Vaughn Coleman wasn’t just from Harlem. He was from 116th Street in Harlem. He was raised on the same block as Mosque No. 7, where Malcolm X preached until he left the Nation of Islam in 1964.
“I was on 116th Street before Malcolm X even built the mosque,” Coleman said.
He raised his grandson Johnathan there, and sent him to school in the Bronx, treating every day like training day.
The school Johnathan attended would sell candy, chips, and soda at lunchtime and after school.
One day when Johnathan came home, the look on his face just wasn’t right.
Vaughn asked what was wrong.
Johnathan said, “Nothing, grandpa. Nothing.”
He looked him in the face and said, “Tell me what’s going on.”
Johnathan told him he was in line to get chips and candy after school. The guy behind him in line asked him if he had a dollar. Johnathan, not thinking anything of it, told him, “No.” The guy told him, “Tomorrow when you come here, have a dollar.”
Vaughn wasn’t a bully, but he was from Harlem. He came from a different era. He understood how things worked.
He sat his grandson down and said, “Look, Johnathan, the only way to nip this in the bud is if you see this guy tomorrow, wherever you see him — if you see him in church — you walk up to him and you punch him in the mouth, because he’s a bully.”
The next day, Vaughn got a call from the school. Johnathan was in the principal’s office.
“The guy sitting next to Johnathan is bigger than me,” Vaughn said. “The size of his eye is the size of . . .
“But with what happened with Johnathan, nothing ever happened to him again in school. It didn’t make him a bully, it didn’t make him take advantage of people. What it did was teach one bully that you can’t bully people, and it taught Johnathan, you nip it in the bud — especially with these guys in the street.”
Vaughn got one more thing from the experience.
“He trusted me,” Vaughn said.
Trust hasn’t been the easiest thing for Coleman to come by in his life. He bounced from home to home as a child, watched his mother scramble — and at one point break the law — to provide for him.
The world showed him some of its ugliest faces. Whether he was in Harlem or the Bronx with his grandfather, alone in a hotel in Connecticut, new at a boarding school in Pennsylvania, or with teammates now at Boston College, he has had to learn which people to trust.
Radnor High School football coach Tom Ryan was always one of those people.
Radnor couldn’t have been more different from what Johnathan was used to. He lived in a house with eight other boys in a town tucked away in southeast Pennsylvania as a part of the “A Better Chance” program.
“The first couple years, I was kind of a loner,” Johnathan said.
Ryan knew Johnathan from physical education class, and every so often he’d try to convince him to try out for the football team.
“I always joke that when we got him in August, he didn’t even know how to put his pads in his pants because he had never played before,” Ryan said.
He was the second-leading receiver in the county, but he grew the most between game days.
Almost every day, Coleman would sit in Ryan’s office and talk with the coach and his assistants about whatever happened to come up that day.
“It was a regular thing,” Ryan said. “John was in our office during lunch. We would talk about school and just everything that was going on and he was a great kid and the trust just built.
“There was nothing for me not to like about him. I was just talking to him like I’m talking to you and I guess some things must have rubbed off on him.”
Coleman, who has caught 31 passes for 454 yards and four touchdowns this season, was gifted athletically. Baseball was his first love. He also was a marvel on the basketball court. (BC tackle Emmett Cleary says, “We joke that he’s the best basketball player on campus.”)
Some lower-level colleges made offers. Ryan tried to show Coleman how much football could offer him. He put together a tape, called recruiters, and one day then-BC receivers coach Ryan Day, who happened to be in Delaware, came by to visit.
The Friday before Christmas in 2008, Johnathan and Day took a train from 30th Street in Philadelphia. Vaughn left from New York to meet them there. They got to tour The Heights.
“Boston College is Boston College,” Day said. “And when Johnathan came up there, he fell in love.”
BC made an unofficial offer on Saturday. They met with then-head coach Jeff Jagodzinski Sunday to make it official.
Day came down a handful of times and kept in close contact all the way up to signing day. He made himself easy to trust.
“I was loyal to them because they offered me my first D-1 scholarship,” said Coleman.
By the time he got to BC, it was easier to see the good in people.
“It was kind of an easier transition for me,” he said. “Radnor helped me open up to people, so when I got here, I decided to just start trusting people more, so that helped me.”
As a wide receiver, one of the people he immediately bonded with was quarterback Chase Rettig. They met on Rettig’s recruiting trip, and once Rettig arrived on campus, they started to build a relationship on and off the field, throwing the ball on the weekends, going to the bubble during the winter, hitting the dining hall and the weight room.
During the spring semester of Rettig’s freshman year, he took Coleman to his hometown in California for Easter.
“We went to the beach, I took him fishing — there was an earthquake while we went fishing, actually,” Rettig said. “So he definitely got the full California experience. I’m supposed to still go out to the Bronx, so I’m waiting for that invite.”
That trust makes the quarterback-receiver relationship a little easier, especially at times during the season when it has been difficult for Rettig to get the ball to Coleman.
“I think that’s something that’s important for everybody,” Rettig said. “But John knows that I’m going to look out for him.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.