Move over “Rudy.” Make way “Invincible.”
Camden Coleman’s story is straight out of Hollywood.
With the ending still to be determined.
Coleman grew up in Champaign, the son of University of Illinois professors Barrington and Cynthia.
From an early age, Camden was involved in sports. He played Upward basketball, ran track and played soccer.
The Colemans live in west Champaign, near Countryside School. His parents saw from an early age that Camden was more than an average athlete.
“By the time he got into high school, it started to crystallize,” Barrington said. “And we thought, ‘Wow, this could be interesting for him.’”
Prophetic words to be sure.
The family emphasized academic interests. So did Camden.
When it came to selecting a high school, Uni High in Urbana was the choice.
Sports remained a part of Camden’s routine.
“My big focus was track,” said Camden, a standout sprinter who competed in the National Junior Olympics.
Camden considered pursuing a track career in college.
The Colemans talked to track coaches on campus visits.
Ultimately, Camden picked Vanderbilt, where he is a human and organizational development major.
In the latest U.S. News & World Report college rankings, the school in Nashville, Tenn., is tied with Notre Dame at No. 15.
During his freshman year in the fall of 2018, Camden settled into the academic life.
He got to know the campus, professors and fellow students.
He thrived academically at a challenging school.
Uni High prepared him well. Hours of dedication paid off.
“Uni requires such an investment from each child,” Cynthia said. “It instills all the principles you’re going to need when you go to college.”
“That was intense,” Barrington added. “They established such a great academic protocol that by the time he went to college at Vanderbilt, he really knew what that meant. He didn’t have to go through those bumps and grinds that so many students do.”
But something was missing: sports.
Giving football a shotFor the first time in his life, Camden wasn’t involved in organized competitions.
On campus, Camden played basketball every day. And lifted weights, training for something. The former Uni High basketball player and track standout just didn’t realize what.
“I knew I needed something,” Camden said. “I know I’m a student. I know I’m a person. But I know I’m an athlete, too.”
Camden always had college football on his mind. He went to Vanderbilt home games and sat in the first row at Vanderbilt Stadium.
“Seeing them play made me even more anxious to get out there and try and play,” Camden said.
His dad understood.
Before Camden’s freshman year at Vanderbilt, Barrington sent an email to the Commodores’ football staff. He introduced his 6-foot-1, 200-pound son and asked for training advice.
Not that Camden asked for Dad’s help. Camden wanted to get there on his own.
“We were always involved in his athletic interests, whether it was track or soccer,” Barrington said. “But never trying to get in the way.”
Barrington and Cynthia weren’t helicopter parents. Their role was to be supportive ... from a distance.
During Vanderbilt’s winter break his freshman year, Camden returned to Champaign. His parents could tell something wasn’t right.
“We started asking him those questions, as any parent would,” Barrington said. “I remember saying, ‘What I think it is, Camden, is athletics has always been a part of your DNA. It’s how you breathe. It’s how you work through situations.’”
Camden has other ways. Like music. A talented pianist, Camden also plays the cello.
“After hard competitions and games over the course of middle school, high school, he would come home, get on the piano and play Chopin,” Barrington said.
Making a pitchWith the blessing of his parents, Camden started pursuing his football dream.
One catch — and here’s where the Hollywood part comes in. He had never played the sport.
At any level. No pee-wee football. No football in middle school. And, of course, no high school football. Uni High doesn’t have a team.
“The most I ever played before I got to college was my brother (Crofton) and me in the driveway throwing the ball back and forth,” Camden said. “That was my entire experience.”
In March 2019, Camden saw that Vanderbilt was having an open tryout for the football team.
He went and visited with a few coaches, who tested his athletic ability. Soon, more coaches came over.
“By the time I finished, there were 10 coaches out there,” Camden said.
They liked his size and his speed.
“When they saw me run, they were kind of surprised,” said Camden, who finished fifth in the 200-meter dash during the Class 1A state track and field meet in 2017 with Uni High.
The coaches panned for gold and found a 200-pound nugget. One with wheels.
Camden kept his parents in the loop. Sort of.
He invited them to campus for an announcement.
