not?” Coffee said. “Another part of it was I didn’t want to be still. I didn’t want to have your normal 9-5 job, per say. I wanted to be moving, doing something that would enable me to use my body. I didn’t want to be stationary.
“It was a little patriotism, and it was also about not wanting the average job.”
Coffee graduated from Airborne School at Fort Benning (Ga.) — where soldiers earn their “Jump Wings” by completing five parachute plane jumps — and then joined a training regiment that helped “facilitate” Ranger School, achieving the rank of specialist within his battalion.
The ex-football star, listed at an even 6-foot and 209 pounds when he left the NFL, has never lacked for strength or quick-twitch speed. But the military requires a completely different skill set and stamina level when it comes to meeting its intense physical demands.
As a result, Coffee believes his time in the army made him tougher.
“It’s shown me how to push my body in a different way. A lot of stuff is based on endurance. You might not get to eat at a time you choose. You might be stuck in the elements. You can’t simply go inside,” he said. “I think it helped me more in the social aspect. It helped me to be less of a selfish person. In the military, you really do got to put others before yourself. It really helped me as a person more than anything.”
The other experience that really hardened the former soldier, unsurprisingly, was playing for the notoriously demanding Saban, whom Coffee likened to a general. After three years at Alabama, the ultra-structured Army environment felt familiar.
“His tactics and the way he approaches the game of football, and the things that he tells the players — the reason why it works so well is you believe everything that he says,” Coffee said. “You feel like Saban would suit up with you if he could. I always likened him to an army general. He would lead by example if he could.”
— Amphitrite Plays (@Pamela_O_Plays) February 5, 2017
On the comeback trail
Coffee officially became free to sign with any NFL team last month, when the 49ers reinstated him from the reserved/retired list and waived him.
In the two years leading up to that moment, he says he’s been doing everything possible to get his body back into football shape. That means getting up at 8 a.m. and training at the gym for about four hours a day.
Coffee’s day is capped off by two hours of yoga every night, which he says helps improve balance, agility and body awareness, among other things.
“I felt like I needed to bring something else to the table,” he said. “I’m getting older and I knew I’d have to help myself bring more ammunition to the fight. When I take the field, people are really going to be like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Coffee’s long football layoff might cause some to raise an eyebrow. But he does have experience with an NFL playbook. He knows what to expect in a position group meeting, and knows all about the requisite work ethic that comes with pro football. Playing running back, a slightly less technical role than other skill positions, also works in his favor.
On top of that, Coffee has considerably less wear-and-tear than perhaps any other 30-year-old running back out there. He’s mentally refreshed, and it’s not like he was eating potato chips on the couch in the interim. He was an active member of the military.
“I feel like it would be a smooth transition for me going back into the league,” he said.
All Coffee needs now is for one NFL team to agree. He didn’t want to say which teams have contacted him, but suffice it to say more than one NFL team has approached him since reinstatement.
So what can fans expect if and when Coffee rejoins the league’s ranks? The ex-Crimson Tide star sees big things in his future — Pro Bowl big, in fact, which would certainly put him in some rare company.
But again, Coffee is a special person. It only makes sense that his football journey would match that.
“I can’t just settle. I’m going to try to do everything I can do get on the field and actually carry the rock and eventually be a Pro Bowl running back,” Coffee said. “That might sound funny to some people. When I tell you I can do things now that I couldn’t when I was 23, 22, I’m being for real. I just need the opportunity to get on the field and show what I can do.”