Cleveland High's Clarence Coler a survivor
After bouncing from one temporary sleeping place to another, the resilient Cleveland High senior has finally found home and family in Seattle.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Clarence Coler walks down a flight of stairs into the basement. He stops at a mattress askew on a box spring, positioned close to a TV tucked in a corner. A green binder sits on a mess of sheets and pillows. Two boxes of diapers are stacked against the wall. Clothes spill out of a nearby closet.
This is the Cleveland High School football standout's bedroom. It is the first one he's had in a long time.
The 19-year-old, wearing a T-shirt from Washington's football camp and sweats, turns and shuffles through the closet's contents. He produces a jersey — an award from Eagles football coach Ronn Jackson. He moves more items and pulls out a pair of black duffel bags.
"I like my stuff packed," says Coler with the hint of a Southern accent.
These days, though, he has a reason to unpack.
Young man on the move
Clarence Coler has been on the move all of his life. He is a survivor. He has been shot at and watched relatives go to prison.
One of 13 children raised by a single mother, Patrice Trent, Coler estimates he has moved more than 60 times, with stops in Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Washington. He has experienced so much, his memory is like the ink on an old manuscript — faded.
Over the past year, the senior has spent time in an apartment with no electricity, and in a men's shelter.
Now he has found a home with Monique Bishop-Kearse — the woman he calls his second mom — her husband, Sakai, and their six children.
A collage of photos, awards and sayings covers one wall upstairs. In the middle it reads, "The best things in life aren't things."
Coler doesn't look at it. He might not even know it's there. But in this home, with this family that took him in when he had nowhere to go, Coler's smile shows he understands the meaning.
"I love them, man, with all my heart," he said.
"He really shows you how you should be," said Bishop-Kearse as she chopped peppers in the kitchen. "If he can go through all that and still be such a sweet and respectful person, it makes you think. You shouldn't let nothing in life really change the way that we are as people."
Coler has been a man on the move because he wanted to be in Seattle. In order to stay put, he had to keep moving, bouncing from one temporary home to another. He wanted stability. He wanted to keep going to Cleveland, continue playing football.
"That's my passion," he said. "That's my life. If I don't play football, I don't know what would happen. It got me focused in school. I'm out here by myself. It got me just wanting to be somebody."
Long way from New Orleans
As a child, Coler spent most of his time outside. He didn't have TV. He didn't have video games. He didn't have books to read.
"I tried to stay outside as long as I could and try to come back at night time," he said. "When I got in, I would just go to sleep, because that was all there was to do. I was in the dark."
He said he stopped wearing glasses because they kept getting broken in fights. When he tried to read, the words looked "funny." He later learned he has dyslexia.
The family bounced from house to house and he admits his mother kicked him out several times. When Hurricane Katrina battered New Orleans in 2005, Coler saw it firsthand.
"I've seen people get shot, seen people get beat up and all that, but when I saw the bodies floating, I was scared," he said. "It felt like I was in a horror movie."
His family never stopped moving. Coler said each stop taught him something new.
"Don't be like this," he said. "Don't do that. Learn from this. Don't be a bad influence. If I'm going to go somewhere, I'm going to be the first person to go somewhere in my family, because I've got two brothers who could have gone somewhere and got locked up."
He thinks he moved between New Orleans and Seattle five times, except for a stop his freshman year in Murfreesboro, Tenn., at Oakland High School. The Patriots won a state title that season, Thomas McDaniel's first as head coach. Coler never played — he didn't have the paperwork — but he practiced with the team.
McDaniel said Coler never gave the program any problems.
Like most of Coler's stops, it was so short it took McDaniel a minute to remember the teenager. And then, like always, he was gone.
"I'm the type of person, I know how to take care of myself," Coler said.
Then he found Cleveland.
"I just fit here," he said.
Hungry and alone in Seattle
He enrolled at the school on Beacon Hill as a junior. When his family decided to return to New Orleans, he didn't go with them. He stayed in an apartment by himself. His mother sent money, but it wasn't enough to cover the bills.
"It got hard for me," he said. "I couldn't keep up with the bills. It was a time, I had to get on my knees and pray: 'OK, look, either I go back and face reality, get a job or try to stay out here and get a good education.' I chose out here."
Eventually the electricity and water were shut off. He had no furniture. When he wanted to shower, he would sneak over to a neighbor's yard and fill a bucket with water.
He ended up in a relationship with a woman he said was in her late 20s or early 30s. It didn't end well. She poured bleach on his possessions, tried to hit him with a car and kicked him out.
He tried a men's shelter. That didn't work out either. He had to find a place to stay or move back to New Orleans.
Then Danuelle Scott rescued him, giving him a place to stay.
"That was his last chance to go to school," said Scott, Coler's girlfriend who is pregnant with his child. "If he went back to New Orleans, he would have been on the streets or something. I didn't want him to keep struggling."
That was only a temporary solution. He still needed a home.
During a practice, Cleveland assistant coach Chris Lavin heard Coler say he was hungry.
"What's going on?" Lavin asked.
The 6-foot-2 receiver and defensive back told Lavin he hadn't eaten in a day and a half and was lightheaded.
"Let's go get you some food," Lavin said.
They went to McDonald's. He ordered about $30 worth of food.
"Is this OK, coach?" Coler asked.
"It's all right," Lavin said. "You want an apple pie to go with that?"
Lavin dropped Coler off at Scott's house with two big bags of burgers. As the coach drove home that night, his thoughts drifted from Coler to his own son.
"It's a heartbreaking story," Lavin said. "He's a great kid. He just needs a chance."
Finally, a place to stay
Lavin was still thinking about Coler the next day. When Lavin, an insurance agent, saw co-worker Bishop-Kearse, he told her the story.
"Clarence doesn't have a place to stay," Lavin said. "He's a nice kid. He's kind of a hard-luck story."
Bishop-Kearse responded quickly: "We've got room."
They met at McDonald's. He told his story on the bus ride to her house, on the way to "meet the rest of the circus."
"He just fit right on in, like he belonged here," Bishop-Kearse said. "I just love him to death."
It took longer than he wanted, but Coler finally has a home. Now he is working to make sure he has the grades to go to college and find a place to continue playing football. Lavin took him to visit Eastern Washington on Oct. 15.
"He's still on the radar," said Katherine Hitchcock, an English teacher at Cleveland. "That's huge, right, because he could be off the radar by now. We're just trying to make sure that he's well set up with the reality of where he is, congratulating him on where he's come, but also the reality of where he is and what he needs to do to finish up school."
Coler played his final high-school football game against Bishop Blanchet on Saturday — the Eagles don't have enough healthy athletes to play this week. He ran 24 yards for a touchdown on the game's first drive, later had a 70-yard run called back because of a penalty and played receiver, quarterback, running back and strong safety. He also returned kicks. He rarely left the field.
"He's a doer," said Jackson, the Eagles' coach. "His actions always back up what he believes in."
The Eagles lost 61-6. It was a frustrating finish to a 1-7 season, but after the game Coler was smiling. He has been through so much, it is hard to find frustration in a football game.
"It's to the point where football made me become a man faster than I was going to become one," he said. "It's making me open my eyes and realize it's much more than me. It's about life. It's about unity. Without football, I don't know where I'd be."
Mason Kelley: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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