The consensus All-American played the final seven games of the season on a broken sesamoid bone in his right foot. Coleman wouldn’t actually discover the extent of the injury until six weeks later.
Nobody outside of running backs Coach Deland McCullough, Coleman’s trainer and his father Wister knew about the injury. When the pain added up, he kept running.
There were no signs of struggle, either. Coleman ran for 2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s a projected second-round pick in the NFL draft.
Coleman was able to smile as he recounted playing injured after working out in front of all 32 NFL teams at his pro day last week. But for two months of last season, the pain was no joking matter.
“It was real painful, but I just had to stick through it and fight through it,” Coleman said. “I’m a competitor, so I wasn’t going to let my team down.”
Let them down? Coleman didn’t even come close, registering one of the best individual seasons in program history.
Now that he’s ready for the next stage in his playing career, Coleman’s secret is out.
He’s been meeting with teams and sharing his story of an All-American season filled with pain. Coleman said NFL representatives have been calling him tough because he’s played through the broken toe.
He likes that. He said that’s his advantage. But he instead asks them one thing in ?response.
“Could you imagine what I’ll do when I’m healthy?”
Coleman doesn’t know the specific moment when his injury occurred, but he said it happened against North Texas on Oct. 4 at Memorial Stadium. The Hoosiers won that game 49-24.
Coleman finished the day with 151 yards on 17 carries with one touchdown. His most impressive rush was a 74-yarder that set IU up with first and goal.
It was one of the few times an opposing defender was ever able to catch Coleman last year. Coleman downplayed the injury to McCullough during their weekly meetings, but McCullough knew he was in pain.
Knowing his lead rusher was hurting, McCullough made a point to not overwork Coleman in practice. But Coleman’s work ethic made limiting his work load tricky.
“He just kept talking about his toe,” McCullough said. “He downplayed it a fair amount, but I was aware of it. I made sure in practice we didn’t overdo him.”
Coleman treated practices the same way he did games. It was one of the things IU Coach Kevin Wilson liked the most about his lead rusher.
Coleman was working so hard, Wilson couldn’t even tell he was hurt. He wouldn’t find out about the injury for weeks. Wilson said Adrian Peterson was the best practice player he’s ever coached, but Coleman was giving the former Heisman runner-up a run for his money.
“This guy’s pretty close,” Wilson said.
Coleman went along as if nothing changed until aggravating his foot against Penn State five weeks after the initial injury. He rushed for a season-low 71 yards that afternoon and then decided he needed to talk with McCullough about potentially shutting the season down.
“We discussed getting it shot up, and part of that process is you gotta get an MRI,” McCullough said. “He got the MRI, and we found out on the way to Rutgers that he had some damage in there and needed surgery.”
Coleman’s All-American season was in jeopardy.
Coleman and McCullough called an emergency meeting in Piscataway, N.J., as soon as they got the prognosis. The two of them both say their relationship is more father-to-son than ?player-to-coach.
The mentor and the pupil were going to decide what to do together. The two met in private and weighed the positives and the negatives.
At the time, Coleman had 1,371 rushing yards. He was still in the midst of a race to be the nation’s best rusher and just one year earlier had his season end early with a ?high-ankle sprain.
Coleman didn’t want to suffer the same fate in 2015.
“I said, ‘Look, you can’t really do nothing worse to it,’” McCullough recalled.
“He said, ‘What do you think I should do, Coach?’”
“I said, man, go ahead and roll.”
Coleman didn’t say anything at first. He just started smiling.
“I’m going to go ahead and go.”
He ran for 307 yards that weekend.
Coleman had surgery to repair his toe as soon as the season ended. His surgery required a scope to clear a loose piece of bone that was floating in his foot. The sesamoids help the big toe move normally and provide leverage when trying to push off during walking and running.
Coleman wasn’t able to compete in the NFL Combine because he was still rehabbing. That made last week’s personal pro day that much more important.
The Hoosiers haven’t had a first-round pick in 20 years. Coleman said it was “real important” to be selected in the first round.
“It’s one of the goals I want to achieve,” Coleman said. “That’s why I came out here and gave my all, gave it ?my best.”
Coleman ran a 40-yard dash that timed in at the mid-4.3’s to low 4.4’s. He also participated in a variety of individual drills, mostly led by Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
Coleman spent quite a bit of his time running pass routes, which is becoming increasingly valuable among NFL running backs in a pass-heavy league. Coleman caught just about everything thrown his way, which McCullough said was a sign of being a former wide receiver and defensive back prospect.
“I think I’m the whole package,” Coleman said. “I think everything I have is there and could translate to the NFL real great.”
One of McCullough’s final lessons to his star pupil before he gets drafted came last Tuesday night in the parking lot of Memorial Stadium.
McCullough said they spent half an hour discussing the next steps in Coleman’s career after having dinner at around 9:30 p.m. ?McCullough was sharing stories of his own NFL career and explaining to Coleman that playing football is about to become a job.
McCullough challenged Coleman to stay the same player in the pros as he was in Bloomington.
“He’s up for that because he treated the circumstance here like it was a job,” McCullough said. “He came to meetings every day with that attitude to get after it ... It’s just got a little bit higher stakes.”
McCullough still thinks Coleman’s injury shorted him about 200 or 300 yards in 2014. He can point out times where Coleman’s cuts weren’t sharp or he had to let up a play because of the pain.
Now, Coleman’s just waiting for his name to be called at the NFL Draft in Chicago. When he makes it to his first NFL locker room, he’ll be ready to play pain-free.
Not that anyone would ever notice anything. Coleman’s already proven he can keep injuries secret.
“I’m just waiting for that day to come,” Coleman said of the draft. “A dream come true, really.”