The NFL's free-agency extravaganza has largely wound down, and all eyes are turning to the April draft. For receiver-needy teams looking to catch on quickly—or anyone else who needs a little help—the former Auburn wideout has so much to offer
SAMMIE COATES has an idea. At some point, with a chunk of the NFL money he is bound to make because he is fast (a 4.43-second 40 at the combine), explosive (41-inch vertical jump), strong enough to toss a jamming cornerback onto the sideline (23 bench-press reps at 225 pounds, best among receivers) and proficient enough at catching footballs, Coates wants to start an organization. He wants to reach into communities like Leroy, Ala., the no-stoplight dot-on-a-map where he spent his formative years, and he wants to help kids who've lost a parent. The former Auburn receiver lost his father in November 2003, when Sammie was 10 and in fifth grade. Sammie Coates Sr. was killed in a car crash while driving to one of his two jobs, but his son also understands that some parents disappear without leaving this mortal coil. He wants to help those kids as well.
Foremost, Coates, 21, wants to tell kids, It's going to be O.K. He wants them to know that they can do great things. After his father died, he didn't have anyone to offer such assurance. He wants those lost souls to know that they can build their own lives, piece by piece. They need only follow his advice.
1. FIND A FRIEND; MAKE HIM A BROTHER
When Sammie, along with his mother and his two older brothers, made the six-mile move from Jackson, Ala., to Leroy, he wasn't looking to grow his inner circle. "I just wanted to be by myself," he says. On the first day of sixth grade he and Andrew Williams nearly brawled. Andrew owned the playground; his teams won every game of basketball, football, stickball. And in Sammie he sensed a threat. "I didn't like the competition," Williams says. "You want to be the dominant male." A territorial struggle seemed inevitable.
Instead, before the boys raised their fists, they realized that their similarities could provide the foundation of a friendship. Soon they were inseparable.
Williams told this story as Coates caught passes in Auburn's indoor practice facility in preparation for the April 30 NFL draft. One day later, Bill Belichick and the Patriots' director of player personnel, Nick Caserio, put the Tigers' skill players through a 10-route workout that seemed designed specifically to test Coates, who—if they're lucky—might be available when the defending Super Bowl champions make the last pick of the first round. (In a strong receivers crop, most mock drafts have at least Kevin White, Amari Cooper and DeVante Parker going ahead of Coates.) The fact is, though: If not for Williams, Coates might not have been at Auburn, at that workout. Belichick might not even know his name.
Hours before dawn on the morning of July 17, 2010, when both boys were in high school, Williams came looking for his friend. Auburn was holding its final recruiting camp of the summer, and Williams, a Leroy High running back, wanted one last chance to impress the coaches. Coates was supposed to be his ride.
Sammie didn't answer the door. In order to get an offer from Auburn, he'd have to impress at the camp. But he'd already won over the coaches at Southern Miss and softly committed; that would be fine. Plus, he didn't feel like driving the 3½ hours.
Refusing to allow his slumbering friend to dash his dreams, Williams ran around the side of the house, climbed through Coates's bedroom window and shook his friend awake. "He basically dragged me out," says Coates, who scraped the Crimson Tide stickers off the window of his black Nissan Sentra before hitting the road.
At camp, Coates faced off in one drill against cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, who would go on to start at Florida and play 11 games with the Colts last year after leaving school early. In their first meeting, Purifoy jammed Coates at the line, scuttling his route before it even started, and the receiver retreated back to the queue. There Coates moved to ensure that he'd face Purifoy again—and this time he burned the four-star recruit. After a few more reps with similar results, Auburn's receivers coach, Trooper Taylor, had seen enough. Coates met afterward with coach Gene Chizik, and a scholarship was immediately offered and accepted.
Imagine: Had Williams relented, had Coates settled for Southern Miss, Sammie might have gone off a cliff with the Golden Eagles after coach Larry Fedora left for North Carolina in 2012. Instead, he played for a national title and grew into one of the SEC's best field-stretchers. Williams didn't win a scholarship at that camp, but in '13 he transferred to Auburn from Miles College, walking on to the team thanks to a good word from his friend. Now Coates is headed to the NFL and Williams is pursuing a career as a college strength coach, but they remain a team. Says Coates, "We built a friendship that will never be broken."
2. BE RESOURCEFUL, BE RESPONSIBLE
Some athletes gloat about their hunger. Not Coates; he remembers real hunger. There were enough financial rough patches after his father's death that a growling stomach can still bring a flood of unwanted memories. "You never want to feel it again," he says.
He found ways to survive. In Leroy, he observed that some girls rarely finished their lunches at school, and often one would give him a loaded tray that might get him through the day. Other times he would eat at a friend's house; or Williams, who worked at a restaurant in Jackson, would hook his pal up. The same kind of scrounging carried on through college—until 2014, when the NCAA began allowing schools to provide unlimited food for their athletes. Then Coates's budgetary woes vanished as if by magic. (Before that, his scholarship checks all went toward bills.)
In December, after only 3½ years on campus (he left Auburn as a redshirt junior), Coates procured a document that he believes will ensure that he never hears that growl again: a bachelor's degree in public administration. For a kid who once needed Leroy High's basketball coach to wake him in order to get his butt to school, this was a towering achievement. If football doesn't work out in the long run, Coates wants to be "a Fed"—maybe with the FBI, maybe the Secret Service. But not until after he gets his master's degree, which he hopes to procure while playing in the NFL. "You don't want your future family to struggle like you did," he says. "I don't want my kid to be like I was. I want him to have better."
3. LET THE NEGATIVE STUFF SLIDE
Because agents weren't allowed inside, Michael Perrett had to watch his client's Auburn pro day from a sports bar, where he got updates texted by friends inside the football complex. Did Coates catch every ball? (No; nine of 10.) Was that incompletion Coates's fault? (Arguably; the ball was a little behind him and a tad low, but it hit him in the hands. Coates might have compensated later when he floated along the sideline to snag a deep out.) This information was critical to Perrett because the main criticism of his client was his 2014 drop rate, which NFL.com reported as 19.1%.
Coates also dropped a deep ball during the February combine. Everywhere he goes, he gets asked about his hands. Is he a natural pass catcher? Does he catch with his hands or trap the ball with his body? "I just think it's funny," he says. "You know how you hear something funny and it always keeps you laughing?"
In his defense, Coates might point out that he averaged 21.8 yards per reception, fourth best in the nation, on an offense that ran the ball 65% of the time in 2014. He might also mention that in November he caught five passes for 206 yards and two touchdowns with two injured knees against No. 2 Alabama. Coates won't say it, but those passes were thrown by a quarterback, Nick Marshall, who many project as a cornerback in the NFL. It's a safe bet that Coates will see more catchable balls on his next team.
Coates doesn't remember exactly when, but he knows it was in 2012, the night before a game, that Auburn's chaplain delivered a stirring sermon about forgiveness, and afterward Coates just had to call his mother. "He said he was holding on to some stuff that he needed to let go," Sharon Coates says. "If he didn't, it would hinder where he wanted to go."
Sammie had grown distant from Sharon during his high school years as they continued to struggle with Sammie Sr.'s death. Rather than talk it out, the youngest of Sharon's four children retreated to his room, and the silence wedged them apart. But after that sermon, Sammie needed to get close again. "She's hurt like I've hurt," he says. "She lost the same person."
Sammie told Sharon that he loved her. She told him that she'd tried her best, but she hadn't known how to replace what Sammie lost when his father died.
After that call, the relationship healed. Sharon came to more Auburn games and called regularly to tell her son that she was proud of him. She was most proud in December. "I wish his father could have been there to see him graduate," she says.
5. FIND INSPIRATION
On Sept. 14, 2013, 11-year-old Kenzie Ray sat outside gate 10 at Jordan-Hare Stadium following Auburn's 24--20 win over Mississippi State and waited to meet Tigers offensive tackle Shon Coleman. Kenzie, from nearby Tallassee, had been diagnosed with leukemia the previous May, and she wanted to talk to the player who, famously, had defeated cancer and come back to play. She met Coleman—but she also met Coates, who traded wristbands with her and sent her a shout-out on Instagram.
Before long Kenzie and Sammie were speaking nearly every day, on the phone or over FaceTime, and today Coates calls her his sister; she calls him her brother. The night before Coates worked out at the combine in Indianapolis, Keisha Ray watched her daughter bawl as she FaceTimed with the receiver. He had been busy training for the combine in Gulf Breeze, Fla., so he hadn't visited Kenzie in weeks. Kenzie, sick and weakened by a dose of chemotherapy, finally smiled the next day when she saw Coates wearing cleats with her name imprinted on them as he blazed through the 40-yard dash, recording the 12th-fastest time among offensive players.
Kenzie helps Coates maintain some perspective. "This little girl has more faith than I do," he says. And Coates helps Kenzie feel normal—Keisha noticed this early in their friendship. "He would get down to her level, like a kid again," she says. "[Kenzie] needed that."
Last summer, when Kenzie contracted pneumonia and doctors said she might never leave her Birmingham hospital, Coates supported her entire family with his visits and calls. If Kenzie wouldn't answer, he would blow up Keisha's phone, worried that something had happened. When he could sense Keisha's stress, he relayed one message over and over: It's going to be O.K. "I know he doesn't fully get it, because he's a kid himself and not a parent," says Keisha, "but when he lays eyes on his firstborn, he'll understand what he has done for our family."
Coates already understands what Kenzie has done for him. When he visited her in the hospital and saw cancer-stricken children building friendships—even when their conditions sometimes prevented them from entering each other's rooms—he understood that the strongest people find hope and joy no matter their circumstances. "They make the best of their lives," Coates says. "Why should I be down just because I have a freakin' pulled hamstring?"
If Coates can explain all of these things to kids who feel lost like he once did, he'll be happy. He wants them to make friends, to use their minds, to forget, forgive, find inspiration. That way, no one will have to shake them awake; they'll embrace each morning the way he does now. "Holy crap," he says. "It's a new day, I've got air to breathe. I know there's something out there I can do to be a better person."
Dragged out of bed by his best friend, Coates scraped the Crimson Tide stickers off the window of his car and hit the road. He earned a scholarship from Auburn later that day.
"I know he doesn't fully get it, because he's a kid himself," Keisha says of Coates, "but when he lays eyes on his firstborn, he'll understand what he has done for our family."
Coates is hardly the only draft prospect with NFL-caliber receiver skills. SI.com's Chris Burke offers best-case-scenario equivalents for the top players in a deep wideout class.
Amari Cooper, Ala. Jordy Nelson, GB
Both win with crisp route-running and underrated speed, not necessarily by dominating in the air.
DeVante Parker, Louis. Alshon Jeffery, CHI
Throw it near Parker and he, like Jeffery, will go up and get it. Can Parker become an all-around WR too?
Kevin White, WVU Julio Jones, ATL
White's 4.35 40 at the combine solidified his status as a home run threat, just as Jones has been in the NFL.
Dorial Green-Beckham, Mizzou Brandon Marshall, NYJ
Similarities in their dominant traits on the field and lingering questions off it.
Sammie Coates, Aub. Torrey Smith, SF
Smith has made a living tracking the deep ball. Coates can take the top off a secondary too.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg For Sports Illustrated
GETTIN' HANDSY Some scouts doubt Coates's ability to see ball to palm. He lost this deep one against Louisiana Tech, but many others didn't get away.
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HELP ON WHEELS Coates has stood by Kenzie through her fight, including at the Maxwell Awards last week, where he was commended for his kindness.