Dave Boling

Dave Boling: Former UW, NFL running back Coffey now whispers to horses

Former Atlanta Falcons running back Junior Coffey (34) is introduced along with other members of the 1966 inaugural team in 2009. Coffey also played for the 1965 NFL Championship-winning Green Bay Packers.
Former Atlanta Falcons running back Junior Coffey (34) is introduced along with other members of the 1966 inaugural team in 2009. Coffey also played for the 1965 NFL Championship-winning Green Bay Packers. AP File, 2009

If the child truly is father of the man, then Junior Coffey now represents the sum of the dramatic experiences in an extraordinary 74-year life.

Coffey took a break from the handling of thoroughbreds at Emerald Downs on Friday morning to chat about a life that validates the belief that there are more interesting personalities on the backstretch of a race track than anywhere else in sports.

He wove a story of trials and passages: Of an abusive stepfather that brought him to the brink of gunplay; of racism that seems so fresh it still brings tears after 60 years; and how he went in one season from being an under-utilized running back at the University of Washington to a World Champion with the Green Bay Packers.

It all led Coffey to an unexpected place of peace: In the barns on the backstretch of Longacres and, more recently, Emerald Downs.

As Emerald Downs prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary on Monday, Coffey is one of the more respected members of the training colony, known across the span of five decades for his gentle hand with his horses.

Joe Withee, long-time broadcaster and public-relations fixture since back in the Longacres days, tells a story of why he thinks of Coffey as a “horse whisperer.”

Walking down a shed-row one day, Withee saw Coffey sitting on the straw bedding of a stall with a filly lying on her side with her front legs in his lap.

He was gently massaging her ankles. “She was just so calm,” Withee said. “It’s extremely rare for a thoroughbred to have that much trust and be so comfortable with a human. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Coffey explained that he views horses as competitive athletes who need patience and understanding. If anybody would have those insights deeply ingrained, it would be Coffey.

Before the age of 10, Coffey was driving a tractor in the Texas cotton fields. His stepfather already had been delivering his discipline with a razor strap. When the beatings started including Coffey’s mother, the adolescent Junior had enough.

“One day I got the rifle off the rack and said, ‘No, not today,’ ” Coffey said. “I was probably 12.”

To escape it all, he moved in with his aunt and uncle, and eventually enrolled at Dimmitt High, in a small Panhandle town southwest of Amarillo.

The only black prep athlete in an integrated school in the Panhandle, Coffey became a star — and a curiosity. He remembers his teammates and the people of Dimmitt as extraordinarily welcoming and open-minded.

Opponents were far less so, particularly when he took the field against the Muleshoe High Mules. Racial slurs were cast at Coffey so fiercely that his coach offered to forfeit the game so that he wouldn’t be subjected to it.

“I didn’t want my teammates to take a loss because of the name-calling,” Coffey said. “I told him that I could handle it as long as my teammates were with me. My team got really excited about it; they all decided we needed to give them a good lesson.”

The remembrance of this game, when the brotherhood of sports overcame an ingrained culture of intolerance in the Texas Panhandle in the late 1950s, caused Coffey to stop and compose himself.

“I get emotional when I think about the way they were behind me,” he said. “We got a big lead and the coach wanted to take the starters out, but we said no, we needed to give them a whoopin’.”

They did … 44-0.

Two things sold him on attending Washington. When he was taken to a fancy Seattle restaurant on his recruiting trip, no one told him he’d have to eat in the kitchen with the help, as had been common in Texas.

He was so impressed by that he phoned his aunt and suggested they move to Seattle with him. To facilitate that, a member of the coaching staff assured Coffey that his uncle, a mechanic, soon would have a good job with Boeing.

Coffey led the conference in rushing yards as a sophomore, but thereafter dealt with injuries and a clash with head coach Jim Owens.

“He was really a good coach but didn’t understand the mentality of blacks,” Coffey said. “I got a little angry about some of the things, as I look back now, that probably hurt me.”

He said his benching as a senior came after he had taken part in some civil-rights marches in Seattle. “I was admonished that I shouldn’t be doing that.”

But the town and his teammates, he said, “kept the whole thing together and made it positive. Guys like our captain, Rick Redman; I never saw any sign that the color of my skin made any difference.”

Coffey played on all the special teams with the 1965 Packers as he was on the depth chart behind backfield stars like Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. Legendary coach Vince Lombardi led them to the NFL championship that season.

Atlanta plucked him in the expansion draft the following season, and he would go on to play five NFL seasons, scoring a total of 15 touchdowns.

Coffey tried selling cars when his career ended, but found it wasn’t in his nature to “tell lies about cars I wouldn’t want to drive.”

He’d caught the racing bug his senior year at UW, when he worked a summer job at Longacres. While working custodial duties, he was swept away with the excitement of the track, the cheering of the fans, the innate competitiveness of the horses.

Coffey started in the business mucking stalls, and in 1973 got his trainer’s license.

He’s developed a few theories that guide his approach with horses. “I always say, ‘Keep the horse happy.’ Nature has its way; the animal will relate to you. If you’re understanding and patient, you’ll get the best of their ability.”

The surest way to “sour” a horse, he said, is to overwork it.

“If you’re too aggressive, they’ll get angry, and you have to understand that,” he said. “You have to have more tolerance and patience; you have to let them be themselves.”

It’s a lesson he learned as a running back. And has been using to his benefit now as the “coach” of his horses.

As the Auburn track turns 20, Coffey appreciates that he still has a place to work with the horses.

“Emerald Downs saved racing in this area, it really and truly did,” he said. “This has been quality racing in the Pacific Northwest and people here try to keep it that way. But it hasn’t been easy.”

For Junior Coffey, so little has.