KEARNEY — As a quarterback at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, Justin Coleman exhibited impeccable timing, hitting receivers with pinpoint accuracy that rewrote UNK and NCAA record books.
When he graduated after the 2001 season, his timing was off.
As a Loper, Coleman set 11 NCAA Division II passing records and was the runner-up for the Harlan Hill Award, the trophy for the best player in Division II.
He garnered All-American honors and received an invitation to the NFL Combine.
"I was an outside prospect. I wasn’t going to ‘wow’ you with my athletic ability when it came to running and jumping and that kind of stuff," he said. "At the end of the day, Michael Vick was in that draft. That’s kind of when people started looking at taking a guy that was more mobile and could move the pocket. ... I know there were guys at the combine who, for lack of a better term, couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn throwing the football, but they could run a pretty good 40 and they got into camps that year."
He tried a couple of years with indoor football, playing for teams in Chicago and Indianapolis, and he played for the Tri-City Diesel in Kearney, but soon moved on in life.
Now, he works for Abante Marketing in Omaha and tries his best to corral his three girls — ages 7, 10 and 13.
"I’m just involved in their lives and upbringing and trying to be the best dad I can — watching them grow up and giving good advice," he said.
He’s divorced, but has a "serious girlfriend" who has two daughters.
"There’s always something going on. ... It keeps us on our toes and keeps us going," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday that was interrupted by his youngest pulling her own tooth.
Needless to say, after nearly three months of confinement due to the coronavirus pandemic, he’s just as anxious for softball to start as the girls.
"We were supposed to have practice yesterday," he said, "but with all the protests going on they canceled it for yesterday and today."
Even though he has helped coach his girls’ basketball teams, he stays away from softball and other coaching commitments.
"I kind of have that mindset they would rather listen to somebody other than me, but I try to give pointers every once in a while," he said.
With his oldest daughter about to go into high school — she will attend the new Elkhorn high school when it opens — he has started to get back into high school sports as a spectator.
"It’s fun to get back into the high school scene. ... I definitely missed being around sports and that aspect of coaching and competing," he said.
But for the most part, he has put his football career in the rearview mirror and has focused on playing as much golf as possible.
Coleman put together an outstanding athletic portfolio at UNK, playing for the Loper golf and basketball teams as well as the football team, even though both stints with the other sports were brief.
Basketball lasted only a couple of months. By Christmas vacation, he said he decided it wasn’t the right move.
His collegiate golf experience lasted one tournament.
"I broke my driver on the driving range right before going off on my first-ever college round. I didn’t have a driver the whole tournament. I had to use a 5-wood the whole way around. That’s something I’ll never forget," he said. "After the tournament, I didn’t know what was going to go on with football so that’s when I talked to Coach (Dick) Beechner and told him I probably can’t commit for the full season and it’s not fair for other guys who were trying to make the top five."
Coleman said he still has close friends from his other endeavors, but most of his college buddies played on the football team. A half dozen or so he remains very close to and another dozen or so he still sees every year or two.
"Getting to play football was something I loved to do and compete at. But when I look back the most, it’s just all the friendships and stuff you made through the years and all the guys you keep close to you. You can see a guy once a year or once every other year and it’s still like you’re back in college," he said.
They have many shared memories, like the double overtime win at New Mexico Highlands his freshman year or the 99-yard touchdown pass his freshman year at Wayne State. Equally as memorable are the losses, the five-overtime game at Adams State his sophomore year and the four losses to Chadron State all by six points or fewer.
Besides the results, Coleman said weather seemed to be a major factor.
He recalls the 99-yard touchdown pass to Smith coming on frozen ground at Wayne, and his record-crowning career finale played in blizzard conditions at Foster Field.
"I actually felt like I performed fairly well in adverse conditions. I just took the mindset that everybody has to deal with it and you can complete the short routes because the defensive backs can’t hardly plant and come back to the ball," he said. "You don’t have to throw it very hard. You just have to get it to the receivers and let them do their thing."
The hardest part for him was keeping his hands warm and dry so he could handle the snap from center and execute the handoffs to the running backs.
"It’s more of a mental game than a physical game. ... Living in Nebraska, it’s stuff you have to deal with and it’s something you can enjoy and look back on," he said.