Airline's Ronnie Coker: ‘God-chosen to impact people’
Ronnie Coker was sitting in his home in north Bossier City earlier this week waiting for a couple of Airline High School football players to drop by his Tealwood home for a quick visit.
Dax Chavz and Justin Epps had texted their recently retired athletic director saying they wanted to chat. Their visit was the highlight of the day for Coker, 57, who is in the midst of battling stage 4 colon cancer – a fight he is determined to win. For a man who has made exalting high school kids his life’s work, while extoling the mantra “win today,” battling his disease is something he sees as a platform.
“God has chosen me to impact people, and I don’t plan on letting him down,” Coker said. “People I don’t even know said my story has inspired them to get a colonoscopy. I had a lady I graduated with in 1982 and hadn’t seen since, message me and say I had saved her life by inspiring her to get the test. That’s a God thing, not a Ronnie thing.”
After serving at numerous northwest Louisiana schools over the past 33 years as a coach, athletic director and student motivator, Coker made the decision to retire before his diagnosis at 6:15 p.m. April 23. But as he’s battled rounds of chemotherapy over the last few weeks, that decision was proven prophetic.
“I want two things to happen because of what I’m going through – I want God to be glorified and I want everyone I know who is at least 45 years old to get a colonoscopy,” Coker said. “If I would have gotten mine earlier, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now.”
Coker was honored Parkway Thursday night by the Bossier Parish School Board when it voted to rename the Parkway baseball field Ronnie Coker Field. He spent nine seasons at the school, compiling a 196-75 record with a state championship and a state runner-up finish.
Coker’s success on the field made him a sought-after mind to be mined for young coaches. He won state baseball titles at Parkway (1998, 31-3) and Captain Shreve (2006, 37-3) while finishing as runner-up another season at both those schools. He also built now closed Sarepta High into a baseball powerhouse and coached one season at Byrd, his only losing campaign as a head coach. He was admitted into the Louisiana Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame along with some of the state's biggest names in the sport and he has impacted young coaches.
“My first coaching experience was under him at Parkway,” Haughton football coach and athletic director Jason Brotherton said. “I was a 21-year-old college kid and I could probably write a whole book on the things I learned in those five months. He taught me that you have to accomplish something every single day. Never waste a day.”
Airline volleyball coach Reggie Digilormo said being around Coker and watching him work magic with young people has been something she’s learned from.
“Coach Coker is one of those special people who has an innate ability of being able to find the strengths in each person he meets and speaking life to it,” Digilormo said. “It is what makes him a wonderful coach, leader and mentor.”
Coker began having stomach pains about two weeks before his diagnosis and wasn’t feeling well during the school day on April 23 so principal Justin James told him to go home around 2:15. Coker and his wife, Kelly, were planning to visit some friends that evening, so he decided to go to a quick-care facility to get a celestone shot.
A doctor there took an X-ray and told him to go to an emergency room immediately, so Coker headed to Willis Knighton-Bossier thinking he had a kidney or gall bladder stone. But Dr. Bryant Boyd brought in a CT scan with different news.
“He said, ‘You see that right there? That’s a mass,’” Coker said. “I associate that word with two things – being Catholic and cancer, and I’m not Catholic. I looked at my wife who lost her father a couple of years ago to ‘a mass.’ I said as a coach, I want to know the plan to fight this.”
Within hours a plan was put into effect that Coker is convinced came from God stepping into his battle thanks to the prayers of family, friends, co-workers and student-athletes.
“It was incredible the dominoes that began to fall,” he said.
A colonoscopy was rushed, insurance coverage approved, a PET scan set and chemo scheduled.
“Those were small miracles that all had to fall in line,” Coker said.
The biggest side effect – the one constant -- of chemo treatment is fatigue that kicks in quickly. Fortunately, Coker has a recliner he loves and he used it to watch every play in the College World Series, then re-viewing a modicum of old movies.
“I’m thankful for them,” he said.
Little big town
Bossier City is a big town with a small-town atmosphere. It’s a place where everybody knows everybody, especially if you’ve been in the lives of as many people as Ronnie Coker. He’s been called “Coach Coker” by most of the medical professionals who have cared for him, while earning the respect of those who have been his bosses.
“Ronnie is a champion in every facet of the word. State champion as a player for the Minden High Crimson Tide to coaching state championships at Parkway and Shreve,” said Bossier Schools assistant superintendent Jason Rowland, who hired Coker when he became principal at Airline. “But more than that, he is a champion for others to see. For kids—coach Coker is what a champion looks and acts like. For adults— he has the faith of a champion. Everyone he has touched feels like a winner and that is what a champion does.”
Added current Airline principal and longtime friend Justin James: “Ronnie is a true confidante. Working alongside of RC for two years has been amazing. He brightens up the room and is literally one of the most positive people I have ever met.”
Coker acknowledges that the chemo being put into his body is poison but it’s part of the fight. His pain is still there but it’s not as intense as it was a few weeks ago. He’s finishing up one cycle of chemo, but will soon start another round that’s due to end around Labor Day.
Sorting through hundreds of cards, phone calls, emails, texts and visits are physically draining, but they’re also the highlight of the coach’s day. LSU signee and recent USA Junior Olympic softball selection Raelin Chaffin recently stopped by to talk not about softball, but about the faith she shares with Coker.
“To know Coker is to love Coker,” Chaffin said. “He doesn’t care who you are or where you are from, he will treat you like his own. He is caring and compassionate and all-around amazing. He has had such an impact on my life, from the mental side of softball, to being a servant of the Lord. He has one of the biggest hearts and would do anything for anyone.”
Added Coker: “Visits are what provide energy to me.”
What the future holds for the veteran educator is unclear. He told his kids not to look online for the prognostications of individuals with his form of cancer because he says they are meaningless to him.
“What is the true meaning of success? To fulfill God’s plan – and I’m working my best to fulfill that,” he said. “I’m not worried about the battle because God is fighting it for me.”
Coker won 71% of the 503 baseball games he coached, an amazing number for that sport. He won nine district championships, two state championships, a couple of Times Coach of the Year honors and an LHSAA Coach of the Year award. But he would put all of those aside if he could inspire one more person to get checked for colon cancer and one more to believe as he does in the power of prayer.
“The cancer's still there but I’m getting better. I still have pain although not as much as on April 23,” Coker said. “But I’m operating under God’s blessing and my heart goes out to those who don’t believe. Where is their hope?”
Brotherton learned a lot from his short time coaching for Coker and among the lessons was one that applies to his friend’s cancer fight.
“To be successful you have to convince your team that they are going to win. If kids expect to win, they usually do,” Brotherton said.
Coker’s team expects to win.
Ronne Coker records
1991 Parkway 15-14 .517
1992 Parkway 19-11 .633
1993 Parkway 19-10 .655
1994 Parkway 19-9 .679
1995 Parkway 18-8 .692
1996 Parkway 25-7 .781
1997 Parkway 27-6 .818 State runner-up
1998 Parkway 31-3 .912 State Champ
1999 Parkway 23-7 .767
2002 Byrd 12-21 .363
2003 Captain Shreve 24-15 .615
2004 Captain Shreve 20-17-1 .539
2005 Captain Shreve 31-10 .756
2006 Captain Shreve 37-3 .925 State Champ
2007 Captain Shreve 37-4 .902 State runner-up
Total 357-145-1 .711