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Motivated by brothers optimism, UNC's Kanler Coker calls switch to basketball a 'no-brainer'
Flowery Branch grad made change to honor his brother
Flowery Branch High graduate Kanler Coker transitioned from the University of North Carolina football team to the basketball team over the summer, as an homage to his younger brother Keaton, who died in 2014 after a battle with brain cancer. - photo by Illustration by Steven Welch, photos provided by University of North Carolina

For more information on the Thumbs Up Mission

Visit its website at or send a check to Thumbs Up Mission, P.O. Box 2697, Gainesville, GA 30503.

When Kanler Coker signed to play football for the University of North Carolina, he was fulfilling his dream of playing Division-I athletics. 

This fall, he’s pursuing a different dream.

Each time he suits up for the Tar Heels’ basketball team this fall, the senior will be honoring the vision of his beloved younger brother, Keaton, who lost his battle with brain cancer in July of 2014.

Coker, a quarterback for three years under head coach Larry Fedora, gave up his football scholarship this summer to join the basketball team, where he now studies under the tutelage of legendary coach Roy Williams, who has won two national championships at Chapel Hill.

That Coker would turn to basketball is no surprise. The redshirt junior was a point guard/shooting guard at North Hall before moving to Flowery Branch High, attended a UNC basketball camp as a child and slept with a Michael Jordan basketball in his crib.

And when a nagging elbow injury finally signaled the end of his career as a football player this summer, Kanler felt moved to honor Keaton, who was by his side cheering his older brother through each step of his athletic career.

“It was a no-brainer,” said Kanler. “I think about Keaton smiling down from heaven, and I knew he’d be proud. It was motivation for me the whole time.”

Kanler Coker doesn’t tolerate whining.

So when he overheard some of his basketball teammates grumble this summer over some of the team’s offseason conditioning training, he was quick to step in.

“We had a run that was hard and some of the guys are complaining about doing two miles in 12 minutes as a team,” he said. “But I said ‘If you were sitting in a hospital battling brain cancer, I bet you wouldn’t be complaining right now.’”

His teammates fell silent and finished the run.

Kanler understands pain: He knows the fear of watching his younger brother Keaton fall victim to a serious seizure in church three years ago that eventually led to the discovery of two debilitating brain tumors.

He knows the feeling of watching Keaton, a former lineman for Flowery Branch, undergo extensive radiation treatment each and every weekday morning for a summer.

He knows the heartache of waiting to hear the results of Keaton’s brain surgery during the summer before his junior year.

At 16, Keaton continued to attend school with half-days and even practiced with the football team each afternoon. He even spent quality time on the varsity wrestling team, where he shined during a state competition in freshman year.

“Keaton was stronger than to let everything get to him,” said middle brother Karson, a children’s minister at Northside Church in Gainesville.

Thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Coker family was able to escape the burdens of treatments, checkups and fluids for five days with a family vacation in March 2014. Keaton graduated from high school in May. He died just two months later at age 18.

That spurred the Coker family to pass along help to those with cancer and their families by helping them all get away from the stress, if only just for a weekend. Kanler’s father, Miles Coker, called it “Thumbs Up Mission." Even in the throes of cancer treatment, Keaton always kept a positive attitude and gave a thumbs-up with a smile to anyone around him.

Since beginning the non-profit foundation last summer, the Cokers and a small staff have hosted two camps that have hosted nearly 700 people either diagnosed with life-threatening cancer or are family to those who are. The weekend retreats have allowed families to fill their days with zip-lining, swimming and fellowship, rather than doctor’s visits and chemotherapy.

Kanler has already gotten his basketball teammates involved, and Miles is expecting a large group from the University of North Carolina to join this March for the foundation’s third retreat at SharpTop Cove in Jasper.

“I just wanted to put it all in perspective for them,” said Kanler. “We try to cater to the families and let them know it’s good to come together.”

Keaton was always Kanler’s No. 1 fan, on and off the court according to their father. When Kanler was just 13, he asked his parents to attend a Tar Heels basketball game and swore that he would one day play at North Carolina.

Kanler would often see Keaton camped out in the stands at his high school games for North Hall and Flowery Branch, sitting just rows above college coaches and scouts that had come to recruit. When it came time for Kanler to transfer to the Falcons in his senior year, Keaton joined him so they could spend more time together.

“He always marveled at Kanler’s ability on the court,” said Miles. “He told him, ‘You can do anything you want to do.’ I don’t think there was anyone who believed in him more than Keaton. That was a big motivation.”

So was playing basketball for the Tar Heels. The brothers bonded over a spring ski trip to Utah in 2005, where they watched as North Carolina won its fourth national championship.

Keaton was a keen ball player in his own right. When Keaton was 8, Miles said his youngest son dominated opponents in a small recreational league in Hall County, forcing local officials to adjust their defensive rules.

“We had a little piece of tape,” said Miles. “They said you couldn’t guard anyone until they got to the tape on the court. Three games into the season, they changed the rules and moved the tape way up so that people could get a shot because Keaton wouldn’t let them get that far. I thought, ‘Wow, he’s going to be a better basketball player than Kanler.’”

And even when Kanler was admitted to Chapel Hill as a backup quarterback for the football team, Keaton always held on to hope that he would get to play basketball in Carolina baby blue.

Earlier this summer, Kanler honored his brother’s wish.

After featuring in just three games in two seasons for the football team, Kanler applied to become a medical non-counter for football grant-in-aid, which means he must pay his own way to continue studying at North Carolina.

It’s all worth it, according to Kanler, who dropped from 225 pounds to 197 over the summer to get leaner and quicker to play on the wing in coach Roy Williams’ system. As of Dec. 17, Kanler has played in four games so far this season.

Riding the bench just means Kanler has a little more time to focus on his family’s foundation, which has raised $250,000 in just over a year. Some of the money goes into running the getaway camp at SharpTop Cove, while the rest of it is used to send families suffering from cancer to spend time together on trips, just like the one the Cokers enjoyed.

“It’s funny how things work out,” said Kanler. “I came here to play football, but I always told people I wanted to be on the basketball team, to do this. (Keaton) always expected the most out of me. It means a great deal to be here right now.”

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