Henry Coley: Virginia's Vocal and Emotional Leader
Oct. 28, 2014
By Melissa Dudek, Virginia Athletics Media Relations
The selection of senior Henry Coley as one of the 2014 Cavalier team captains was the textbook definition of a “no-brainer.” On the field, the middle linebacker is the defensive signal caller, leading himself and his fellow defenders to being ranked among the top-five teams in the nation this year in takeaways, fumble recoveries and number of different players with at least one interception.
“Signal calling is a whole other world inside itself,” Coley explained. “There is a way you have to think, certain tendencies you have to pick up and certain things you have to see. There can be something small that one guy does within the offense that you can alert everyone about that gives away a play. The game of football is more of a mental game than anything physically. A lot of guys forget that. You can be the smallest team in the world, but if you’re locked in mentally, then you’ll beat the bigger team every time. We have to play with a wide shutter, seeing the entire formation. If you see the entire formation and watch film and put the time in, you will know the play before it happens.
When Coley arrived on Grounds he played outside linebacker because UVa’s sixth-leading tackler in program history, Steve Greer, occupied the middle linebacker position. Upon Greer’s graduation following the 2012 season, Coley made the move from the outside into the middle for the 2013 campaign.
“When I first moved to middle linebacker, I didn’t fully understand the responsibility. When I was a Sam [strong side] linebacker, they only have to shut down one side of the field, so I didn’t have to worry about everything, but when you move to Mike [middle linebacker], you have to see everything and tell guys what you see. You have to tell guys to communicate because sometimes when I don’t see something, you have to tell them to alert you. I am able to do it during the week during practice, but in the game, when the bullets are flying, I might miss it. But because I have been telling guys during practice all week, they’re able to alert us and we get on the same page. That communication level is big. I have had this responsibility, and noticed and felt the responsibility for about two years.”
Though he has had the specific responsibility of getting the defense in sync for two years now, responsibility in general has been Coley’s forte since he was a young child. Coley lived with his maternal grandmother, Linda Tucker, for the first couple of years of his life in Mobile, Ala., until his mother, Melanie Young, who was in the Navy, was transferred from sea duty to shore duty in California. Young and Coley moved back to Alabama when he was seven and then to the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area when he was 12.
“It was just me and my mom for a long time, even when we were living in Cali,” Coley recalled. “She had to get up early to go to work. When I was pretty young, she would set an alarm for me to tell me to get up, brush my teeth and get ready, and then she would set another alarm to tell me when I had to be out and walking to the bus. A lot of those responsibilities were placed on me at an early age because it was just the two of us in the household.”
Coley made himself accountable for what happened once the bus arrived at school, a focus that has continued for the two-time member of the ACC All-Academic team since arriving at Virginia.
“I love the school academically, because I have always been taught to be a student first and an athlete second,” Coley said. “I can’t even remember the last time I showed my mother my progress reports or grades because since a young age, it was instilled in me to have a 3.0 or higher. That has always been my benchmark. She has never even seen my grades probably since middle school, but from kindergarten to my senior year, I never missed an academic honor.”
Coley was also the driving force behind his own pursuit of football. After initially playing and disliking the experience in fourth grade, he decided to give it another shot in sixth grade as a way to meet new people.
“My mother never pushed anything on me and let me do whatever I wanted to pursue because she believed in letting both myself, and later my little brother, become what we wanted to be and grow into our own skins,” Coley said. “I like football and I’ve fallen in love with it now. I just never really liked playing it at the beginning of my years. Initially, it was a good way to get socially into the school whenever I was the new guy who had just moved to Virginia from Alabama. In eighth grade, something just flipped. I had moved from the Virginia Beach School District to the Bayside District. The coaches were able to spark something in my seventh-grade year. Then in eighth grade, I was able to hit the ground running. From eighth grade on is when I started playing football and taking it seriously. I remember, I told my mother that this would be a way for her to not have to pay for college. That dream became a reality.”
Though he grudgingly played tight end on occasion in high school, it has always been defense that has been Coley’s true love.
“The energy, the passion, the free range that you have and just being able to hit somebody, that is what I really like about it,” Coley said. “I never wanted to be the nail – I always wanted to be the hammer. I didn’t want to be the guy that was always getting hit. I don’t see how some of those guys take those hits, but certain guys just want their names in the paper, and defensive guys hardly ever get the glory. I’m not one who really likes the whole spotlight thing.”
In addition to having the on-field numbers that deserve a spotlight, including leading the team in tackles last season and pacing this year’s squad in sacks, Coley has also been racking up an impressive list of off-field acts deserving of recognition that he also shies away from highlighting. The nominee for the 2014 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team has put in many hours helping with the annual bone marrow drive, volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club, doing visits to Children’s Hospital as well as many other community service endeavors. There is one annual project, however, that ranks above the rest in his heart.
“I love being a candy-giver at trick-or-treating on the Lawn every Halloween because I love the kids,” Coley said. “I don’t dress up, but I might dress up this year. I still haven’t decided. I might bring out my old ninja costume.”
Coley, who is currently working on his master’s degree in higher education administration, graduated last year with a bachelor’s degree in African American studies, an academic pursuit that he embraced with the same zeal as his other responsibilities.
“Ms. Claudrena Harold, who is a former professor here at the University of Virginia, changed my life,” Coley said. “She was one of the primary professors whose classes I took as well as being one of the only teachers where I’d go to her class even if I wasn’t enrolled just to hear her speak. She opened my mind to other things. Through this college process, she was the one that made me think outside the box a lot more about my history. She made me take notice and think critically about what’s going on in the world around me right now. I can’t say enough about her.”
One of the things that Professor Harold inspired was for Coley to take a trip to Africa, which he embarked on prior to the start of football camp in 2013.
“It was a short study-abroad trip to South Africa,” Coley said. “We started in Johannesburg and we ended up traveling around the Limpopo region. It was a personal thing for me. Professor Robert Swap had been trying to get me to go on one of these things since I was a freshman in one of his classes. He kept on me, but we thought because of football workouts that it wasn’t possible. But in 2013, he shortened the trip by a week so both Kwontie Moore (Jr., defensive end) and I were able to go. It’s one of those experiences that I feel everyone needs to take.”
The ever-humble Coley, who hopes to be playing football next season in the NFL, knows that though his personal focus and leadership has helped him get to where is he and where he wants to go, there were many people who have made his journey possible.
“I want to thank my mother and my grandmother [who passed away after losing her battle against a second round of cancer in 2009],” Coley said. “I also want to thank my high school coaches and teachers and all of my professors at UVa. I also want to thank the Virginia athletics department. Mr. [Jon] Oliver spoke to one of my classes about the vision of the department and what they wanted the athletics department to be. The vision that they had for ‘Uncompromised Excellence,’ what it’s turned out to be over a 10-year span, and also where we’re headed, I want to commend that vision and I want to thank the whole athletics department. Everyone had a hand in bringing about our success on and off the field.”