KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Christian Coleman walked toward Philllip Fulmer Way on the University of Tennessee campus this spring, backpack double strapped, on his way to class when stopped by a stranger.
“Hey, didn’t you do something in track?”
Coleman’s expression didn’t change, but he paused, perhaps unsure of where to start.
Coleman ran for Team USA’s 4 x 100 relay team in the Rio Olympics and was named Tennessee’s amateur athlete of the year the past two years.
The Atlanta native won the 60 meters and 200 meters at the NCAA indoor meet in March, becoming just the third sprinter in the last 30 years to win both events. His 6.45-second time in the 60 tied the collegiate record.
On May 13, at the SEC meet at South Carolina, Coleman became the first collegiate athlete to go under 10 seconds in the 100 meters (9.97) and under 20 seconds in the 200 on the same day.
So yes, Coleman had done “something” in track, but he instead replied: “Yes sir, thank you.”
It was a response that said nothing, and yet everything about who Christian Coleman is and has been throughout his 21 years.
Coleman, unlike many standout athletes and most sprinter stars, prefers to keep the red “S” on his chest concealed until the starter’s pistol goes off.
The former Atlanta prep star is among the favorites in the 100 meters and 200 meters at the NCAA national track meet in Eugene, Ore., and he’ll also run for Tennessee in the 4 x 100 relay.
Coleman qualified at the NCAA regional meet in the 100 with a 9.98-second time in the 100 and ran the second-fastest time in collegiate history in the 200 — a school-record 19.85 seconds into a headwind — on May 27.
Coleman was named the SEC Outdoor Men’s Runner of the Year on Wednesday leading up to the NCAA national track meet in Oregon.
“He’s staying on task and staying focused,” Tennessee coach Beth Alford-Sullivan said. “We’re coming into the final stretch and I have a lot of confidence in him.”
“That guy never missed a practice, always the first one there, always the last one to leave, always did what was asked of him,” said Mark Tolcher, Coleman’s track coach at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic High School in Fayetteville, Ga., some 20 miles outside of Atlanta.
“We named an award after him at our school, and it has only been awarded twice,” Tolcher said. “It’s given to an athlete whose body of work is on another level, in terms of the contribution to the team.”
Coleman, in 2014, was the first winner of the 2 1/2-foot tall trophy known as the “Christian Coleman Award.”
“He needed something special,” Tolcher explained. “I teach religion, critical thinking, and to read the things he thought about faith and how he related, well, that sealed the deal for me.”
Meanwhile, Coleman was sealing the deal at the Class A state track meet in Jefferson, winning the long jump, 100 meters, 200 meters and anchoring his school’s record-setting 4 x 100 relay team.
Coleman remembers it wasn’t always that way, particularly in junior high when other track athletes were maturing faster than he was. It forced him to work harder and grow more focused, and he has carried that work ethic forward even now that his body has caught up.
“He would win races before they started based on how he carried himself,” Tolcher said. “Athletes in his heats were intimidated just being in a race with him, they were psyched out.”
Coleman avoided eye contact with other sprinters, and during warmups had no interest in fraternizing with other athletes, even though he knew and competed with many of them growing up in the recreation and AAU track programs.
“I can’t tell you how many times I saw that happen, where they knew they had no chance,” Tolcher said. “Christian is a quiet guy, but super competitive with a laser focus, and those qualities were too much for others to handle.”
Coleman explained it’s just who he is.
“I don’t like to do a lot of talking; I just want to work hard and mind my business,” Coleman said. “When I get on the track, I let that do the talking.”
Coleman’s first love was football, and that’s part of the reason why Coleman agreed to run a 40-yard dash for Tennessee’s marketing team to help promote Vols’ track.
— Olympic Channel (@olympicchannel) May 19, 2017
Coleman’s time of 4.12 seconds certainly turned heads and accomplished Tennessee’s mission from a publicity standpoint.
“We didn’t really know where it would go,” Alford-Sullivan said. “We hoped it would be a positive that would show the continued controversy between elite sprinters and football players, but it really took off.
“I think he could have run even faster. He had taken a week off at that point.”
Vols’ football coach Butch Jones took note, asking Coleman on Twitter what size cleats he wears.
It was all in good humor, but Coleman grew up as serious about his football as he was with track.
“I played rec football against the Berry boys,” Coleman said, referring to current Vols football players Evan and Elliott Berry, the younger brothers of Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro Eric Berry.
“I grew up with (current UT linebacker) Cortez McDowell when he was a quarterback and I was playing running back.”
Coleman’s mother, Daphne, said her son’s passion for football isn’t a secret.
“I think that drives him because he really wanted to play football, I can’t say that enough,” Daphne Coleman said. “He really felt he was much better than players offered at Division I schools, so he has that chip on his shoulder. He was hurt not to get a football scholarship from a big school.”
Coleman had made the move from Atlanta High School track powerhouse Westlake to Our Lady of Mercy following his freshman year to improve his football chances.
In addition to running track in the summers, his father, Seth, was taking him to football camps all over, Georgia and Tennessee included.
Former Vols’ defensive backs Willie Martinez talked to Coleman, but no offer was forthcoming.
