A salute to N. Illinois vet Jake Coffman

On this day we salute veterans everywhere, please take a moment to recognize Northern Illinois defensive end Jake Coffman and his incredible journey.

Coffman, 26, served two tours in Iraq as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps. He enrolled in the service right after high school and advanced to the rank of corporal, serving as an engineer. While there, he set up power grids and communications lines for his unit. Coffman even played a little football at Camp Pendleton, where he was named the 2005 Mike Anderson Defensive Player of the Year.

He walked on at Northern Illinois in 2006 because he loved the game, and was hopeful to get a chance. Coffman has more than done that, emerging as one of its best players on defense.

He always leads the team onto the field carrying an American flag. But on Senior Day this past Tuesday against Toledo, Coffman carried a special flag -- the one his mom flew over their house every day he was in Iraq.

That moment almost didn't happen. After the bowl game last year, Coffman decided to leave the team. Injuries had taken their toll, and he was on pace to graduate in May. After coming out to a few practices in the spring, he realized he couldn't leave his teammates behind.

His father and grandfather told him point blank: "You have always finished everything you have started in life. Why not football?"

Now Coffman is tied for the team lead with seven tackles for loss and has 2.5 sacks. He was selected MAC West Defensive Player of the Week last week after four tackles and an interception in a win over Western Michigan. Northern Illinois needs one more win to clinch a spot in the MAC championship game.

Coffman also is a finalist for the Lowe's Senior CLASS Award, which honors the loyalty of seniors who give a four-year commitment to their schools, along with their athletic and community achievements.

“Here now, I just appreciate playing the game for what it is,” Coffman told the DeKalb Daily Chronicle earlier this year. “I love football. It’s a big part of my life. I have so much fun playing it. I have fun hanging out with the guys. I try to bring them into the same mindset that I am. I just appreciate it every day, walking out onto the field.”

Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs is also a finalist for the award, and it is only appropriate to honor the players at the service acadamies today, too. Army coach Rich Ellerson, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and Air Force coach Troy Calhoun know their players have many more risks ahead, and are playing the game because of their passion.

"I found what ends up happening here is you realize it’s an incredible opportunity just to be a part of college football," Calhoun said several weeks ago. "In our place, these guys aren’t just playing football for the sake of their scholarship. They aren’t playing football to get in a bidding war for a certain agent. They play football because they love the sport and they love the camaraderie that’s part of it and being able to represent the Air Force Academy."