WACO, Texas -- Corey Coleman learned to play football in the streets against a backdrop most of us couldn't begin to imagine.
Maybe that's where he gets his passion for the game and his steely toughness, two things Baylor coach Art Briles says separates the Bears junior receiver, who's torching cornerbacks, shattering records and blazing his way into serious Heisman Trophy consideration.
Coleman spent the first part of his childhood growing up in one of the toughest sections of South Dallas, the Highland Hills neighborhood in Oak Cliff.
"We'd be playing tackle football on the street, and you'd hear gunshots," Coleman recalled. "My mom would come out and make me come in. And after an hour, I'd sneak back out to play again. That's just the way it was. Police were always coming around. People were getting arrested, and sometimes people got shot. I guess you got used to it."
In such a dangerous environment, it would have been easy for Coleman to wind up as just another statistic. But thanks to his mother's will and his own determination, he's now putting up staggering numbers for the No. 2 Bears. He has already broken the Baylor single-season record with 16 touchdown catches in just six games and is on pace to break the FBS record of 27, set by Louisiana Tech's Troy Edwards in 1998.
Coleman speaks softly and reverently about his mom, Cassandra Jones, who raised three children on her own. Coleman's father, Melvin Coleman, has drifted in and out of his life and is currently serving time at Texarkana Federal Correctional Institution. He was convicted of felony cocaine distribution last year and has a release date of Nov. 26, 2021.
Coleman has two older sisters, Ashley Coleman and Kenosha Jones. He and Ashley share the same father, and both have managed to forgive him over the years for not being there. Ashley, who's 14 months older than Coleman, has gone to visit her father in prison a handful of times. He hasn't reached that point yet, although he has communicated with his father via letters and phone calls since he has been incarcerated.
"It's been hard. All of it has," Coleman said. "Growing up, you've got your mom and two sisters, and just about everybody else has their dad in their life. I had to learn a lot of stuff on my own, learn from my mistakes, because I didn't have my dad there to help me through them. That's hard for a little kid, but it worked out.
"My mom was there and so were my sisters, and here I am today. I made it."
Coleman's mother worked two jobs when her kids were little. She took the bus to work because she didn't own a car, and she still gets teary-eyed thinking back to how much they struggled. The children went to a different elementary school just about every year because Cassandra was desperate to move her kids to a safer neighborhood.
"Where we were living, there were a lot of things that weren't good for my kids, and I was going to do whatever I could to get them out," Cassandra said. "It had to be better somewhere else. It just had to be, and I was going to find it."
They moved from Oak Cliff to Garland to Irving and finally to Richardson. Coleman was in the sixth grade by the time they made that last move, which he says opened up a whole new world for him.
About the time Coleman turned 9, he was introduced to former Baylor star Ray Crockett, who would become his godfather. A family friend knew Crockett, who took Coleman under his wing. Coleman traveled with Crockett to compete in track meets and play in AAU basketball tournaments. During that time, on some nights he would stay with Crockett at his home in Southlake.
"He helped show me the bigger picture," Coleman said of Crockett, who won two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos. "You see a lot of people growing up with a lot of talent, but they don't make it. I pictured myself living the way Ray does in Southlake, and that pushed me even harder to stay out of trouble and distance myself from anything and anybody that might lead to trouble."
Despite his dad being absent for much of his life, Coleman said his mother never tried to turn him against his dad and in fact has encouraged him to reconnect. Ashley, who for a long time was understandably bitter toward her father, has also helped him cross that bridge.
"I just told him that when he's ready [to visit his father in prison] that I'll go with him," Ashley said. "It's hard for both of us. Who wants to see their dad in that situation? I've told Corey that the only thing we can do is move forward and forgive him. We can't go back and undo what's been done. I'm glad that Corey's at a point that he can answer his phone calls and talk to him."
This isn't the first time Melvin Coleman has been incarcerated, so it's only natural that Coleman would be apprehensive about what kind of relationship they can build. Cassandra said she was pregnant with him when Melvin went to prison for two and a half years and that Melvin wasn't around much after he was released.
But as Coleman's football career started to take off at Pearce High, they started to reconnect.
"We started talking, and he was trying to come around a little bit," Coleman said. "But before we could ever build a strong relationship or even have a chance to, he got sent away."
Melvin was indicted by a grand jury on felony cocaine distribution charges on May 7, 2012. A little more than a month later, Coleman reported to Baylor as a freshman, wondering whether his father would ever be a meaningful part of his life.
"You have to learn to forgive people, and I've forgiven him," Coleman said. "But I don't want to be anything like that. I want to be a man and take care of my kids. But at the end of the day, he is my dad. And hopefully, when he gets out, we can try to build something, but he has to know my mom and two sisters come first."
Coleman, who also has two half-brothers on his father's side, said his dad has apologized for all of the hurt he has caused the family.
"My dad's got a lot of pride. So for him to say that he's sorry, that's a good start," he said. "He's like me. He has a lot of pride. For him to say that, that meant something."
Baylor has another bye week the last weekend in October, and Coleman has thought about going to see his dad then. He might also wait until after the season.
"It's going to break me down, but my sister will be with me," he said. "I've been holding off for the longest. I want to go see him, but it's kind of hard because I don't know what it will do to me to see him in there. I don't want it to mess me up emotionally during the season."
Melvin is able to watch his son's games in prison, according to Ashley, and can't stop talking about his son's exploits when she goes to visit him.
"He's so proud of Corey and says he deserves everything he's getting," Ashley said.
And while he is willing to give his father another chance, he makes it clear he owes everything to his mother. As he's grown older, he marvels at how his mother juggled everything she did with three young children and sacrificed the way she did so that her kids could beat the odds. Kenosha, 28, has a family and is a teacher in Irving, while Ashley, 22, plans to go to nursing school.
"My mom's the reason I play so hard," Coleman said. "She was everything. She was our mom and our dad, and it's amazing to see what a strong woman she is, the way she raised us on her own and how we all turned out."
"He's a passionate, tough individual, and a lot of times that doesn't go hand in hand with receivers. But he's got skill, speed, versatility and toughness. He's definitely got it all." Art Briles
Baylor offensive coordinator Kendal Briles recruited Coleman and remembers thinking then what a rock Cassandra was and how Coleman was a reflection of his mother.
"She's an unbelievable lady, and you see so much of her in Corey," Briles said. "There was nothing she wouldn't do for her kids, and there's nothing Corey wouldn't do for this team."
Coleman has caught at least two touchdown passes in every game this season and is averaging 21.3 yards per catch. Good luck finding a more explosive player in college football. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen last week called him the best player in college football. His teammates occasionally refer to him as "Savage" because he blocks (all 5-foot-11, 190 pounds of him) with the same passion as he runs pass routes.
"He's a passionate, tough individual, and a lot of times that doesn't go hand-in-hand with receivers," Art Briles said. "But he's got skill, speed, versatility and toughness. He's definitely got it all."
The Bears have even lined him up in the backfield and handed him the ball on some plays this season.
"He'll do it more and more as the season progresses," Art Briles said. "Maybe the defense is saying, 'Good, you don't have him out there at receiver.' I don't know. I just know that he's thinking touchdown every time he touches it."
The same way he was some 15 years ago in the Highland Hills streets, right there near the intersection of Bonnie View and Ledbetter.
"I get emotional when I watch him play now," Cassandra said, her voice trailing off. "I think about him as a small child and how I'd tell him he couldn't play football in the street, that he was going to get hurt. The minute I'd turn my back, he'd be right back out there again.
"He just had that willpower, the kind that says, 'I'm going to make it no matter what.'"