If you’re trying to start a conversation with Charger cornerback Leonard Coleman, don’t bother asking him about the 1987 football season.
“Last year wasn’t a season,” Coleman will say.
End of chat.
Next subject, if you please.
For a lengthier talk, ask him about 1988, his first season with the Chargers. Ask him about how he escaped from the Indianapolis Colts, a team that wanted to get rid of him so badly last season, all they asked the Chargers for in exchange was a 12th-round draft pick.
Ask him how nice it is to finally get off the bench and play again.
“Last year, I was under the bench,” Coleman said.
Actually, most of the time, he didn’t even see the bench. He only dressed for 4 games. He’d sit at home and watch on television.
Don’t ask him how much he hated that.
Ask him, instead, about Sunday.
He dressed to play against the Colts. He had 2 interceptions.
If you thought the 16-0 loss to the Colts was bad, consider how much worse it could have been. Both of Coleman’s interceptions came in the end zone to snuff out possible Colt scoring drives.
In the winning locker room afterward, Colt Coach Ron Meyer smiled when somebody asked him about Coleman. Meyer was the guy who buried Coleman in Indianapolis last season.
“Nobody’s happy to be intercepted, but I have to give Leonard a lot of credit for the way he played against us,” Meyer said. “Last year, he never gave up. He didn’t fit in with our team, but he’s found a home, it looks like, with the Chargers. Every team in the league has a couple of players who fit in better somewhere else.”
In the losers’ locker room, someone asked Coleman about Meyer.
“I won’t talk about him,” Coleman said.
Another short subject.
“When they wouldn’t play me last season, they said it was because I wouldn’t hit anyone,” Coleman said. “How was I supposed to hit anyone when I was sitting at home? I wasn’t going to hit my wife.”
In 1984, the Colts thought Coleman could hit. And they thought he could do a lot of other things as well. They must have. They made him their No. 1 pick, the eighth overall, out of Vanderbilt.
But Coleman didn’t sign in 1984, choosing instead to play in the United States Football League. Three weeks into the 1985 season, he returned to the Colts.
By 1986, he was starting and playing well. He had 4 interceptions as a starter at cornerback (14 games) and strong safety (2 games). Before the final 3 games of ’86, however, Meyer took over. By the beginning of 1987, Meyer had found some things he didn’t like.
“I don’t really understand what the coaches didn’t like,” said Eugene Daniel, a Colt defensive back, who was Coleman’s best friend at Indianapolis. “Leonard was playing well. But each week he wouldn’t play.
“We used to talk and I’d tell him that he must have been good enough to play or he wouldn’t be in the NFL. It was hard for him to keep his head up, but he hung in there. He’d work hard in practice and go home and come back the next day and work hard again.”
Said Meyer, looking back: “The thing about him was that he really could have ripped me last season. Here was a No. 1 pick who wasn’t getting any playing time, and he didn’t take any cheap shots at me. He could have. I respect him for that.”
The Chargers respected Coleman enough to pursue him and he’s played well enough this season to earn quite a bit of playing time.
“We knew Leonard could do some things for us,” said Rod Lynn, Charger defensive coordinator. “He’s not a killer, but he plays decent collision football.”
Sunday, Coleman collided with cornerback Elvis Patterson in the end zone. Both were trying to intercept a a first-quarter pass thrown by Chris Chandler. Charger free safety Vencie Glenn tipped it once. Patterson tipped it again. Then Coleman caught it.
In the second quarter, Coleman stepped in front of a pass intended for Matt Bouza and intercepted it in the end zone. Another Colt drive had been halted.
“I felt at the time of the picks, they were big plays,” Coleman said. “I just wish they could have helped us win the game.”