Just before the University of Central Florida football team takes the field this Saturday, defensive lineman Rory Coleman will lead the Knights in their adopted game-face ritual.
It’s a pregame routine that the walk-on has directed before each game this season. His background as a U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient certainly made him the right man for the job.
When Coleman was in the Army, they would use the tactic – which includes a great deal of yelling and screaming – to get a little extra adrenaline into the system when the situation called for it. Now, he’s happy to hype up his new team every game day in the locker room as they prepare to take the field.
On Saturday, Coleman’s two worlds will combine when he suits up on Military Appreciation Day at Bright House Networks Stadium.
When the Orlando native was still in high school, playing college football was the only thing on his mind. After a few talks with his grandfather, William Coleman, a World War II prisoner of war who jumped on D-Day with the 101st Airborne, Coleman’s priorities shifted.
“He showed me that there’s more to life than playing the game,” Coleman said. “It’s okay to love the game, but I had to get a foundation as a human being first, as a man.”
Taking the talks to heart, Coleman was motivated to enlist in the Army. He enlisted in the delayed entry program in June 2009 and headed to basic training in October of that year. Having a football background came in handy for Coleman.
“Football kind of taught me that your mistakes affect other people,” he said. “As we continued to progress and grow as soldiers, I was able to give a confident feel to myself that I think inspired others – hopefully.”
After completing basic training, Coleman was deployed to Afghanistan as a combat medic where he served 11½ months out of a year-long deployment.
“I didn’t make it those last two weeks,” he said.
On Sept. 12, 2011, Coleman was injured in a grenade blast.
An enemy grenade went off. His list of injuries was extensive. He suffered an injured left foot, injuries to both lower legs, injuries to both thighs, a fractured right femur, punctured bowels and small intestines, a fractured ring finger on his right hand and serious damage to his right arm.
“The icing on the cake was that I was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel that caused an epidural brain bleed,” Coleman said. “They had to drill holes in my head to relieve the pressure.”
Nine days after the attack, Coleman woke up in a hospital in Germany. He received a Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal with Valor Device for his service during deployment with the 10th Mountain Division.
Finishing active duty in 2013, Coleman returned to the United States and enrolled in classes at Tallahassee Community College. But something felt incomplete.
“I said (to myself), ‘Rory, your mother graduated from UCF. Your father graduated from UCF. Your best friend from high school graduated from here,'” Coleman said. “If three of the most important people in my life all graduated from UCF – they’re pretty smart people – I might need to take a look.”
Back in his hometown, Coleman walked around and fell in love with the campus. His first semester was Spring 2016 and the psychology major was determined to join the football team.
“I wanted to play football. It was always my dream for once I got out of the Army,” Coleman said. “Spring came around and I just kept bugging these people. I came here every day, asking the front office about tryouts.”
In February, Coleman learned tryouts would be held in March. He immediately filled out the paperwork and completed the medical tests. On March 1, he walked into Nicholson Fieldhouse.
“I wanted to be a part of this UCF program,” Coleman said. “I wanted to help out in whatever way I could. I gave it everything I could. At the time, there was a man talking to me. I was trying to focus, and he was asking me questions about my military life.”
That man turned out to be UCF head coach Scott Frost.
“I was trying to be respectful, but I had no idea who I was talking to until I heard Coach (Mike) Dawson say, ‘Yes, Coach,'” Coleman recollected.
Soon after that, the coaching staff informed Coleman that his dream had become a reality – he was a member of the UCF football team.
The former combat medic, who still serves as a medical instructor with the U.S. Army Reserve, now balances his time between football and his military duty. He is stationed in Jacksonville, serving one weekend a month and two weeks during the year focusing on pre-hospital trauma and transportation to the next level of care.
When the coaching staff was looking for motivational speakers to bring in during fall camp, Coleman’s name was mentioned. He shared his story with his teammates and talked to them about being war ready, or in football terms, game ready.
That’s when the game face-ritual was formed. It has been part of the team’s routine ever since.
Last weekend against Tulane, Coleman played his first snaps and registered the first tackle of his career. As he looks to help the Knights clinch another win and bowl eligibility this Saturday, he will do so while representing his team and his country.
“When you get out, or you’re on leave, and you see these military appreciation games, it helps service members feel welcomed,” Coleman said. “It makes them feel appreciated. The longer I’ve been out, the more I can appreciate that.”