Coleman’s size — 162 pounds — was the hurdle at the FBS level, so he ended up signing a non-binding letter of intent in February of his senior year to play at FCS-level Valparaiso (Ind.).
Two months later, Tolcher remembers a track meet at Parkview High School just east of Atlanta, when Coleman beat his old track rival Ryan Clark with college scouts present.
“Georgia was there, LSU was there and Tennessee had three coaches there,” Tolcher said. “That was a special night, obviously because he beat his rival, but Christian realized with those college coaches there that he and his family had a decision to make on track.”
Seth Coleman remembers his son telling him on a ride home from a track meet that he had changed his mind about football.
“He said, ‘Dad, I’m gonna go D-1 in track,’ “ Seth Coleman recalled. “He said ‘I’m gonna prove I’m the best athlete in this state.”
The Vols helped make it an easy decision according to the Colemans, offering the Georgia high school state sprint champion an 80 percent scholarship — which increased to 100 percent after he was the SEC Freshman Runner of the Year for both indoor and outdoor track seasons.
“Christian saw his friends getting those full scholarships, so that really did drive him, because he felt we shouldn’t have to pay,” Daphne Coleman said. “I’m a Georgia Alumni, so he grew up going to Georgia games with Georgia posters in his room. But they told us they had $1,000 a year plus books and the Hope Scholarship, so we would have still had to come up with five figures a year.
“His senior year he won state, and at the time Georgia was heavily recruiting throwers and distance people.”
Tennessee, however, didn’t retain track coach J.J. Clark after Coleman signed with the Vols, and that led to another vicious recruiting cycle with SEC coaches and FCS football programs looking to get back in on Coleman.
Seth Coleman said a “well-known Big South school” came at his son with an offer that would have allowed him to play football and run track.
“Christian was (Class A) all-region, all-county and all state at defensive back,” Seth Coleman said. “On offense he had about 30 catches for about 400 yards and another 400 yards rushing on 35 rush attempts, scored 6 touchdowns.
“He had 60 tackles. which was crazy playing cornerback, he had a pick, and about 10 passes defensed. Christian could have played, there’s no doubt in my mind, and that’s has burned in him and it still does drive him.”
But so does loyalty, and Coleman chose to stick with the SEC school that had shown the most interest in him and was willing to make the biggest commitment.
Asked about his football dreams, Coleman allowed himself a smile.
“I never say never, I’ll follow God’s path and do what he wants me to do,” Coleman said. “I’ve been out of football for three years; I have a great opportunity ahead of me in track and field.”
Former Westlake track coach and athletic director Robert Wilson — a former track pro himself — knew Coleman was headed for greatness when he coached him his freshman year, and his take hasn’t changed the past two summers he has worked with him.
“I saw something in the kid, (and) in ninth grade he was a helluva long jumper, so I saw that power and explosion in him,” said Wilson, who continues to do speed training with professional athletes in Atlanta. “It was a matter of his body catching up.”
That happened for Coleman his junior season in high school, and now that he has had a dynamic junior season at Tennessee, Wilson believes Coleman could be running his final collegiate track meet.
“Christian will make a lot of money running professional track — I’d be surprised if he comes back for his senior year at Tennessee, unless it’s a situation he wants to finish his college career,” Wilson said. “He just won indoor nationals in the 60 and 200, he’s had a great outdoor season. I think he’ll be a professional after this year.”
Wilson said Coleman can run even faster, “it’s all about focusing on the small things.”
Coleman said that was the lesson he came away with when he competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics with Team USA.
“I was soaking in as much knowledge as I could, and I learned a lot,” Coleman said. “Just seeing how the guys are so dialed in and serious even in practice, seeing how they warmed up, watching them get treatment before races.
“Last year I didn’t take care of my body like I should, but in Rio I saw how the pro sprinters got themselves ready and how seriously they took themselves.”
Coleman, whose sites are set on running in the world championships in London following the NCAA meet, said improving his diet is the next step in his maturation as a world class sprinter.
“Watermelon Sour Patch Kids, not daily, but you’re in the store, and they are right there at the checkout,” Coleman said. “Just being a college student, you don’t always have the time to eat like you should.“
Daphne Coleman laughed and said her son still gets an Easter basket filled with candy from his aunt each year, though the family is making an effort to get him to eat more vegetables.
“He just started getting salads, just lettuce and salad dressing,” she said. “He’ll also eat broccoli, and that’s about the extent of his vegetable eating.”
It’s been a long track for Coleman and his family to reach this point, where he is one of the fastest men in the world and an emerging favorite for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Coleman said he often reflects on all those weekend trips when he was growing up with his cousins and older sister, Camryn, who also ran track at Georgia Southern.
“It was like a family deal,” Coleman said. “You have to be committed, your family has to be committed, and it costs money. I feel like my family growing up made a lot of sacrifices for me to get to where I’m at, my parents and my grandparents.”
Coleman said those are the thoughts that push him each day and that keep him laser-focused in the starting blocks.
“I have this gift from God and he has blessed me, and all I have to do is work hard on it,” Coleman said. “For me to work hard every day, that’s nothing compared to the sacrifices that have been made for me.”