Barrington and Cynthia drove to Nashville for the big reveal.
“He said, ‘Well, they’ve taken me in as a walk-on. I’m going to be doing this,’” Barrington said. “When I recall that story, it blows us away.”
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, entering his seventh season in charge of the Commodores, didn’t throw Camden in the deep end immediately. The coach told him to report in June to begin training.
“At first, I didn’t feel confident at all,” Camden said. “I couldn’t even read a playbook. I didn’t know what the words meant.”
Can you keep a secret?Yes, and so could Camden. He knew he had never played a down of organized football in his life. No reason to share that with all of his teammates.
“I didn’t tell anybody,” Camden said. “I just came in like I was one of the guys. They knew I was a walk-on.”
Some of the players were aware of his background.
“It kind of trickled down the grapevine,” Camden said. “The coaching staff knew. Eventually, word spread around.”
Camden had two reasons for keeping quiet about his football-less past. First, he didn’t want anyone to make an excuse for him. Treat him like everyone else.
Second, no need to tip the competition.
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Camden said. “I didn’t want it to be something that came before my name,”
Some positives existed about never having played. He was a blank canvas. No bad habits to break.
“Everything came as fresh information,” Camden said. “I wasn’t ever questioning what Coach had to say. I learned it straight from the book.”
The cat was officially let out of the bag on Sept. 21, 2019, when the Commodores hosted eventual-national champion LSU.
Wearing No. 42, Camden played on special teams against one of the best college teams of all time.
“It was a crazy feeling,” said Camden, who saw his initial action on punt coverage.
It was Camden’s first game of organized football. Might as well start with the best apparently.
“I realized this is truly an unbelievable experience,” Barrington said.
During the broadcast, ESPN ran a feature about Camden, including details of his limited football background. Barrington and Cynthia were in the stands watching. And cheering loudest for their son.
“I can’t even describe that moment,” Cynthia said. “We’re sitting there and all of a sudden, 42 is on the field. I was elbowing my husband, ‘Forty-two. Forty-two.’”
After the game, the Colemans went to Sun & Fork near the Vanderbilt campus for a bite to eat. Camden’s phone was full of text messages. His brother called.
“He was transformed by the experience,” Cynthia said.
It was bittersweet for Camden. Yes, he got in the game. But the Commodores lost 66-38. Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow threw six touchdown passes for LSU.
Cynthia didn’t follow football before Camden started playing. She does now.
Retired from the UI, Cynthia has become a super fan.
“I am day and night watching every game I can watch,” Cynthia said. “I go back to all the old football games and try to pay attention to how the games have changed.
“A lot of the fears I have are based upon the fact that I watched football with my father when I was a child. The regulations have changed so much.”
Nobody ever gets run over in track. In football, every play ends with a car crash.
How do the Colemans deal with the potential danger?
“For one thing, we are a family of faith,” Barrington said. “We started to see closely where his gifts were. We thought, ‘If this is where his life should be going, it’s where his life should be going.’ We don’t want to get in the way of that. Incredible things happen. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so good. We felt if he’s in the path he’s supposed to be in, that’s the best place he could be.”
“We believe it’s important for people to find that thing they do,” Cynthia added.
Cynthia tells the story of her pregnancy with Camden. Tests before his birth showed the potential for health issues. Severe health issues.
“Got some very scary results,” Cynthia said.
The Colemans went to Peoria for a high-resolution sonogram. And received the happy news that Camden was developing just fine.
“From Day 1, Camden has been the type of child who has blessed us,” Cynthia said. “He hardly cried when he was born, he looked around, and from that moment he has been a peaceful person. He is just a beautiful person.”
Comfort zoneOf course, they have football at Illinois. And track too, unlike Vanderbilt, which doesn’t field a men’s team.
Like a lot of kids who grow up in Champaign-Urbana, Camden was a fan of the Illinois sports programs. He attended basketball and football games and participated in Lovie Smith’s summer camps.
“I’ve always loved the UI,” Camden said. “As a kid, I always wanted to play at Memorial Stadium. “
But like some kids in C-U, he longed to go away for college.
