His empty locker will be filled before game time, a black-and-gold jersey hung inside with “0” across the chest and “Cofer” across the back shoulder.
His teammates will take the court wearing warmup shirts featuring a tribute patch.
His surname will be scrawled on the shoe of teammate Terance Mann.
Phil Cofer won’t play for Florida State in its NCAA tournament regional semifinal against Gonzaga on Thursday at Honda Center, but his presence will resonate with the same fervor as the Seminoles’ war chant.
“Our brother is hurting right now,” guard PJ Savoy said Wednesday as he sat across from Cofer’s empty locker, “so we’ve got to play for him.”
The Seminoles will play for the father and the son, the best of friends who never got to say goodbye. Cofer lost his father, Michael, unexpectedly last week after the 58-year-old succumbed to a lengthy battle with a merciless disease, leaving a hole in his heart and on his team’s bench for its biggest game of the season.
Phil Cofer was the leading scorer last season on a team that reached the final game in this same West Regional, and even though his production had dipped in recent months amid a series of injuries, the fifth-year senior’s presence always galvanized his teammates as a symbol of the Seminoles’ growth.
“He’s poured his heart and soul into this program,” senior guard David Nichols said of the forward who was averaging 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds during a season in which he’s missed 14 games because of injuries. “When he first came here they were playing in the NIT and now we’re getting to back-to-back Sweet 16s with a chance to go to back-to-back Elite Eights and possibly the first Final Four [since 1972], so he’s had both his hands around building this program up to that point.”
That program has wrapped its arms around its aching son. The Seminoles issued Cofer a locker, complete with its own name plate, even though he’s remained on the East Coast with family this week in advance of his father’s funeral on Saturday in Virginia. Mann scrawled “Mike Cofer, 3-21-19” in black marker near the tip of his sneakers.
The patch that players wear on their warmup shirts will bear the initials “MC” before the fourth-seeded Seminoles (29-7) try to take down the top-seeded Bulldogs (32-3) in this round for a second consecutive season. Florida State has already dedicated its season to the elder Cofer as a gesture of support.
“Life sometimes gives you those types of curveballs,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said, “that you’ve just got to learn how to adjust and deal with the best you can.”
The heartbreak started with a phone call. Cofer was in the locker room celebrating the Seminoles’ first-round victory over Vermont last week when his mom called to inform him of the news about his father.
Michael Cofer had lost his longtime battle with amyloidosis, a rare disease in which the body cannot properly absorb proteins, disrupting function of the kidneys and other organs. The disorder had left Cofer, a former Pro Bowl linebacker with the Detroit Lions, bed-ridden and unable to work.
“At times the doctors looked at me as if I wasn’t going to live too much longer,” Cofer told the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2013, six years after his diagnosis. “I’m a fighter. That’s in my genes.”
Phil Cofer began wailing and collapsed into the arms of teammates and staff members when he learned of his father’s passing. Teammates helped him into a more private area inside the locker room so they could console him along with coaches and a sports psychologist who was traveling with the team.
“Obviously it was a very emotional period there in the locker room and there is no way to describe that,” Hamilton said, “the emotions of his teammates and Phil.”
Cofer remained with the team two days later during its 28-point triumph over Murray State, sitting out with the same foot ailment that had sidelined him against Vermont. He stood with his teammates for the national anthem, wiping his eyes with his sweatshirt, before Mann draped an arm around his teammate’s shoulders when the song ended.
“It was kind of a moment of silence that we kind of took right there,” Mann said, “and I just kind of put my arm around him and let him know that we’re here for him and I’m going to play my heart out for him.”
Cofer wrote of his love for his father on a GoFundMe page that was established to raise money for the funeral and unpaid medical bills. The page, approved by the NCAA and Florida State’s compliance department, had raised more than $73,000 of the $100,000 goal as of Wednesday afternoon.
“My dad has always supported me on and off the court,” Cofer wrote, “and I will miss him dearly. My family has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and now humbly asks for the community’s help with our existing and continuing expenses.”
Mann said the Seminoles have remained in contact with Cofer over the last few days, receiving messages of support and appreciation for embracing him through this ordeal.
They intend to return the favor by winning two more games. That would allow Cofer to reclaim his locker and put on his jersey at least one more time.
“We’re just trying to make the season long enough,” Savoy said, “for him to come back and enjoy it with us.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch