When Xavier Coleman was growing up in Portland, he exhibited enough talent to excel on the football field.
The only thing absent was a healthy heart.
Coleman, who has started eight of 10 games at cornerback for Portland State this season, was diagnosed by doctors with a faulty heart valve when he was a freshman at Jesuit High School. He underwent surgery in the summer of 2012 prior to his senior year and he was playing football about four months later.
After years of waiting, Coleman finally got on the field for the final two regular season games of his senior year. Add four playoff games into the mix and Coleman’s high school football career lasted all of six games.
“It took a pretty big toll on me emotionally (not being able to play football in high school),” Coleman said. “I was pretty hurt. Having a big support system in high school and with my family, they made me see the positive side of it. I focused on basketball and track from there on out and didn’t really think about playing football.
“Within a couple of months after being diagnosed, I put football on the back burner and tried to focus on the two sports I was allowed to play, which was basketball and track.”
From a football perspective, the Portland State coaching staff saw enough in the 5-foot-11, 190 pound Coleman to offer him a scholarship. Their faith has paid dividends as Coleman has started 10 games at cornerback in the past two years with 59 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
“I was diagnosed with a heart condition in my freshman year, so I couldn’t play throughout high school,” Coleman told Viking Tales recently. “(My senior year) I asked my football coach if I could stick around with the team and when I healed up if I could get on the field for the last couple of games of the regular season. Being the good guy he is, he said it was OK.
“So, I was on the sideline for the entire season. The last two games, I got to play and it worked out really well.”
In his first game for Jesuit, Coleman returned an interception for a 26-yard touchdown. He later added another interception and caught a 90-yard TD pass. In the ensuing months, he played basketball and ran track, earning first-team All-State honors.
The Vikings offered Coleman a scholarship a couple of months following the conclusion of football season.
“I talked with Coach Burton when he came to my school quite a bit towards the end of the playoffs my senior year (in 2012),” Coleman said. “I came here for a visit and walked around and met the guys. It was a few months after that (PSU offered).
“Coach Burton gave me a chance and I couldn’t be more grateful to him for that.”
While PSU’s average passing yardage allowed (288.7 ypg) is down only about 10 yards per game from last season, that figure is largely the byproduct of two early season non-conference games – Western Oregon (413 yards) and Washington State (630).
Since losing to the Cougars in Pullman on Sept. 13, Portland State has allowed more than 225 yards passing only twice in seven games. Last Saturday, Montana State managed just 95 yards passing on 18 pass attempts.
“We’re a tighter group this year,” Coleman said. “I’ve built relationships with the rest of the guys at the positions and I think they would say the same thing. I don’t think we’ve played too bad. I’ve been pretty happy with how we’ve been playing. Guys have had to step up when other guys were injured.”
Coleman missed the North Dakota and NAU games because of a concussion suffered in practice the week before the trip to Grand Forks.
This season, Coleman has 33 tackles, six pass breakups and one interception in eight games.
“I just try to make plays when the opportunity arises and whenever the ball comes my way,” Coleman said. “I’m trying to turn those pass breakups into interceptions, that’s what I’m working on right now. Hopefully, I can get that number up in these last few games of the regular season.”
With two years of eligibility remaining, Coleman has yet to reach the halfway point of his college football career. Step-by-step, Coleman is becoming the solid football player he couldn’t be in high school for health reasons.
“I think I’ve improved a lot. My biggest issue from last year was my confidence being a freshman and trying to get used to program and the system,” Coleman said. “That was my biggest problem. Now Aaron Sibley and I are the older guys in the group with the most experience. So, my confidence has risen.”