A genuine man.
That’s how Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School athletic director Gary Link describes Trailblazers chaplain Father Michael Coleman.
Fr. Coleman is never forcing a smile when greeting students in the school hallways, loudly cheering for the Trailblazers at sporting events or cracking jokes with faculty.
Mr. Link has always seen Fr. Coleman’s personality as authentic.
The two have known each other since they were teenagers, and their relationship — bonded by faith and sports — has only grown at Tolton, especially after Mr. Link became AD last year.
“(Fr. Coleman) is a terrific person,” Mr. Link said. “He has relationships not only with the students but with the staff and parents that are genuine. He has a smile on his face each and every day. He is very supportive of all our student-athletes.”
It’s something that former Trailblazers AD and football coach Chad Masters noticed when Tolton Catholic opened in 2011.
Fr. Coleman was always around, whether it was announcing basketball games, traveling with the football team or providing counsel to players or coaches.
Mr. Masters, now the head football coach at St. John Vianney High School in St. Louis, saw Fr. Coleman develop into more than just the school’s chaplain and the Trailblazers’ biggest cheerleader on the sidelines.
Fr. Coleman became the essence of what Tolton Catholic strived for its athletic programs to be about.
“He really became an important piece of what we were as an athletic department,” Mr. Masters said. “Great effort and enjoyment ... all of that. He’s just a great person to have around the kids and a lot of fun to be around personally as well. I don’t know during the eight years I was there if I could separate Fr. Coleman from our athletic department.”
What friends are for
Fr. Coleman over the years has displayed an admirable ability to be a friend, colleague and spiritual leader all mixed in one.
Mr. Link witnessed his capability to not only relate and connect with students but then do the same with adults.
His positivity and strength in faith led to Mr. Link viewing him as a mentor, even though the two are almost the same age.
Fr. Coleman has always been there as a confidant and leader for everyone at Tolton Catholic for nine years.
Last week, however, those roles have reversed — even if slightly — as Tolton, Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Columbia, Holy Spirit parish in Centralia and the surrounding community rally to support Fr. Coleman after he recently announced his diagnosis of thymus gland cancer.
Fr. Coleman underwent surgery June 17 to remove a large tumor resting above his lungs and heart.
“Reports from the doctors indicate that his surgery went great,” Tolton Catholic posted Wednesday afternoon to its school Twitter account. “His tumors were invading the superior vena cava and most of his right upper lung, so they had to take out most of his right upper lung (which was mostly collapsed from the tumor).
“Doctors are confident that they were able to get most of the tumor, but due to their size, he will still undergo chemo/radiation to clear the margins.”
“No. 1 fan”
Jeremy Osborne, the Trailblazers’ head basketball coach, received a call from Fr. Coleman while on the road for a family vacation when he found out the news of the cancer before it was made public.
Mr. Osborne had to pull off the highway to collect his thoughts, shaken by the development.
Fr. Coleman is a supporter of all of Tolton Catholic’s athletic teams, but especially basketball, where he can be seen announcing games with nicknames for each player.
“He’s the No. 1 fan of Tolton athletics and he always embodies the passion we want to have not only in our faith but in the competitive side of things,” Osborne said. “He’s definitely always been there to support the kids, coaches and the department as a whole.
“Now, it’s time for people to support him.”
“In God’s hands”
Fr. Coleman gathered some of Tolton Catholic’s administrators earlier this month and personally told them about his diagnosis.
Mr. Link held back tears as he embraced Fr. Coleman.
“I was a tough-love guy,” Mr. Link said before heading to his office to cry alone. “I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘You know you’re going to beat this, right?’ ... We’ll put this in God’s hands.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Mr. Masters after recently speaking with Fr. Coleman and reflecting on his time with Fr. Coleman in Columbia.
He remembers Fr. Coleman greeting him at Tolton, making him feel comfortable and providing joy each day.
Fr. Coleman has always had a clever sense of humor to Mr. Masters. Fr. Coleman would tease Mr. Masters about not seeing the classic movie “The Godfather.”
“He and I would always go around and around about whether Don Corleone was a good Catholic or not,” Mr. Masters said with a laugh. “He really made that place special with his presence.”
“He’s going to fight”
The thought of not being about to joke again with Fr. Coleman hasn’t even crossed Mr. Masters’ mind.
After being supported by Fr. Coleman for so many years, the Tolton Catholic community is now lifting him up with encouragement during this trial.
The school’s faculty and staff even pulled together funds to have several celebrities share video greetings and well wishes with Fr. Coleman, including St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.
“I took it pretty hard,” Mr. Masters said about learning of Fr. Coleman’s diagnosis. “But we’re not memorializing him right now. He’s going to fight and he’s going to do a great job because his spirits are so positive.”
Mr. Newsome is a reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune newspaper (www.columbiatribune.com), which published this article June 17. This slightly revised version is published here with permission.