When Greg Coleman was finishing his senior year at Raines High School in Jacksonville in 1972, he initially wanted to stay in Florida to play football for a major college.
Unfortunately for Coleman, that door was closed. He said there were no such opportunities then for a Black punter and kicker.
“I had a coach tell me, ‘Hey, Greg, I just got our alumni to accept the fact that we’re going to have a Black quarterback. I darn sure can’t have a Black kicker. But you can come and run track,’ ” Coleman said.
Coleman did not name the school but said he received similar responses from other major Southern colleges. Then he heard from Florida A&M, an historically Black college in Tallahassee, Fla.
“They said, ‘Hey, if you want to come to FAMU, you can kick, you can punt, you can run track, and if you go to class, you can graduate,’ ” Colemans said. “I said, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”
Coleman became a small-college All-American punter and kicker at Florida A&M and then the NFL’s first regular Black punter, lasting 12 seasons, including 10 with the Vikings. And on Thursday he was named to the Black College Football Hall of Fame.
The museum portion of the hall of fame, which honors those who went to historically Black colleges, is at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The induction ceremonies will be held June 19, 2021 in Atlanta.
“It’s a great honor,” said Coleman, a longtime Vikings radio broadcaster. “It’s humbling. But nobody makes it to the top of the mountain by themselves and there were so many people who were part of my journey.”
Coleman’s mind this week has flashed back to how far he has come since he grew in Jacksonville, which long had been segregated. He said his father, Maxie, was the first Black salesman at the downtown Jacksonville J.C. Penney in the mid-to-late 1960s.
Around that time, Coleman and his brother, Maxie, were among the first 12 students to attend previously all-white Ribault Junior High School. Coleman said the 12 regularly were called the N-word and physically assaulted.
“We had to fight like hell every day,” he said. “They threw rocks, spitballs, anything.”
Coleman was then part of the last all-Black graduating class at Raines before the school was integrated. It was then on to Florida A&M, where he not only starred on the football team but had the seventh-fastest time in the nation as a senior in the 120-yard high hurdles.
Coleman’s football exploits included kicking five field goals for all of Florida A&M’s points in a win over Alabama State and averaging about 48 yards a punt in a win over archrival Bethune-Cookman. But he is just as proud to have earned a sociology degree from the school.
Trying to make the NFL was a struggle initially. No NFL team then had used a Black player regularly as a punter or kicker, and Coleman’s great athleticism made some think he should play another position.
“People would say, ‘You’ve got to be a defensive back, you’ve got to be a wide receiver,’ ” Coleman said. “I said, ‘I’m a punter and a kicker,’ and they would say, ‘Dude, you must be crazy, there ain’t no Black punters and kickers.’ But I was determined that I wasn’t going to play another position. All that did was fuel my conviction.”
Coleman was drafted in the 14th round by Cincinnati in 1976 but did not make the team. He earned a spot on Cleveland’s roster in 1977, but was cut after one season.
He then landed with the Vikings in 1978, and was their punter through 1987. He remains the all-time team leader with 29,391 punting yards. He closed his NFL career with Washington in 1988 before returning to Minnesota to serve as a broadcaster for the team.
The Black College Hall of Fame was founded in 2009 by former NFL quarterbacks James Harris and Doug Williams, who both had starred at Grambling. When Williams welcomed Coleman to the hall Thursday, he called him a “trail blazer.”
“I guess I’ve been called a pioneer, but I didn’t look at it that way at the time,” Coleman said. “I looked at it like a guy who needed a job.”
Coleman now wants to help other Black punters and kickers get jobs since there are none currently in the NFL. Coleman said it really “tees me off” that Marquette King, who led the NFL in punting average for the Raiders as a rookie in 2013, has been out of the league since 2018 because he’s allegedly too “flamboyant.”
“If anything, I will use this platform to promote young African-American punters and kickers,” said Coleman, who is hopeful that Georgia Tech senior punting star Pressley Harvin III can land an NFL job.
Coleman will be among six inductees in the 2021 class. He will join a star-studded hall of fame that includes the likes of Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Deacon Jones and Michael Strahan.
“It’s an eye-popping list, and Greg deserves it, too,” said former running back and Vikings teammate Rickey Young, who played at historically Black Jackson State. “There’s so many unbelievable players who played and they went through a lot of the same stuff and adversity that Greg had to go through, and I’m proud of him.”