A Different Direction: U-M Soccer Star Deals with Disability by Helping Others
Oct. 9, 2006
Growing up, Judy Coffman wasn't worried about being different. She just wanted to be a famous soccer player someday.
But without coast-to-coast notoriety, the Michigan women's soccer star already means the world to someone. Coffman, who was born without a left forearm and hand, is piloting the Wolverines' push for the 2006 Big Ten Tournament and enabling children with similar disabilities to achieve more than most ever imagined.
Doctors have never been able to explain why Coffman's left arm stops at her upper forearm. She has biceps and an elbow, but the rest isn't what Coffman sees as missing from her life. Rather, the spunky senior has made it an opportunity to become an inspiration for young girls growing up with similar disabilities.
"Whether or not we had the correct answer, it's not something that we focused on. [My parents] kind of described it as a fluke accident," she explained. "So many people ask me, but my reply is always `I was born like that - I don't really care why.' This way there is no blame, no what-ifs.
"I was born that way - I mean, I was blessed that way - and I deal with it from there."
Coffman didn't just deal with it. In many ways, she conquered it.
Learning how to tie her shoes took Coffman a year longer than most kids her age, but now she laces up her Nike soccer cleats every day. Her mom did her hair until she was 12, and then it took Coffman almost three years to learn how to put it into a ponytail on her own. Now she charges back-and-forth across a soccer field for almost 90 minutes every game.
"When people were doing their own hair, that's when I think I got most frustrated. That learning process was a lot slower for me," she said. "That's when I realized, `Wow, I am pretty different. Not a lot of people have to deal with this.'"
In high school, the San Jose, Calif., native spent free time visiting kids in Northern California hospitals. Since coming to Michigan, she has received emails from several families with disabled children seeking her advice on finding the sense of normalcy she appears to have achieved. Although the Wolverines' team leader comes off driven and fearless on the field, she explained how trying it is to be a mentor. Coffman recalls an email from a nervous mother who was worried about her child being ridiculed for her defect.
"It's really emotional. Here I was reading the email and crying, but I have to come off confident and as if it doesn't bother me. It's really an emotional battle because I want to be there for them," she said. "Parents are so unfamiliar with how to raise their kids with a disability, but growing up with a disability is all about learning off of your mistakes. The process of learning things is so much longer than with anyone else, so I really want to help them speed that up and say, `Hey, this is how you button your pants. This is how you do your hair.'"
She plans to do just that for one of her biggest fans, Kenzie, an aspiring 5-year-old soccer player who is coming to visit Coffman when the Wolverines take on Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, on October 22.
Urged by her parents, Vicki and Doug, and her two older sisters, Coffman found athletic competition to be the perfect niche for her relentless spirit when she was Kenzie's age.
"I really like sports because no matter how popular you are at school, no matter how pretty you are or what you look like, when you're on the field or on the court, you're all equal," Coffman said. "I don't know if that's why my parents wanted me to play sports, but I think that's why I enjoyed it so much. It's all a matter of how hard you work and how good you can get by challenging yourself."
Naturally, soccer made sense, but Coffman simply would not let her missing arm confine her to the conventional solution. Instead, she reveled in her triumphs over others' expectations at an early age, starting tennis at the age of 5. The San Jose, Calif., native also played basketball and eventually learned to surf.
"Basketball got a little predictable because I could only do a lay-up on one side," Coffman explained. "And I think softball is pretty darn hard for me because with catching and throwing, I have to pull a Jim Abbott."
Abbott, who also spent his collegiate career in Maize and Blue, became Coffman's earliest inspiration when he made his MLB debut with the California Angels in 1989. The famed one-handed major league baseball player overcame his birth defect to become an amazing professional pitcher for the Angels and the New York Yankees. In 1990, he surrendered only 246 hits - the fewest in the American League - in his 33 starts. Five years later, Abbott earned the Hutch Award, an honor given annually to the major leaguer who best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire to win.
Women's soccer programs have experienced some of the biggest gains in female athletic programs since Title IX was enacted. A recent study by the Soccer Industry Council of America found that one-third of the more than 18 million soccer players in America are girls under age 18. Around 2,000 scholarships are available every year at Division I women's soccer programs for the nearly seven million who play the sport.
When Coffman decided at age 13 that she wanted to be the best soccer player she could, the odds didn't faze her. After helping the Pleasanton Rage under-17 club team to a U.S. Soccer Association national title in 2002, she visited UC-Berkeley and Wisconsin before choosing Michigan for its well-balanced academic and athletic integrity. A move to Ann Arbor also gave Coffman her first dose of true independence.
"I was honored to get as many offers and the feedback that I received during the recruiting process," she said. "I was really trying to find that specific combination of a good academic school and a strong soccer team. But I think what put me over the top in the decision to come to Michigan was that I knew everyone on the Berkeley team - everyone. I wanted that experience of getting away and starting over, being on my own a little bit more."