“He wanted to restart in terms of his whole school atmosphere, in terms of his whole social environment,” Barrington said. “He was always there (at Illinois). He came up on that campus and he loved it. But for him, he thought, ‘I think it will be healthy for me to find a fresh start in a new place somewhere else and see what happens.’”
Then and nowCamden finished the 2019 season with two tackles in nine games, mostly on special teams and as a reserve defensive back.
His parents went to most of the remaining games in 2019 and plan to be there again in 2020 if the season kicks off amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Camden’s role figures to increase in 2020 — his junior year academically but sophomore season in football.
In Phil Steele’s College Preview magazine for the 2020 season, Camden is listed with Vanderbilt’s secondary reserves.
“It’s crazy to get to a point where I feel like I’m competing to actually play,” Camden said. “I’ve still got a lot of work to do. I’m starting to feel like I’m in the race.”
Vanderbilt had three spring practices before the session was called in response to the pandemic.
Camden came back to Champaign, where he worked out daily, splitting his time between Zahnd Park and Turnberry Ridge Park in Champaign along with Colbert Park in Savoy.
Camden didn’t have any weights at home, but the school sent him resistance bands to increase his strength.
His intellect and work ethic help Camden on the field and off.
“The biggest thing is knowing how to study,” he said. “It’s incredible, something I didn’t know going into it, just how much of the game is mental. They think it’s all brawn and hitting and running fast.”
Camden is back on the Vanderbilt campus now, preparing for the season. Training with the Commodores and living on campus. His goals are all team-oriented for a program that finished 3-9 last season and only 1-7 in the SEC.
“The biggest thing is to have a winning season, compete for the SEC championship and whatever bowl games we have this year,” Camden said. “Just winning is the biggest thing.”
Camden’s feelings don’t surprise his parents.
“He’s a team player,” Barrington said. “That’s what drew him to football as a sport. He loves discipline. He wants to be sure he is sharing that same breath with everybody else in the room.”
“He’s always been willing to support colleagues, even if it meant he doesn’t get the limelight,” Cynthia added.
Vanderbilt is scheduled to open the season Sept. 5 against Mercer, with its SEC opener set for Sept. 12 at Missouri. Kansas State, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee are also on tap.
But, obviously, COVID-19 remains a concern.
“It’s tough,” Camden said. “We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Nothing is normal. It’s hard to stay mentally strong when you see some of the stuff going on around you.”
Camden has been tested for the virus and received good news so far.
“Knock on wood,” Camden said. “I’m just praying the whole country can get back to where it needs to be.”
Cheering sectionMarques Lowe is an important part of Camden’s athletic life. Lowe has coached Champaign’s Vipers Track Club for a decade.
When Lowe first met Camden, he saw a quiet kid focused on academics. And a talented athlete.
“He’s just genetically a freak of nature,” Lowe said. “There’s a monster in the making. Anything he put his mind to, he can do.”
Camden’s track training partners helped mold him. Lowe thinks it has carried over to football.
“If you looked at him, you would think he is a cornerback, defensive back or wide receiver,” Lowe said. “He has the mind to do everything he is doing right now.”
The leap for Camden was taking on a contact sport.
Obviously, track helps with football and most other sports.
“Mentally, you have to lock in,” Lowe said. “Track and field gave him that ability to be a great football player because not only is he fast, he is very strong.
“Our weight-room sessions were crazy.”
Lowe believes in Camden.
“You put him on any team and he’s going to be the difference-maker,” Lowe said.
Lowe marvels at the amount of time Camden put in during his high school career. Up for a 5 a.m. workout, then practice at Uni after school and then a Vipers practice some days.
Lowe is thrilled for Camden’s progress in football. And can’t wait to see what he does next.
“He had a dream and he followed it and he made it,” Lowe said. “This is SEC football, the best conference ever.”
Final wordWhy is Camden doing all of this, you might ask?
He has a simple explanation for why he’s continued his athletic journey.
“I want to be an inspiration for kids back home in Champaign,” he said. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have many role models who were my age, who looked like me. A big part of this is to be someone the kids can look up to back home and see they can do whatever they want to do, regardless of circumstance.”