No Pretense, Just Excellence

There was no hype. No fanfare. No cameras. No reporters. Certainly no crowded auditorium. No suspense, either.
That’s not Kevin Coffey’s style. Never has been. Never will be.
 
So when the moment arrived back in February 1996 to solidify his commitment to play football for the University of Virginia, Coffey, a four-sport star at Benedictine High School in Cleveland, took a seat at his kitchen table and, with pen in hand, put his signature on his letter-of-intent.
 
Simple as that.
 
“I wasn’t much for limelight and recognition,” he said one afternoon recently as he reflected on that moment. “I definitely wasn’t looking for it.”
 
By that time, though, limelight and recognition had found him. His achievements in football, basketball, baseball, and track had created quite a stir, and rightfully so.
 
Coffey, who has taught and coached at Collegiate for seven years, earned All-District, All-State and All-American honors in football and basketball at Benedictine High. In the spring, he split his time between baseball (lefthanded pitcher, centerfielder) and track (6-10 high jumper, 22-3 long jumper, sub-11-second 100 meters).
 
He earned his football stripes playing wide receiver and defensive back, returning kicks, punting, and long-snapping for field goals and points after. In the Bengals’ 1994 opener against Sandusky High, he caught five passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns. He finished that junior season with 53 receptions for 1,357 yards and 17 scores. The next fall, he was well on his way to duplicating that feat when Coach Augie Bassu switched him to quarterback to replace the injured starter, and he threw for 521 yards in the final four games. Following his senior year, he was selected to play in the Big 33 game, a matchup of the top 33 players in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
 
During his last two basketball seasons, Coffey averaged 22 points per game. He had a high of 45 points in a 1994 Christmas tournament.
 
At 6-4, 182 with sure hands, prodigious athletic ability, humble demeanor, and infectious smile, he found himself among the most sought-after high school football and basketball players in the state.
 
Letters from the likes of Nick Saban (Michigan State football, now Alabama), Billy Donovan (Marshall basketball, later Florida, now the Oklahoma City Thunder), and Jim Boeheim (Syracuse basketball) poured in. Eventually, they filled four shoeboxes.
 
“I loved basketball almost as much as football,” he said, “but I wasn’t sure it would be my thing. It was a hard choice, but I was one of those guys who never backed down from a challenge.”
 
Then the question became, What’s the best fit academically and athletically?
 
A contact from Joe Krevak, the UVA quarterbacks coach and later head coach at Maryland, proved the deciding factor.
 
Because of his schedule, Coffey had not made any official visits, but an encroaching winter storm forced postponement of a Friday night basketball game in December 1995, so Coffey made quick plans to travel to Charlottesville.
 
He felt like he’d arrived home.
 
“The guys were like family,” he said. “They looked after each other. When I watched them practice (for the Peach Bowl), they really went after each other, but they were best friends outside the lines.”
 
He committed verbally before he returned to Cleveland.
 
“That was a bigger moment than signing the letter of intent,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I needed to go anywhere else.”
 
During his four seasons at UVA, Coffey’s stat line read 74 receptions for 1,347 yards and 15 touchdowns. In 1998, he caught 23 passes for 583 yards, an NCAA-leading 25.3 yards per catch. His credentials landed him a free-agent contract with the Carolina Panthers, for whom he played during the 2001 exhibition season and opener with the Minnesota Vikings. After being released, he tried out with the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins before deciding that enough was enough.
 
“I was 23 years old,” he said. “I’d played football for 17 years. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the desire to play. It had taken a toll on me.”
 
So he and Erica, whom he met at UVA and married in 2002, settled in Richmond, her hometown. (She has taught Spanish at Collegiate since 2007 and serves as director of global engagement and inclusion.)
 
He spent a decade at Thomas Dale (history teacher, girls’ varsity basketball coach, football assistant) before signing on at Collegiate in 2012. After a stint in the Upper School history department, he now teaches Middle School physical education. During his tenure, he’s assisted with football (wide receivers and defensive backs and special teams coordinator) and girls’ varsity basketball.
 
Engage Coffey in conversation, and you’ll quickly see his affable personality and easy-going manner (which, by the way, belies a fierce competitive spirit in the athletic arena).
 
Talk to him about sports theory or his philosophy of teaching and coaching, and you’ll see an astute observer with a depth and breadth of knowledge, wisdom, and whatever-it-takes, team-first attitude.
 
Ask him about his accomplishments, and you’ll pretty much have to drag them from him. He’s proud of them, certainly, but he sees a bigger picture than a dramatic touchdown catch, monster dunk, 3-ball under pressure, or 6-10 high jump.
 
You see, despite his commanding presence, he’s still very much the same understated, soft-spoken guy who quietly signed his letter-of-intent sitting at his parents’ kitchen table all those years ago.
 
“That’s always been my approach,” he said of his personality and bearing, “because I learned from a lot of people how to stay humble.”
 
Among his “teachers” were his parents Ollie and Kathi and his maternal grandparents Ella and Jack Williams, who lived on a farm in Milledgeville, GA, where he spent many a summer during his youth.
 
“The day after school was out, I was in the car heading to Georgia,” Coffey recalled. “I didn’t come back until the week before school started.
 
“My grandma taught me about humility. I remember the lessons about looking after other people and taking pride in what you do. She was a whiz at giving those lessons.
 
“We’d wake up, and my grandparents would be out in this massive garden behind their shed. They’d come in with these big buckets of peas and start shucking them. I’d say, ‘Grandma, I’m bored.’ She’d say, ‘There’s a bunch of peas here. We can get these done quicker if you lend a helping hand.’ She was right. Little things like that stuck with me.”
 
Such training prepared him well for his life’s work.
 
“Like anything else,” he said, “you understand what (students and athletes) need and try to figure out the best way you can get that (information) to them. As an athlete, you observe, you study: that’s what makes you better. Now, rather than competing yourself, you get the skills to kids so they can make themselves better.”
 
Sunday night, Coffey entered Benedictine’s Athletic Hall of Fame in a gala ceremony at Windows on the River overlooking the Cuyahoga River. A host of beaming family members looked on with pride. Many of his high school teammates shared the moment with the guy who, to them, was the Real Deal.
 
The festive occasion conjured memories and evoked emotions. Each honoree spoke for five minutes. Though he was a guest of honor, Coffey humbly honored those who influenced him, guided him, mentored him, and taught him about life beyond sports. His words reflected gratitude. As is his wont, he deflected all credit. He knows no other way.
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