Deandre Coleman is two minutes into a description of his high school, and he’s already used the word frustrating five times.
Not that he didn’t enjoy high school. The future Cal defensive end loved playing ball with his friends in Seattle.
It’s just that his neighborhood high school didn’t win a lot.
Two games, to be exact. In Coleman’s four seasons, the Garfield High Bulldogs went 2-34.
“We tried to win,” he says. “We just couldn’t do it.”
The losing fueled his competitive drive. It made him try harder, made him hungrier to win. The state of his high school program virtually forced him to redshirt his first year at Cal but also helped turn him into a grounded, headstrong player able to persevere through .500 seasons in Berkeley.
“It gave him a lot of character in going through that,” says his mother, Deborah Coleman. “It made him stronger.”
Ten pounds, two ounces at birth, Deandre Coleman was nicknamed “Biggie” as a baby. At six years old, Coleman gazed out the window as other children headed down to the football field at the nearby park. He walked down there every day in the summer to watch them practice. He begged his mother to let him play, and eventually she relented.
She stayed supportive through the turbulent seasons at Garfield High. In fact, she admits that she dealt with all the losing worse than her son did. Deandre was able to keep his emotions in check — but he still lingered over losses.
“After a loss, I just think for a whole day about what I did wrong, if it was my fault,” he says.
In Coleman’s first season, the team went 1-8. It was downhill from there. Coleman kept pushing, kept putting in effort, but no matter how hard he tried, his team just wasn’t winning. The next season, Garfield lost all nine games. In 2007, the team went 1-8 again.
He remained optimistic — if his teammates continued to get better, there was always a chance the squad would bounce back. But it never did. He didn’t win a single game senior year.
“A lot of them were blowouts, I’m not gonna lie,” he says.
The closest game that season was decided by a 22-point margin. In four games, the squad failed to score in double digits.
Coleman says he’s not sure why his team was so bad. Maybe it was the coaching. Maybe it was the tough competition in the Seattle area. Maybe it was his teammates’ work ethic — he praises their effort but later backtracks.
“Some people on the team weren’t all into it,” he admits. “No one really wanted to play football at my high school.”
As a result, Coleman says he did not always think he would play college football. He didn’t go to camps and never paid much attention to scholarship offers as an underclassman.
“I told him, ‘If you have the talent, it doesn’t matter, they’re gonna find you,’” his mother says. “‘The word’s gonna get out. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a winning school or not.’”
In his four years on varsity, no player besides Deandre reached Division I college football. Coleman received his first scholarship at the end of his sophomore year. It was from LSU. Oregon entered the fray later that week. Soon Washington and Cal came beckoning.
“It was interesting,” he says. “They just came and found me.”
At 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, Coleman had the raw talent and brute force that recruits drooled over in a defensive lineman prospect. He could bench-press 350 pounds and squat 545. Rivals even named Coleman the top recruit in the state of Washington.
To his teammates, Coleman was the big fish in their small, losing pond. So he molded himself into a leader, motivating and encouraging his boys. If he played hard, he hoped his teammates would as well.
“He’s always lifting guys up,” his mother says. “Win or lose, he always has something positive to say.”
But he never got used to losing. He calls it “pitiful.” By the end of his senior season, after four years of not showing emotion and not exhibiting the frustration, Coleman had had enough. He was tired of giving 100 percent every week with nothing to show for it. He was tired of losing.
When Coleman arrived at Cal, he no longer felt pressure. He didn’t have to be The Man and carry the team. In fact, his fellow defensive linemen had to teach him the ropes. Future first-round draft picks Tyson Alualu and Cameron Jordan took Coleman under their wings, tutoring him on technique and discipline.
Coleman had never played against people as big as he before coming to Berkeley. He also came in with very little knowledge about football.
“Techniques you have to do, schemes — I didn’t really know all that in high school,” he says. “I didn’t really lift weights in high school, so I was trying to get stronger in the weight room.”
Coleman redshirted his first season, which was the best thing that could have happened to him, according to his mother.
“When you’re the No. 1 recruit, biggest guy and go to college level, see that there’s boys bigger than you, better than you, redshirting humbled him a lot,” she says.
He only started two games the next two seasons, but he played in every single contest.
Earlier this year, Coleman dominated spring practice, leading head coach Jeff Tedford to remark at the time that “he may be one of the best that we’ve ever had.” Coleman’s name was added to nearly every preseason watch list — top defensive end, top lineman, first-team All-Pac-12.
Once again, people saw the potential in Coleman.
“I think it means for me to build off that, to try to do better than that,” he says.
In four games this year, Coleman already has 20 tackles, surpassing his totals from each of the past two seasons.
But the Bears have just one win.
In fact, Cal is an even 21-21 since Coleman joined the team in fall of 2009. A .500 record may not be ideal, but it’s better than his high school record of .053.
Yet the vast improvement in success and winning games does not satisfy Coleman. He is not content. He believes the harder he works, the more he deserves to win.
“Now, losses hurt more,” he says. “Because I try so hard, this is what I want to do, and my whole team … has such a bond.
“I think it’s more difficult now.”
Seven years since that first high school football season, Coleman still isn’t used to losing. After losses, he sits in the locker room with his pads still on, thinking about what he did wrong, alone in his thoughts. He’s always one of the last players to leave.
But with a new Saturday comes a new game, a fresh start, a clean slate. And win or lose, Deandre Coleman is not about to give up.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected].