Indiana's Tevin Coleman defies the odds

IU's Tevin Coleman knows he beat the odds to be here and now makes the most of every opportunity. AP Photo/Sam Riche

CHICAGO -- The images could not be more contrasting. Here is Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, all 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds of a power rusher, barreling his way off tacklers and into the school's record books, attaining heights foreign to his program. He is No. 2 in the nation in rushing and has run for at least 100 yards in every game this season but one.

And there was Coleman, all three and a half pounds of him, 10 weeks premature with a 20 percent chance of survival, clinging to life in a hospital some 21 years ago.

"He's a survivor," says his mother, Adlevia, "and that's why we call him 'Rock.'"

"I pray every day," Tevin says. "Thank God that I'm still here and I'm still alive, that I made it."

It was a little bump, Adlevia says, a fender bender when she was three months pregnant, something she never gave much thought to.

"I didn't think about it until when I had him and everything and went, 'Maybe it's from the accident,'" she says. "You'll never know, but I believe so."

Three months later, a sharp pain shot across her stomach, begetting a rush to the hospital, a cesarean section delivery and family-wide trauma that stretched from Mom being hospitalized for nearly a month with a fever and other complications to tiny Tevin fighting for his life for a month and a half.

"He kept me here," Tevin says, referring to God. "So he's doing a lot for me, and I'm just thankful for that."

Thankful for 1,371 rushing yards this season, second to only fellow Big Ten back Melvin Gordon's 1,501. Thankful for these final three games of a campaign that, barring anything drastic, will likely end the way his previous two years in Bloomington did, in November with no postseason bowl destination. Thankful for simply having all these opportunities, which were borne of parents who carved their own paths to America with few of the luxuries that he never had to long for.

"They took care of me well," Tevin says. "They taught me a lot of things in life, so it's helping me now, it's going to help me in the future, so I'm real thankful for my mom and my dad."

Lessons learned

Start with humble, the first word anyone uses when describing Coleman. He was reserved on recruiting trips, letting his parents ask all the tough questions while not speaking out of turn. The closest he came to getting into trouble growing up, his mother says, was when a middle school teacher phoned home to suggest he sit elsewhere in class, for a new student who had sat next to him was too talkative.

His parents regularly harped on Tevin to present himself well, with Adlevia not hesitating to order him in a public crowd to pull his pants up when baggy jeans were a fashion statement. When a cousin, Diamond Moore, lived with the family briefly while in high school, he tested that discipline by shaving designs into his head, despite Tevin warning him that he could never get away with it.

"I took the blade and I shaved his whole head, and Tevin had to fix it up real good for him," Adlevia says with a laugh while on her lunch break from her job at Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago's West Loop area. "Tevin had to shave him bald, and Tevin told him, 'I told you, Mommy don't play.'"

Adlevia and her ex-husband, Wister, were born in Liberia. They met in Chicago, bouncing between there and the New York City area before settling in Oak Forest, Illinois, where Tevin was born and raised.

Tevin has never been to his parents' homeland, though he has expressed heavy interest in meeting his extended family. Those roots have guided him every which way, from an energetic, undersized toddler who spent as much time ensuring his pants would not fall off while running the ball to now rushing within striking distance of the Hoosiers' single-season record of 1,805 yards, set by Vaughn Dunbar in 1991.

"I'm proud to be a Liberian, because a lot of times heritage goes way beyond," Adlevia says. "I was brought up to be a responsible young lady, and that's the same that I try to instill in my sons. Just to make sure that they're very responsible and to always be humble, because this life is not given to you on a silver platter. You have to work hard for it."

Adlevia lived that as much as she taught it, taking online classes through Almeda University before moving on to nearby South Suburban College after she and Wister divorced. She is currently studying to get her license as a social worker. She knows her son will have a big decision soon regarding the NFL, and she will be supportive of whichever way he leans, provided he fulfills his promise to eventually complete his degree.

"He said, 'Yes, Mommy. You raised me better than that,'" Adlevia says.

Rock solid

His parents called him Rock because of the strength he showed during those first several, harrowing weeks of his life, when his weight was in danger of dropping below three pounds. Coleman was in the clear health-wise after about a year, but the nickname has stuck with him through today, its meaning, ironically enough, as discernible now as it was back then.

Indiana running backs coach Deland McCullough has seen feats of strength in the weight room and in wind sprints. He has seen tough, physical runners; he himself was one at Miami (Ohio) and briefly in the NFL and CFL. But McCullough has never seen someone whose off-field strength and football strength have been so in sync.

"It's a mindset. You've got some guys with great track speed or great combine speed, etc., and their mindset is, I'm going to show that once I'm free," says McCullough, who had bonded with Coleman and his father during the recruiting process. "It takes a guy with a different mindset and wired a little bit differently to run through holes, run through people, run through arm tackles with that same philosophy -- a guy willing to apply a 400-pound bench press to somebody and apply it to them, not just catching guys on pass protection. He brings a punch, knocks guys down as a pass-protector."

A former prep track star, Coleman had run in a mostly option-based attack at Oak Forest (Ill.) High, so McCullough knew he had to be shaken out of being the finesse-type of runner he had been pigeonholed as and become more of a pure running back. The jump from freshman to sophomore year with the Hoosiers was crucial, as Coleman made the leap from primary kick returner to No. 1 back in 2013, a campaign cut short by three games because of an ankle sprain, with Coleman 42 yards shy of the 1,000-yard mark.

He burst through that milestone this season by Oct. 11, running for 219 yards at Iowa, becoming the 10th Hoosier to accomplish the 1,000-yard feat. He has been proactive in dishing the contact this season, and that blend of strength and speed had him on the fringe of the Heisman Trophy conversation for much of this fall, though Indiana's 3-6 record has largely mitigated such discussion.

McCullough's college résumé -- or film, for that matter -- can no longer compete with that. About the closest Coleman will come to touting himself, McCullough says, is when the coach will pop in film of himself at the end of position meetings and claim to be better.

Coleman brags about being faster. McCullough challenges him to be as violent of a runner as he was. Back and forth it goes.

"It's a special story," McCullough says. "And again, he has parents who at the end of the day really care about him and instill a substantial value system in him, and his mom and dad are very protective of him, want him to be around the right type of people, around the right influences.

"I was and am honored that I am a part of his life."

It is a story whose next chapter has yet to be written, not with a shot at history and a possible professional leap in the coming months. For now, the Rock who was once too small to go home has emerged as one of college football's crown jewels.