COLUMBIA — It was never a goal. It was barely a dream.
Dexter Coakley realized that when it came down to it, he was an undersized kid from South Carolina who was playing football because football was there to be played. Growing up in Mount Pleasant, there weren’t any professional teams around, so he never spent much time thinking, “What if … ”
All these years later, he still can’t believe it turned out like it did.
“I only started playing organized football in the 8th grade,” Coakley said. “How’d I get here?”
“Here” was in the latest class of the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame. “Here” was an honor recognizing a career as one of Appalachian State’s all-time greatest players and a 10-year NFL stint, eight of them bustin’ heads with the Dallas Cowboys.
Somehow it all happened.
“Dexter Coakley is a guy that I despised for four years when I was a Citadel guy and he was an Appalachian State guy,” Hall official Andy Solomon joked. “He’s a good guy … for an Appalachian State guy.”
Coakley’s story is an unusual one. He was a junior high running back until his first season at Wando High when he was shifted to defense. The Warriors were a solid winning team in a tough region but never did much beyond that.
Yet there were glimpses (beating Summerville on its home field is still a powerful memory) and there was the talent that would manifest in the future, although neither of them could have known or dared to hope for it at the time. Two members of that Wando team would play a combined 19 NFL seasons.
“Travis (Jervey) was our tailback, and short line, goal line, they may put me in, but I was mostly defensive back,” Coakley said. “Never in a million years did we dream this up. We played together in high school, Travis goes to The Citadel and me going to Appalachian State, to face each other in the same Southern Conference. And then he gets drafted by Green Bay and I get drafted by Dallas.”
Coakley was a marvel at Appalachian State from 1993-96, turning a SoCon Freshman of the Year season into three straight SoCon Defensive Player of the Year seasons. His 1995 junior year brought him the ring still residing on his finger, when the Mountaineers earned a perfect regular season.
(Jervey was gone by then, but The Citadel gave Appalachian a game. Mountaineers quarterback Scott Satterfield, now the coach at Louisville, found Ron Gilliam for the game-winning touchdown with 99 seconds to go to finish an 11-0 year.)
Coakley’s wish for a championship was squashed when Stephen F. Austin (led by future Pro Bowler Jeremiah Trotter) knocked Appalachian out of the playoffs, but a year later, Coakley’s phone rang.
“When I got the call in ’97 in Mount Pleasant from Jerry Jones, who said, ‘You’re going to be a Dallas Cowboy,’ it doesn’t get better than that,” Coakley said. “I got drafted by America’s team, and I just knew, knew, I was gonna win a Super Bowl.”
Dallas was two years removed from winning three Super Bowls in four years. They reached the playoffs three times over the next eight but never won a postseason game.
Coakley spent a lot of those years (his final two were in St. Louis) running into Jervey. He gave as good as he got.
“Those were some of the toughest matchups I had, because not only did he want to prove his worth, I knew how good he was. And he was my friend,” Coakley said. “In between plays, we’d talk.”
About Wando. About playing in the pea-soup humidity on fall days in Charleston. About family (Coakley met his wife, Nicole, in Dallas and is coaching football at his children’s high school).
About something never thought of that wound up reality.
“I’m still living the dream. This is a kid from Charleston, east of the Cooper,” he said. “Playing for the Dallas Cowboys?”
Wilson also joins Hall
Former South Carolina and College of Charleston women’s basketball coach Nancy Wilson was inducted Monday as well. The rest of the class was made up of: Former USC and NFL defensive end John Abraham; former Clemson and NFL kicker Chris Gardocki; former USC Aiken and MLB pitcher Roberto Hernandez; former Claflin basketball star Miriam Samuels Walker; and former Clemson baseball standout Shane Monahan.
Bob Gillespie was named the recipient of the Herman Helms Excellence in Media Award, while Kay Fortune was named the recipient of the Dom Fusci Leadership in Action Award.