JFK star more than a speedy athlete
WARREN — Being a state champion in two different sports brought a lot of attention to John F. Kennedy’s Jacob Coates.
The super-speedy Coates was a borderline prodigy, winning the 200-meter dash as a sophomore for the Eagles. He duplicated that feat on the football field, leading JFK on a historic state championship run as a versatile wide receiver/running back/defensive back/kick retur-ner during his senior year.
He became the posterboy for JFK athletics, but that was never the motivation for Coates. His passion originated from the players around him. Being a part of a team is what fueled one of the most decorated athletes in JFK history.
“That’s really everything in sports,” Coates said. “Just looking to the guy next to you and saying, ‘I got your back.’ “
Coates certainly shouldered his portion of the load for the Eagles.
His exceptional performances in track and field as well as football led to the two-sport star being chosen the 2017 Tribune Chronicle senior male co-athlete of the year, splitting the honor with Mathews’ Kenny Wallace.
Also in the running were Lucas Nasonti of Champion, Jake Hall of Maplewood, Tariq Drake of LaBrae and Tyler Srbinovich of Niles.
Coates distanced himself from the pack with speed, similar to how he did in sports. Quickness wasn’t his only quality, however.
“I never coached anyone as fast as he is,” said JFK football coach Jeff Bayuk, a 27-year coaching veteran. “Even some of the best football players I’ve had the chance to coach, like Anthony Smith, who spent six years in the pros, and Shaun Lane, who went to Ohio State. (Coates) was the fastest I ever coached.
“Jake’s very, very intense and focused on every practice, every game,” Bayuk added. “He was always ready. He’s very thorough with his workouts and very disciplined. He’s explosive and can change the face of a game at any time. And besides that, he’s a great student and a great kid.
“He and Ross Nocera are the only two junior captains that I ever had in all the years I coached, so that should tell you something about both of them. They really are leaders and you can count on them to do the right thing all the time.”
Injuries are the only thing that slowed Coates during a spectacular career.
He missed most of his senior football season with a broken collarbone, returning in the final week of the regular season and immediately becoming an impact player during the title run.
As a junior, he caught 41 passes for 608 yards and six TDs. He also ran the ball 35 times for 528 yards and seven more TDs. He was a major threat in the return game as well, with four punt returns for touchdowns and 1,273 all-purpose yards.
While some track stars who play football can’t handle the violence of the sport, Bayuk said Coates relished the contact.
“In years past, I’ve coached against kids that I would tell our defense, ‘This is a track kid trying to play football,’ to let our kids know that if you put a shot on somebody they might not be able to handle it because they’re used to running track,” Bayuk said. “But Jake certainly wasn’t that way. His ability to hit people, to make tackles, to make breakaway runs after bouncing off several defenders, to be able to go up and make great catches — he’s just an all-around excellent athlete.”
Such accolades and statistics seem to make it easy to see why Coates chose to accept a football scholarship to Youngstown State, but the decision was anything but easy. He was being looked at by Ohio State, the University of Miami (Fla.) and Penn State (his father and brother’s alma mater) for track and field following a breakout sophomore season. Running alongside Chad Zallow, now one of the better hurdlers in the nation, Coates finished second to Zallow in the 100-meter dash and was first in the 200 with a time of 21.71.
A torn hamstring during his junior year of indoor track ended that season, and he suffered another minor hamstring injury just a few weeks ago while running the 200 at the state championship. He pulled up early in the race but didn’t walk off the track. He hobbled to the finish line, determined to finish.
“When I came out of the blocks and felt that happen, I instantly just kind of lost it inside, but I had to keep my cool because I didn’t want to show too much emotion to the crowd,” he said. “I knew that was going to be my last high school race in track, so I wanted to make sure I crossed that finish line.”
If not for injuries, JFK track and field coach Jack Thornton can’t help but wonder how many more titles Coates might have won. Yet, it was his attitude and work ethic that Thornton will remember about Coates.
“He always had quick reactions and he was a quick learner, and he worked at what we suggested that he do,” Thornton said. “So, we constantly worked on his starts. He was quick, and naturally with the lifting that he did in football, and he started to do some extra stuff outside of football lifting, he got stronger. He had the quickness, and when he ran his freshman year, it showed that if he continued do (the extra work) he will continue to improve.”
He did just that, in both sports, cementing a career not many can match, and yet his best may be yet to come.
He hopes to have a chance to play right away at YSU, where area fans can continue to watch Coates dazzle on the football field.
“When the recruiting process started, it was kind of tough, which sport I wanted to pick, but to be honest, after my visit to Youngstown State, I told my dad, ‘I want to go here,’ “ Coates said. “That’s when I verbally committed. … I went on my visit to Youngstown State, and I just connected with the players and the coaches. They’ve got the best coaches around. Playing for my hometown, it’s pretty exciting.”
So is Coates.