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After neglect, new life

Coleman overcomes childhood filled with drugs and despair, finds salvation in football

The boy’s mother promised to come back for him that day. But night fell and the sun rose the next morning, and Johnathan Coleman’s mother was gone.

He was 11 when his mother left him and his 4-year-old brother with drug dealers in Connecticut while she flew to the Caribbean to smuggle cocaine and marijuana into the United States.

“She said she would be right back, and then days went by and I was like, ‘Where’s my mother?’ ’’ said Coleman, a first-year wide receiver at Boston College. “It was really scary.’’

The men in the house never told Coleman the truth: His mother did not return because police arrested her inbound from Jamaica at LaGuardia Airport and charged her with drug trafficking.

By the time the drug dealers delivered the stranded brothers to their relatives in the Bronx nearly a week later, Coleman had endured hardships no boy should bear. A child of poverty, hunger, and fear, he never knew his father, slept at times in a homeless shelter, and once had nothing to eat but scraps of iceberg lettuce.

Yet his mother’s incarceration became the boy’s salvation. In her absence, Coleman was given a stable home, an education, and, at 17, a football.

Now he lives in a land of plenty, with all he can eat, learn, and achieve as a $52,000-a-year scholarship athlete in Chestnut Hill. He is a survivor in maroon and gold, a rescued soul pursuing opportunities — a professional career, a home of his own, maybe even fame and fortune — he never fathomed as a lost child.

In Coleman’s new world, there is room for forgiveness, hope for a better life for his mother and siblings.

“Their faces keep flashing in front of me,’’ he said. “Whenever I’m struggling, I picture how I want things to be for them and my future family. They’re all counting on me.’’

Imagine that: A neglected child turned guardian angel.

From Harlem to The Heights, Coleman has been climbing out of the abyss he entered after his mother, Vanci Coleman, had him in 1991 with a man who never returned. A year later, Vanci and another man had a daughter, Janae.

At 23, she had two children and no steady means of support. The family bounced from one temporary home to another, from New York to the Carolinas. When Johnathan was 7, Vanci and another man had a son, Osiah, in South Carolina.

Unable to support three children on her meager wages, Vanci said in an interview, she returned to New York and embraced a faster life.

“I decided I was going to sell drugs to make ends meet,’’ she said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t make it out of that life without learning quite a few lessons.’’

Johnathan was in elementary school when his mother started peddling drugs. He saw the residue and other signs of illegal activity.

“I knew my mom was doing something bad,’’ he said, “but I loved her so much that I was afraid to ask, ‘Why are you smoking that?’ and ‘Why are you selling that?’ ’’

Money was the simple answer. She wanted a better life for herself and her children — a life she imagined growing up as the only child of a mother who doted on her. Her mother died in 1997, at 53.

“After that, I made poor choices,’’ Vanci said. “My timing was bad, too.’’

Her timing involved operating as a drug mule soon after security was beefed up at US airports in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Busted, Vanci pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a controlled substance and spent five months at the Rikers Island jail before she was shipped to a six-month shock incarceration program, or boot camp, in upstate New York.

Her children went separate ways, Johnathan to live with his grandfather, the other two children with their fathers.

“I told them, ‘Don’t let my children end up in the system,’ ’’ Vanci recalled.

In Johnathan’s case, he made sure of it.

He moved to the Bronx with his grandfather, Vaughn Coleman, and his grandfather’s wife, Linda Williams. While Williams kept Johnathan focused on his classwork at a Harlem middle school, his grandfather coached him in baseball and basketball.

Football? Nobody cared about it. Not Johnathan, not his grandfather.

Johnathan had basketball dreams — and a plan. As his school’s eighth-grade valedictorian, he took the unusual step of applying on his own for the A Better Chance program for underprivileged students. He was accepted at Radnor High School on Philadelphia’s suburban Main Line and began pursuing a college basketball scholarship.

Life was good. Vanci was on her own, out of prison, drug free, and working for the New York-based Women’s Prison Association helping former inmates transition to the streets. Johnathan was at Radnor, sharing a group home with seven other ABC kids and poised to land his basketball scholarship.

Then everything changed.

Radnor’s football coach persuaded Coleman to try a new sport. At 6 feet 4 inches, Coleman was blessed with speed, strength, and sure hands. He was a prototype wideout, and before he completed his only high school season, he was high on BC’s recruitment list.

The only drawback: Coleman knew as much about the intricacies of football as he did nuclear physics.

BC receivers coach Ryan Day smiled when he watched a video of Coleman catching a touchdown pass in high school.

“Johnathan was in the end zone, and the referee extended his hand to collect the football,’’ Day recalled. “And Johnathan gave him a high-five.’’

BC was swayed, however, by Coleman’s athleticism — and his heart.

“There was some risk with him in terms of his football skills,’’ Day said, “but we decided that he already had overcome so much in his life that football wouldn’t be that much of a challenge for him.’’

‘An ongoing process’
The kid from the drug house finished Radnor with a 3.2 grade point average and posted a 2.9 GPA his first year at BC. After redshirting his first year to better learn the sport, Coleman has shown promise in his debut season with the Eagles, catching 11 passes for 201 yards through eight games.

“He’s the kind of kid who hates getting things wrong and works hard to fix them,’’ Day said. “If he continues that work ethic, he will have a good career at BC. Where he goes from here is up to him.’’

Once Coleman completes his football career — he envisions playing in the NFL, of course — he plans to teach high school history. He also wants to help support his family, particularly his mother, who recently became unemployed and lives on the edge of poverty.

“She’s been through so much and struggles every day,’’ he said. “I just want her to be happy and be able to relax.’’

All his mother wants, she said, is for Coleman to continue chasing his dreams.

“Everything could have gone so much the other way for Johnathan,’’ Vanci said. “With all my flaws, I thank God every day that he blessed me with him for a son.’’

Scars linger, though. The instability of Johnathan’s childhood has complicated his efforts to form relationships, and his younger brother was returned to their mother after the boy’s father physically abused him. The father, Oscar Rivers III, was convicted in South Carolina of unlawful conduct toward a child.

“I want to help him so bad,’’ Johnathan said of his brother, “but I don’t know what to do right now.’’

Vanci said she recognizes the pain her children have endured. (Her daughter attends community college in New York.)

“It’s going to take a lot before we’re complete as a family,’’ Vanci said. “It’s an ongoing process.’’

Through it all, Johnathan presses on, no longer worried about his next meal. He has a home at BC, a new family behind him, hope on the horizon.

“It’s pretty remarkable how far he has come,’’ Day said. “He has a lot of people pulling for him.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.  

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