West Virginia high school football fans only got to see Brent Coleman play one time on this side of the Tug River.
It was the summer of 1997 when the Kentucky All-Star team, led by then Sheldon Clark High School coach Jim Matney, crossed the Tug to take on the West Virginia All-Stars in the second-ever Hatfield-McCoy Senior Bowl at Matewan High School’s Tiger Stadium.
Despite a late rally when Kentucky drove the ball deep into West Virginia territory and fueled by a series of good runs by Coleman, the Mountain State boys eventually prevailed 11-0 to even the Senior Bowl series.
Coleman had a distinguished career at Pikeville High School in his career which spanned 1993-96 but never got an opportunity to play college football.
The Hatfield-McCoy Bowl would be the last time Coleman suited up to play football.
Six years later, the 24-year-old Coleman, assigned to B Company of the First Battalion of the 68th Armored Regiment of the United States Army, was killed in action on Nov. 21, 2003 in the Iraq War when the vehicle Coleman was driving flipped over into a canal, trapping him inside and killing him.
Coleman will be remembered and honored this weekend at the Pike County Bowl as part of the bowl’s ‘legends,” an award given each year to a former player or coach who participated in the bowl game.
Coleman had an outstanding prep career for the Pikeville Panthers, first playing three years for legendary coach Hillard Howard and in 1996 for Royce Mayo.
In his senior year in 1996, Coleman led Pikeville to the Class A state semifinals, where the Panthers eventually lost 38-0 on Nov. 29 to Beechwood at Pikeville’s W.C. Hambley Athletic Complex over Thanksgiving weekend.
The loss left Pikeville one game short of reaching the Class A state championship game. It would be Coleman’s final game in a Panther uniform.
Coleman is still in the Kentucky record books.
Coleman, who wore No. 25 for Pikeville and was an all-state running back, scored 538 career points, which is still 19th all-time in Kentucky high school football history.
Coleman played in the 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 Pike County Bowls.
In Coleman’s last football game, the 1997 Hatfield-McCoy Bowl, he was named as the Most Valuable Player for the Kentucky All-Stars.
The game’s lone touchdown came on a 68-yard fumble recovery by Tug Valley’s Roger Davis. West Virginia’s Jim Pertee also booted a field goal.
Six games are set to be played this weekend in the Pike County Bowl.
On Friday night at Belfry High School’s CAM Stadium, Pike Central takes on Somerset at 6:05 p.m. The host Belfry Pirates, last year’s state champs, are then set to do battle with Lexington Henry Clay at 8:35 p.m.
Also on Friday night at Shelby Valley’s Johnson Brothers Athletic Complex, the host Shelby Valley Wildcats are set to square off with Paris. Phelps plays Betsy Layne in the nightcap at 8:35 p.m.
The Pike County Bowl then shifts to Pikeville’s W.C. Hambley Athletic Complex on Saturday as East Ridge plays Hurley (Va.) at 6:05 p.m. and the host Pikeville Panthers take on the Hazard Bulldogs at 8:35 p.m.
Coleman will be remembered at all three venues.
He was killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom on Nov. 21, near Balad, Iraq, when he and two soldiers were chasing a vehicle they considered suspicious when their Humvee flipped into a canal. Coleman was trapped inside and drowned. The others survived.
The military awarded Coleman the Purple Heart, for wounds received in action, and the Bronze Star, for meritorious service; two medals in fine boxes that went to his 20-year-old widow, who found a husband and lost a husband in less than a year.
Kirsten Sinley and Brent Coleman married in March 2003, three weeks before he left for Iraq as a tank driver with the 4th Infantry Division Mechanics, based at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, Colo.
In Pikeville, hundreds welcomed him home, solemnly filing into the high school auditorium where his casket sat on a high stage, nestled by white flowers, next to his maroon football jersey, No. 25, and his battered game helmet.
He was already a hero in Pikeville, where high school football is a way of life and those who play well are never forgotten. Coleman was short for a running back 5-feet-6 inches and 190 pounds — but he ran very well. He ended up as the all-time leading rusher and scorer in Pikeville history.
They called him “Rocket” for his ability to find a hole and plow through it, his beefy legs pumping like pistons. They also called him “Stumpy.”
“I guess because I’m short and fat,” he said, grinning from ear to ear, when a local television station named him player of the week in 1996, the beginning of his senior year.
In Iraq, his platoon called him “Hollywood” because his physique and his demeanor warranted it.
Coleman was the first soldier from Pikeville to die in Iraq. More than 4,000 American military service personnel were killed in the war which ended in 2011.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.