To those who knew him, Keaton Coker was a face and voice of strength through tremendous adversity.
He never considered giving up on his football career at Flowery Branch, even though he was diagnosed with brain cancer the summer before beginning his junior year in 2012.
He faced surgery to try and eliminate the tumor, in addition to regular chemotherapy and radiation.
Still, he never stopped thinking about football and his Falcons teammates, who had such admiration for his toughness. Never once did friends closest to him ever see him complain. Instead, he went through life with a big smile and kind heart.
“You don’t have enough time for me to be able to tell you truly how wonderful of a person he was,” Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. “I could make a list of all his amazing characteristics that went far beyond football.
“He was humble, kind, had an amazing work ethic and was completely unselfish.”
Coker died Tuesday following his two-year battle with cancer, less than two months after graduating from Flowery Branch. He was 18. Funeral services are set for 11 a.m. Friday at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville.
“We all loved Keaton to death and are going to miss the heck out of him,” former Flowery Branch quarterback Jackson McDonald said.
McDonald said Coker would never allow friends to take pity on his condition. Griffin added that Coker, an interior offensive lineman, was often the first one on the practice field and set an example that everyone else on the program could follow.
Fellow offensive lineman Andrew Miles said everyone had great admiration for Coker, not only as a football player but also as a friend.
“Keaton was a person that always put others first,” Miles said. “Just an amazing person.”
Flowery Branch’s coach said Coker’s faith was central to the way he pursued life. Coker had planned on pursuing a career in the ministry after graduation, Griffin said.
When Coker emerged from his first surgery to remove a brain tumor two years ago, his first concern when he awoke was when he was going to be able to get back to the football field.
Not only did Coker never miss a practice, he was the first one in line for linemen drills and even kept his locker organized.
“Most kids would try to get out of football practice if they have a cold,” Griffin said. “Keaton had just had brain surgery and was talking about getting back on the field.”
Even though his long-term goals had nothing to do with sports, Coker made football a high priority in life. He was a starting lineman for the Falcons.
McDonald remembers Coker was automatic when it came to training.
They would run together on Thursday nights during the season, doing sprints at the school practice field on the eve of Friday’s game. Coker would also catch passes for his quarterback the night before games, just having the lights of the tennis courts to see after dark on the practice field.
“I never once heard Keaton complain about not feeling well,” McDonald said. “And he would never let you take it easy on him just because he was sick.
“He worked harder than anyone else ... He’s the toughest person I’ve ever known.”
Even though Coker was quiet, Griffin said he wasn’t afraid to speak up when the time was right.
One of those moments came during the 2012 season. Following a terrible first half against Heritage, Flowery Branch trailed 27-6 going into halftime at Falcon Field.
When the Falcons went to the locker room during the halftime — split up between offensive and defensive units — Griffin could hear Coker rallying his teammates.
The Falcons responded, outscoring the Patriots 29-0 in the third quarter to win 35-27. The Falcons then went on to beat Gainesville 35-34 for the Region 8-AAAAA championship.
“Everyone had so much respect for Keaton,” Griffin said. “When he spoke, they listened.”