LaMarcus Coker is fast. Always has been.
Yet the former running back at Antioch High School and the University of Tennessee is just the latest example of someone unable to outrun his past — one which manifested itself, as Coker sees it, in the form of “weed smoke.”
“I don’t feel like talent has been the issue for me,” he said. “I feel like the issue for me is the things that surround me, this cloud of weed smoke that has been following me for the last five years.
“I feel like if people can get past that, there is no question I can be successful in the NFL.”
Coker was an all-state selection and the Tennessee Class 5A Back of the Year in 2003. A promising college career at UT ended far sooner than anyone imagined. After he led all Southeastern Conference freshmen in rushing in 2006, Coker was dismissed from UT in 2007 due to failed drug tests for marijuana.
He got a second chance at Hampton (Va.) University, where he rushed for more than 1,600 yards in two seasons. During a pro day workout at William & Mary last year, Coker ran the 40-yard dash in 4.37 seconds. Soon after, the Cincinnati Bengals invited him to their rookie camp, but he returned to Middle Tennessee without being offered a roster spot.
Since then he has worked two jobs — in shipping and receiving at Federal-Mogul in Smyrna, and at a Nike store in Lebanon — while working to stay in football condition, training individually and with friends at the D-1 Sports Complex in Franklin and at local high schools and YMCAs.
“I always kept training like I was going to play the next day,” Coker said.
Coker is playing. He’s a member of the Nashville Storm, the local adult amateur team that plays its home games at Stratford High School and is the reigning North American Football League champion.
“That is one of the things this situation has taught me, is you’re playing in front of 100,000 people one day and you are on ESPN and everything is going good,” Coker said. “Then the next day, you’re outcast and half your teammates aren’t calling you. You are about to go to another school, and your whole life is about to change. You have to learn how to accept the good with the bad.”
On May 7, Coker had two touchdowns in a game against Memphis. That included a 37-yard score in which he bounced off two defenders, changed directions in the backfield, turned the corner and sprinted by seven other defenders to the
Storm president Bill Caldwell called it “NFL highlight film-type stuff.”
Coker, however, won’t be with the Storm much longer. He recently received a call from Chris Jones, the defensive coordinator of the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, who invited him to that team’s training camp, which opens in early June.
His speed drew the Stampeders’ interest.
Coker said team officials recently timed him at 4.25 seconds in the 40 on a grass surface. He said his time is “4.2 anything on any day” and joked that “if anybody can find Chris Johnson [who has the fastest 40 time in the history of the NFL scouting combine], tell him that I’m ready to race.”
Other than the opportunity with the Bengals, though, Coker said he hasn’t received many looks from NFL teams. He reached out to the Titans and even drove to Baptist Sports Park to hand in game film. He never got a response.
He thinks he knows why.
“It has to be something to do with my social issues that I have had in my past. … It seemed like every time I smoked at UT, we had a drug test the next day,” Coker said. “That is how often I smoked. … I didn’t have nothing criminal happen to me, no fighting. My grades were fine at UT. Everything was cool. But I smoked some weed, which I usually did by myself in the privacy of my own home.
“I feel like I’m a person that doesn’t bother anybody. I keep to myself. I do my own thing. But people feel like I am some type of outlaw or gangster, or I just don’t care about playing ball.”
As he approaches his 25th birthday, Coker said he steers clear of any social situations that might further those perceptions.
“There is nothing at a party that I haven’t seen before,” Coker said. “… Just like with anything, you’re going to grow out of that with age.”
He believes he is “in better shape now and I am stronger now and faster now than any day I was at Tennessee.” He also is a welcome presence with the Storm for as long as he’ll be with them.
“He came out like a leader, almost,” Storm head coach Charles Hunter said. “He was getting guys motivated, giving encouraging words and leading by example. … He’s taking it very seriously. He wants to move up. I can see it. We hope that he does. We hope we can give him the avenue to showcase his talents so he can.”
Coker said he wouldn’t change anything about the past that follows him everywhere. While dark and cloudy, it made him appreciate new opportunities — like the one the Storm has given him.
“I’d take it just how it came,” he said. “I’m not going to sit back and look back on it in regret. Some of the best times I had were at Tennessee. Yeah, I didn’t get a chance to do some of the things that I wanted to do there or go in the NFL as a high number in the draft.
“I have been ridiculed and all these other things have happened, but honestly I feel like I am a better man for it. Not for the weed smoke, but for what it took me through. Sometimes people need those hard times.”