Words like “inspiration,” “determination” and “amazing” can be thrown around pretty haphazardly in the world of sports, where superlatives are part of the everyday language.
When an athlete comes back from a common knee injury, we’re likely to hear about how the odds have been defied, how through the sheer force of will, he has returned to the field of play ahead of schedule.
But lately, when you hear that kind of talk coming out of Flowery Branch High School, you can trust it’s coming from a place of greater perspective. Every day, the Falcons are seeing those words and more personified by an unassuming 16-year-old offensive lineman.
Each morning, Monday through Friday, Keaton Coker receives radiation treatment and takes oral chemotherapy designed to kill the tumor on his brain. Each afternoon, he buckles his shoulder pads, snaps on his helmet, and joins his teammates on the practice field.
He’s not there to serve as an inspiration, but that’s what he is. He’s not there to lift the spirits of his coaches and teammates, but that’s what he does.
He’s there because football practice after school is what he’s always done. It’s what he loves. He’s there to play, to round himself back into game shape and to take back the starting job he won last fall as a sophomore when he blocked for his older brother and helped lead the Falcons to the Class AAAA quarterfinals.
He’s there because a summer from hell couldn’t break his faith or his will. It couldn’t even tilt his even-keel attitude.
“He’s very low-key,” Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin said. “Good things, bad things, you’re gonna get the same kind of emotion. He just lets it roll off his back. He’s been a champ, though. He’s been a huge inspiration to a lot of people.”
On the Sunday morning before Memorial Day, Keaton Coker was attending church with his family. Kanler Coker, the middle of Miles and Sharon’s three sons, was back in town after going through spring football practice at the University of North Carolina, and the family was planning lunch with the boys’ grandparents. It was the last morning of normalcy in the Coker family.
As they were leaving the service, Keaton, a seemingly healthy teenager, was struck by a major seizure. Miles saw the scene unfold from the back of the church.
“Keaton had his back to me and Kanler was in front of him and had (Keaton’s) head in his chest, and I see Keaton (swinging his arms) and I think Keaton’s actually hitting Kanler.” Miles said. “I just remember thinking: ‘Are they fighting in church? I mean surely not. I’ll kill both of them.’”
It didn’t take long to realize something more serious was happening.
“It’s almost impossible to describe,” Keaton said. “It feels like you’re just getting choked out, but you can’t do anything about it. It’s pretty scary, but you can’t do anything about it, so you’re just kind of stuck there.”
The violent episode lasted five terrifying minutes.
“At the end of it there was foam at (Keaton’s) mouth, then eyes twitched real fast and his head just dropped,” Miles said. “I just looked at him and thought, ‘he’s dead.’”
So Miles did the only thing he could do. He sent up a quick, fervent prayer.
“One second later his head snapped back up,” Miles said, “and I said ‘thank you, God.’”
The Cokers’ faith is an inextricable part of their story. Keaton credits it for his ever-positive attitude, which, in turn, Miles said has been a source of strength for the family.
Faith, luck, the support of a tight-knit community and the marvels of modern medicine would be needed in the coming months.
The initial seizure touched off a series of hospital visits, tests and missed diagnoses before it was determined that Keaton had two tumors on his brain.
On Aug. 10, while his classmates were beginning the new school year, Keaton was having surgery to remove the tumors at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Md.
Six weeks later, he was lining up at right guard in the Falcons’ 47-14 win over Loganville.
Until he turns to the side and pull back his hair to reveal a three-and-a-half inch scar on the side of his head, there’s no sign of the ordeal Keaton Coker has been through.
He admits the surgery, which successfully removed one of the tumors, was the scariest thing he’s experienced so far. Prior to brain surgery, the most invasive medical procedure he’d experienced was getting his wisdom teeth removed.
About the tumor that’s still being treated, Keaton says he doesn’t worry much. He’s too busy, he says. After his daily 8 a.m. session, he’s got a half day of school and then his commitments to the football team and studying before getting to bed and doing it all over again.
The hope is that 30 radiation treatments will prove effective in killing the remaining tumor. If not, other options, which include another surgery, will be discussed. The Cokers hope it doesn’t come to that, as the tumor is embedded in a part of the brain which can affect the memory.
For now, they’re taking a cue from Keaton and taking life as it comes. And right now, football is a big part of that.
Last Monday, Keaton was cleared by his doctors to return to the field.
Last Friday night, when Keaton took the field for his first series of the 2012 season, Miles was standing behind the end zone nearest the Flowery Branch huddle to get a better line of sight.
The first play didn’t go so well.
“The first play was a pitch to the right and he’s playing right guard and he stepped to the left and ran right into the center, which was totally wrong,” Miles said. “And I just kind of laughed, and said ‘Wow. Not a good start.’ But then on the second play (Flowery Branch running back) Justin Curry took it between the guard and tackle and ran 77 or 78 yards for a touchdown. It was fun. I was just so excited for him.”
Keaton played on another series in the second quarter and another in the third before the score was too lopsided and the Falcons began inserting the reserves.
He’s not quite back to top form yet, and further still from where he wants to be. But he’s on his way.
And what he’s shown so far leaves no one who knows him with any doubt that with faith, a lot of determination and maybe a little luck, he’ll get there.
He’s won’t do it to lift the spirits of his coaches and teammates, but that’s what he’ll do. He won’t do it to serve as an inspiration, but that’s what he’ll be.
To a community far beyond the band of brothers in the Flowery Branch locker room, he already is.