Tevin Coleman rushed for 2,036 yards last season, the second-highest total in the nation. Only a handful of people knew that the last 1,200 of them hurt like hell.
Coleman ran with a broken sesamoid bone in his right foot for Indiana's final seven games. He kept running through the mounting pain. He kept running as his quarterbacks and backup running backs were sidelined by their own injuries, leaving him to carry the Hoosiers offense on his shoulders. He ran through a series of ever-more-frustrating close losses to Big Ten powerhouses. He saved his best, most astonishing performances for last, when surgery was inevitable and the Hoosiers' season was a lost cause.
All the while, Coleman was so tight-lipped about his injury that few people knew he was hurt. He did not run at the combine because he was still recovering from January surgery. He will hold his own pro day on April 15—Indiana's regular workouts were on March 30—to help curious NFL evaluators answer an intriguing question:
If Coleman can run for 1,200 yards on a broken foot, what can he do when he is healthy?
Rollin' past the pain
Coleman initially injured his foot at some point during the North Texas game, on Oct. 4. He doesn't remember the specific play, but he didn't immediately report it to his trainers, instead confiding in running backs coach Deland McCullough that the toe in his right foot stung.
"He downplayed it completely to me," McCullough said.
Coleman eventually did have his ailing foot examined in the week after the game, and they treated it as turf toe. "Nobody looked at it as any different than that," McCullough said. Trainers wrapped the toe, and Coleman never missed a practice.
Turf toe and a sesamoid fracture are closely related injuries. Turf toe, an innocuous name for an injury that can be excruciating for athletes, is soft tissue damage around the big toe joint, usually caused by hyperextension. The sesamoids are tiny seed-shaped bones in the knuckle of the big toe that act as "pulleys" for the tendons in the foot. Fracture the sesamoid, and you get symptoms similar to an acute case of turf toe: swelling, some limited motion and pain whenever you try to use your toe for something like running, cutting, planting or walking.
Coleman rushed for 219 yards and three touchdowns against Iowa the week after the initial injury. He followed up with 100-yard-plus performances against Michigan and Michigan State. He never again mentioned the injury, even to his coaches.
"We never heard anything about it for a while," McCullough said. "Tevin just kept playing and practicing."
Coleman aggravated the foot injury late in the Penn State game, on Nov. 8; for him, that was when the problem became serious.
"I was going through the hole, and a lineman fell right on top of my foot," he said. "It pushed my toe down."
The pain increased, but Coleman stayed in the Penn State game. He eventually told his coaches that he needed relief. With three weeks left in the season, Coleman underwent an MRI exam.
"That's when they told me the bones were splitting apart," he said.
Coleman needed surgery. But in the short term, the broken bone could be treated with immobilization and compression. There was little more damage that he could do, even by playing football. McCullough, who played through turf toe as a running back for Miami of Ohio in the 1990s, told Coleman that the choice was his, but that the junior running back had gutted through most of the season already.
"You played this far. In my opinion you might as well finish on up," McCullough told Coleman.
"He just started smiling and said, 'I'm rollin'.'"
Coleman wore a boot when walking around campus. He wore an immobilization insert in his cleat when he practiced. He did not miss a single drill. "It was real sore, but I couldn't stop playing," Coleman said. "I had to continue to play, continue to help my team. Sitting out wasn't a part of me. I wasn't about to do that."
Running with a broken bone in his foot, with teammates falling all around him, Coleman prepared for what would become the two biggest games of his career.
Coleman is not exactly a chatterbox. He certainly doesn't complain about injuries; he does not even think of himself as having "played hurt" until the fracture was diagnosed after the Penn State game. Both he and McCullough say they share a tight bond, but even McCullough had to pull injury information out of him.
"Tevin doesn't really communicate anything, unless it is something you can see or something that was really bothering him," the coach said.
Coleman first demonstrated his pain threshold as a true freshman in 2012. He bruised his shoulder as a kick returner and bit player in his first Hoosiers game. A few weeks later, he suffered a hand injury. His right (non-carrying) hand was rigged with what McCullough called "an apparatus."
Coleman did not miss practice or a game. He took extra practice reps to learn how to catch kickoffs with his hand in a cast. McCullough remembers Coleman practicing with the cast on icy Bloomington autumn afternoons, days when even the coaches were uncomfortable and fielding the hardened football clearly stung. Most true freshmen, buried on the running back depth chart, would have shut down for the year. Coleman practiced without complaint. "That spoke volumes to me," McCullough said.
Coleman did not mention the freshman injury to me at all during our lengthy interview about injuries. He only spoke briefly about an ankle sprain that took him out of the lineup late in 2013. The injury cost him a chance at a 1,000-yard season—he finished with 958 yards—and the opportunity to play Ohio State.
Indiana coaches knew that Coleman was special, even as he platooned with Stephen Houston and other backs in 2013. But head coach Kevin Wilson prefers to use committee backfields. Senior D'Angelo Roberts enjoyed about 15 carries per game before Coleman's injury in 2014, nearly sharing the load 50-50 in some games. Junior quarterback Nate Sudfeld also gave the Hoosiers a credible passing game until Sudfeld separated a shoulder against Iowa.
Coleman averaged 18.8 carries per game from the North Texas game through the Penn State game. It was not an overwhelming workload. "The plan wasn't to limit him," McCullough said. Coleman's yardage dipped from 219 against Iowa to 71 against Penn State. The Hoosiers lost four straight B1G games. They lost Sudfeld. They lost backup quarterback Chris Covington to an ACL tear in the same game.
By the time doctors fitted Coleman with a boot and the Hoosiers prepared for road games against Rutgers and Ohio State, it looked like the team had lost everything. But they had not yet lost Coleman.
"Man, the mood was pretty terrible after we lost our quarterback," Coleman said. "Even for me, it was tough just playing so hard and not getting wins. I had to get myself in check, so I had to get my team back to working hard.
"I just picked them up, told them, 'We can still do this. We can still win games.'"
Coleman practiced what he preached as he practiced through the foot fracture.
"Tevin is more of a leader by actions," McCullough said. "Just by his personality, he's not a vocal guy. But he became a little bit more vocal. He just went out and practiced hard, played hard. He showed guys that if you go out, take coaching and apply coaching, great things can happen."
Coleman could feel the difference when practicing and playing with the insert in his right shoe.
"I couldn't bend my toe at all," he said. "The cuts weren't that sharp for my right foot."
Rutgers defenders probably could not tell the difference. After a slow start, Coleman took a sweep just before halftime, found a gaping hole in the Rutgers defense and outran the Scarlet Knights secondary up the sideline for a 67-yard touchdown. The run gave the Hoosiers a 13-10 halftime lead.
Indiana still planned to rotate Coleman with Roberts, feeding both of them the ball to take pressure off third-string quarterback Zander Diamont. But Roberts suffered an early-game concussion. Third-string running back Devine Redding was already injured.
"I was the only hope," Coleman said. He wasn't boasting or exaggerating.
Coleman ran 32 times for 307 yards in a game that slowly slipped away from Indiana and became a 45-23 Rutgers rout. The game remained close until the early fourth quarter thanks to Coleman, who broke several productive runs after his 67-yarder and drew in the defense so Diamont could have his best game of the season.
"Toward the end, my toe hurt so bad," Coleman said. "But I just had to stay in."
Pain was not going to keep Coleman from starting against Ohio State for the first time in his career the following week.
"I don't know if it was adrenaline because we were playing Ohio State, but my toe wasn't hurtin' that bad, like it was during the working week," he said.
Coleman remembers the week of film study leading up to the matchup with the eventual national champions. McCullough remembers that Coleman was "jacked up" for the game. Just as they had done against Rutgers, the Hoosiers started slowly but stayed in the game. Just like the previous week, Coleman gave Indiana a sudden lead midway through the game with a 90-yard run against one of the best defenses in the nation:
"It's my favorite play call," Coleman recalled. "It was an outside-zone play. I actually didn't know I was going to bust it like that."
Ohio State quickly came back, then pulled away. Coleman added a 52-yard touchdown late in the game, but the Buckeyes won 42-27. With Diamont overmatched and Roberts unavailable to split carries, Coleman rushed 27 times for 228 yards and three touchdowns. He provided 58 percent of the Hoosiers offense against the Buckeyes.
Coleman capped the season by finally leading the Hoosiers out of their six-game losing streak, rushing for 130 yards on 29 carries in a 23-16 win over Purdue. He rushed 88 times for 665 yards and four touchdowns after his foot fracture was formally diagnosed, every yard against major-conference competition, with no one else in the backfield for defenses to worry about but him.
Few people outside the Indiana program even knew Coleman was hurt. Postgame interviews went by with no mention of the injury. After watching Coleman outrun Ohio State defenders the full length of the field, no one in the press box could guess anything was wrong.
"Nobody knew but my head coach, position coach and my family," Coleman said. "That's about it. I didn't let anybody else know my toe was that messed up."
As soon as the season ended, Coleman underwent surgery that would keep him from running for over two months. He could only undergo physicals and interviews and lift weights at the combine. As a precaution, he still was not cutting on his repaired foot when we spoke in March. Coleman won't be able to display his breakaway speed to NFL scouts again until April 15, just days before the draft.
Coleman doesn't care what round an NFL team selects him, so long as he is the first running back taken.
"I am really hoping to be the first back picked, whether it's Round 1 or 2," he said. "I feel like I am the best back that's coming out in the 2015 draft."
McCullough said that NFL teams will get more from Coleman than breathtaking speed and a stoic resilience against injuries.
"They get somebody they don't have to worry about off the field," the coach said. "They get a guy who's prideful and wants to be great. They are gonna get a kid who's never satisfied.
"Even when outside people deem him to be great, that's not good enough for him."
One pro day workout and two competitors stand between Coleman and his goal. Assuming his workout goes well, he is vying for NFL attention alongside Georgia's Todd Gurley, who is coming off ACL surgery, and Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, who managed to upstage Coleman at every turn last season. Gordon rushed for 2,587 yards, relegating Coleman's historic performance (there have only been 24 rushing seasons of 2,000-plus yards in NCAA Division I-A history) to second in both the nation and conference. Coleman's 307 yards against Rutgers made few headlines because Gordon rushed for 408 yards against Nebraska the same day.
Coleman and Gurley each carry injury concerns, though sesamoid injuries are far more routine than ACL injuries, with a low recurrence rate. And Coleman has proven his ability to soldier through pain and play at an incredible level.
As for Gordon, who had 73 more carries, there is no denying his talent. But how many yards might Coleman have had if he was healthy all season, if he did not split carries even when healthy, and if defenses couldn't scoff at the Indiana quarterbacks and load up to stop him all year?
"If I was full go, I would have had a lot more yards," Coleman said. "It probably would have been ugly."
If Coleman is finally full go after his season of pain, it could get pretty ugly for NFL defenders too.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.