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From the Bird’s Nest: John Coker Gives Up His Body For Real

photo courtesy Marla Trahan

He patrolled center field for Louisiana’s Ragin’ Cajuns for two years.  And, more than once, we saw John Coker give up his body for his team.

Now, we get the sobering news that Coker has given up his body for his country.

We learned yesterday that Sgt. John Coker, a member of the National Guard serving in Afghanistan, was seriously wounded in a skirmish that left three of his comrades dead.  Coker was shot in both legs and the pelvis.  He underwent surgery and has been transported to San Antonio.

I got word of Coker’s injury yesterday just as I went on the air.  When I announced it, it was tough to keep my voice steady.

Because, truth be told, Coker is one of my all-time favorites.

When it comes to patrolling centerfield, John Coker was, pure and simple, the best I’ve ever seen.

In his two years as a Ragin’ Cajun, Coker, time and time again, ran down balls in the outfield.  He played a shallow centerfield because he had the speed to get back on a ball hit over his head.

And, if the fence was in the way, that was the fence’s problem.

Two of the outfield panels at M. L. “Tigue” Moore Field had to be replaced after Coker continually hit the wall at the “Tigue.”  In addition, Coker covered the gaps so well, my broadcast partner Steve Peloquin remarked, “Two-thirds of the world is covered by water.  The rest is covered by John Coker.

To this day, you can go to the ball park and when a ball gets into the gap or over an outfielder’s head, you’ll hear fans remark, “Coker would’ve had that.”

Very few Cajun fans, however, got to see the two greatest plays Coker made.

One was in Bowling Green, KY on the final weekend of the 2005 regular season.  A ball was hit into the gap in left-center.  Coker went back and crashed into the padded wall.  He hit it so hard he knocked himself out for a second.  But he held onto the ball.  I remember after the game, left fielder Josh Landry told me Coker hit the wall so hard you could see the “Louisiana” from his uniform embedded in the padding.

The other was in Miami, when Coker raced into the gap in left-center, dove parallel to the ground and snared a line drive with an incredible backhand catch.  That one might have been his best ever.  I do remember pretty much losing it on the radio that night.

Coker’s transition from junior college to Division I baseball wasn’t easy.  He started the season as a leadoff batter, but was dropped to ninth in the order.  He was even benched for a period of time.  He hit just .248 in 2004, didn’t walk enough and struck out too much.  He did steal 22 bases in 29 attempts, but more was expected of him.  He expected more of himself.

And, in 2005, Coker delivered.

On a team that was the best hitting ball club of the Tony Robichaux era at UL, Coker was the catalyst of a Cajuns team that won 48 games.  Batting in the leadoff spot, Coker hit .329.  He led the Sun Belt Conference in runs scored with 82.  His 84 hits were second on the team only to Dallas Morris’ 90.  His ten triples led the league.  Twenty-eight of his hits went for extra bases.  He walked 52 times.  He stole 29 bases, including a steal of home in an NCAA Regional game.  He had an on-base percentage of .461 and led the team in sacrifice bunts with 12.

And he did all that while making plays in the outfield like we’ve never seen.  And, may never see again.

Coker was always a pretty humble kid.  I’d congratulate him on a play he’d made and he’d always smile and quietly say “thank you.”  Coker smiled a lot.  I liked that about him.  So did his teammates.

After the Cajuns lost to Alabama in the NCAA Regional in New Orleans, there was a huge thunderstorm.  The team was on the bus, their season, and Coker’s playing career with the Cajuns, over.  But I had to talk to him for just a minute.  I ran though the downpour and went onto the bus.  I congratulated the players who were on the bus for their great season.

Then I saw Coker.  He was sitting alone.  The smile was gone.  There were tears in his eyes.

I went up to him and offered my hand.  And I told him, “I just wanted to say…you’re the best outfielder I’ve ever seen.”  He looked up at me and forced a half smile.

“Thank you,” he said.

Sgt. John Coker has a long road ahead of him.  There will be extensive rehabilitation.  He will basically have to learn to walk again.  He will also have to go through emotional and psychological journeys as well.

But somehow, I think John Coker will come out on the other side of this.  He is in my prayers.  I hope he is yours as well.

As a Ragin’ Cajun, Coker was willing to give up his body for his teammates and his fans.

As a soldier, John Coker was willing to give up his body for the United States of America.

He excelled at both.

If you’d like to drop a line to John or send a card, here’s the address:

BAMC-Building 3600

3551 Roger Brooke Drive

Fort Sam Houston, Texas 78234

Atten: 4 West/Sgt. John Coker

 

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