Coffman grew up learning to deflect any perceptions about her arm with her outgoing personality. Those who knew her in California quickly forgot any defect, but going to Michigan meant new people and new questions. The anxiety started creeping in, and Coffman considered taking the chance to change things about her arm before leaving San Jose.
She went to a doctor for a prosthetic hand that looked exactly like her other one, but quickly found out she would never wear it.
"That was pretty powerful because I found out a lot about myself. I realized I didn't need it to make me feel like a complete person," she said. "It was a struggle to find that out about myself because I was also so frustrated with whether I should. The way I learned those daily activities was without prosthesis, so this way, I'm not dependent on any appliance."
Her realization didn't make moving hundreds of miles away from her family and friends - and year-round sunny climate - any easier of an adjustment for Coffman.
"It was almost the hardest year of my life," she said. "The transition was brutal. It's not that I wasn't prepared, but when you come out here for your first semester, you're thrown into it right away academically and right into your first season. I think after your freshman year, you really learn from your mistakes and your past experiences."
With support from her parents, who made it out to almost half of the Wolverines' games that first year, Coffman didn't back off from her dream.
At Santa Theresa High School, Coffman led the team in scoring all four seasons, finishing with 71 career goals and 47 career assists. Coffman was used to being the one responsible for sparking the team's success, but at Michigan she had to learn what it was like to not be the star and entered games from the bench for most of her first two seasons.
Most would have considered that a setback for the Saint's four-time most valuable offensive player, but Coffman saw an opportunity for a new view of the game.
"At Michigan, I've been a starter and I've been on the bench. I've been a captain, and I haven't been a captain," she said. "It really helped me to feel what it was like to be on the other end of things. I think that experience has given me many perspectives where I feel that as a captain, I can relate to many different players on the team."
The 5-5 middle forward saw playing time in almost every game during her first two seasons, and her good vision and versatility started showing. A left-footer, Coffman boasts a unique skill for soccer players at the collegiate level: a left-footed cross. But her fine-tuned talents weren't the only thing that propelled her into the team spotlight.
Coffman's strongest skill is her attitude, and that undefeatable resolve got her a starting spot in her junior season. She earned it with a team-high three game-winning goals, including one that propelled the Wolverines over Illinois for a shot at the 2005 Big Ten Tournament title. She also reached the 100-shot mark for her career in that momentous victory.
Voted the team's unsung hero later in the year, Coffman earned Michigan's first scoring opportunity in the championship game against the Badgers, but her free kick soared just outside the right goal post. The Badgers claimed the title with a 3-1 win. With their NCAA Tournament hopes on the line, the Wolverines learned an invaluable lesson in timing.
"We were really fighting hard to be over .500 toward the end of the season, and I think we learned that even the games at the beginning of the season and the ones we might consider smaller games are just as important as bigger games," Coffman said. "Especially with the loss at the Big Ten Tournament - we wanted that so bad. For us returning players, we really had a lot of motivation going into this year."
As a senior, Coffman's perspective changed with the role of captain. Not only is she focused on constantly improving her own performance, but she is also thinking more about how she can improve the team's play and chemistry.
Coffman started off the season with a major statement, nailing a game-winning goal in the Wolverines' double-overtime victory over then-No. 17 Arizona. The score gave Michigan its first goal and win of the season.
Once conference play got underway, Coffman remembered that 2005 defeat in the Big Ten Tournament final to the Badgers. When the two teams met this season, she fought off a physical Wisconsin team for a goal in the 1-1 draw to keep Michigan in the hunt for a slot in the conference's postseason bracket. Averaging almost three shots per game, Coffman currently ranks among the top 10 in the conference.
"We are not taking teams for granted," Coffman said. "We're trying to come out every game as hard as we would in the Big Ten Championship."
Michigan coach Debbie Rademacher said Coffman's roles on the team and the time she spends as a mentor are ones her senior star was born to play.
"She has been emotional and a great person to have on the team from the start. All our captains compliment each other and we felt like we needed her personality leading the team," Rademacher said. "She's definitely a role model, and I think she's willing to be a mentor, to talk to people and put herself out there. She came out of the womb that way and she's lucky to have that."
The two-time Academic All-Big Ten selection is preparing to finish her degree in communications in May, but Coffman wants to do more in her future than trade in her soccer cleats for a corporate dress code. She is planning to push more girls like Kelsey to their fullest potential.
"I hope that after I graduate I'm a resource to parents and kids with only one hand to know that you can still do the same things," Coffman said. "I think young girls going through junior high and high school deal with so much drama focusing on looks, boyfriends, and all the little stuff. With soccer and sports, that stuff doesn't matter. It's a great way of gaining friends and teammates, and learning how teams work. I definitely want to be a role model and show people with disabilities that if something goes wrong, you can still achieve."
Coffman has spent her entire life ignoring the label "different," spinning overwhelming circumstances in her favor. Now her unique against-all-odds attitude is making Coffman's lead the perfect example to follow.
Left foot first.