His Mind Damaged by Concussions, Former Cowboy Lincoln Coleman Tries to Find a Future

Mark Graham
Lincoln Coleman
His brain was bouncing. Eyes involuntarily darting. Left arm numb, dangling uselessly.

Lincoln Coleman was in trouble.

But on Thanksgiving 1993 on that memorable, sleet-covered field at Texas Stadium, he stubbornly persuaded himself not to call for medical attention and leave the Dallas Cowboys’ clash against the Miami Dolphins. He was a native Dallasite and a lifelong Cowboys fan who five months before worked for minimum wage at Home Depot. Now he was a key player in a dramatic, nationally televised NFL game on an iconic stage.

This was his dream come true. No pesky concussion was about to ruin it.

“I had trouble getting my bearings, kinda remembering where I was and what I was doing,” Coleman says while devouring a plate of barbecue at Deep Ellum’s Pecan Lodge on July 24. “But I knew I was a running back for the Dallas Cowboys. They would have had to carry me off that field on a stretcher.”

Substituting for injured star Emmitt Smith, Coleman was attempting to help the Cowboys survive a brutal game in equally brutal conditions. The field was covered in 6 inches of sleet and snow. The Cowboys led 14-13 in the fourth quarter and turned to Coleman to run out the clock.

On a first-down play, he took a handoff from quarterback Troy Aikman and powerfully plowed through a sliver of a hole. He was met violently by Dolphins’ hard-hitting safety Louis Oliver. The collision sent the pair to the ground, white stuff into the air and the freezing crowd into a frenzy.

Coleman had trucked Oliver, gaining a precious 4 yards.

In the huddle, he shook his head trying to regain focus. He attempted to hide the fact that he couldn’t feel — much less lift — his arm. He was jolted by what he heard.

“Great job, Linc!” Aikman barked. “Let’s run that sucker again!”

Coleman was too groggy to be gleeful. Was he supposed to run to the right? Or was it the left? Could he maintain his balance? How would he carry the ball with only one arm?

His questions – amplified by alarming doubts – were suddenly given a stay of execution.

“Timeout,” announced referee Ed Hochuli. “Injury timeout.”

Not for Coleman. But rather Oliver, who was sprawled on a mattress of sleet where Coleman had deposited him. He was subsequently carted off the field with a season-ending leg injury.

“I was basically out on my feet,” Coleman recalls. “I’m glad I didn’t have to find out what would have happened if Troy had handed me that football at that point. I don’t think it would have been good.”

Coleman took a knee to clear the cobwebs, took a moment to be thankful, and then took the next handoff for another 4-yard gain.

Ironic that he can remember the vivid details of that day, that game and that play.

Because, as a byproduct of his cumulative head injuries, Coleman has tried to forget everything — twice attempting suicide, including drinking bleach at a Dallas homeless shelter last year.

click to enlarge Lincoln Coleman used his brute force to pick up tough yards. - COURTESY MARIA SWANSON
Lincoln Coleman used his brute force to pick up tough yards.
courtesy Maria Swanson
Born Cowboy
Coleman was born to be two things: a Cowboy and a cruncher.

“His grandfather gave him a Cowboys helmet on his third birthday, and that was it,” says Coleman’s mother, Waynita, from the family’s home near Dolphin Road and Interstate 30 in East Dallas. “I never thought football was safe, so his father and I kept him out of it until he was 11. But then? Boy, he just took off.”

Says Coleman, “Mom bought me the Cowboys’ cheerleader calendar from McDonald’s, and we’d watch every play on Sundays. There was no other team I ever even thought about.”

Thick, strong and straightforward at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds, Coleman’s running style was all wreck, no wiggle. To tackle him was to negotiate with a sea turtle dragging an anvil. He wasn’t headed anywhere particularly fast, but you had zero chance of a re-route.

“I gave you four quarters of helmet and shoulder pads,” he says with a laugh. “Most guys didn’t want any more than that.”

Even at Bryan Adams High School, that bullish, head-first running style made him susceptible to traumatic hits.

The worst of his eight diagnosed concussions occurred on a kickoff return as a sophomore. Just as he was preparing to bulldoze a tackler head-on, he was blindsided in his ear hole.

Out. Cold. 15 minutes.

Waynita rushed onto the field. Lincoln didn’t awake until the locker room.

“All I remember is running with the ball and then … Mom telling my head coach that I was done with football for the year,” Coleman says.

Says Waynita, “I’ve been on the field too many times to count. Chasing referees. Chasing opposing coaches. Those boys at South Oak Cliff tried to take him out with three players. And one of 'em turned out to be Lincoln’s own cousin!”

A high school All-American as a senior in 1987, Coleman was recruited to Notre Dame but left after one year when Irish head coach Lou Holtz inexplicably attempted to convert him to defensive back. He flirted with Texas before landing at Baylor, where he scored three touchdowns in 11 games in 1989 before flunking out of school.

Back in Dallas, he bounced from odd job to outcast football gig. He played two seasons for the semi-professional Dallas Colts, earning $200 per game before a handful of fans at Bedford’s Pennington Field. In 1993 he signed with the Dallas Texans of the Arena Football League, playing games at Reunion Arena at night and working a shift at Home Depot the following morning.

Even in obscurity, his talent got noticed.

Cowboys equipment manager Kevin O’Neil spotted Coleman while watching a Texans game and alerted the team’s head coach, Jimmy Johnson. The Dolphins had also called wanting Coleman to visit Miami for a private workout, but when Johnson got wind of another suitor, he immediately flew Coleman to Austin early in the 1993 training camp.

“I couldn’t believe what was happening,” Coleman remembers. “They handed me Robert Newhouse’s number [44] and I was like, ‘Whoa!’. But I really didn’t even have time to soak it all in.”

Fresh from the airport, Coleman jogged onto the practice field at St. Edwards’s University just in time for Johnson’s favorite training-camp mosh pit: middle drill. It pitted only the defense’s front seven against the offensive line and a running back. Tight spaces. Titanic collisions.

“Running backs, listen up!” Johnson would yell. “Number one, find a hole. Number two, if there’s not a hole to find, create one.”

Coleman’s DNA is littered with middle drill.

“Not gonna lie, I was shittin’ my pants,” Coleman says. “Lined up in front of me was the NFL’s number one defense with Russell Maryland and Leon Lett and Tony Tolbert and Ken Norton. But I just tried to do what I do.”

After 10 consecutive carries of punishing, positive yardage, Johnson had seen enough. Coleman was signed to the training-camp roster, eventually landed on the practice squad and was activated Nov. 18 as Smith and starting fullback Daryl Johnston limped into Thanksgiving week with various ailments.

As legend would have it, the feel-good story of Coleman — “Local kid making only $175,000 saves Thanksgiving!” — was abruptly deleted and rewritten as the sad saga of the blocked field goal and Leon Lett's blundered recovery attempt that became one of the most infamous plays in NFL history. The Cowboys lost thanks to Lett's error, but Coleman won his defining moment.

He caught a pass for 10 yards and rushed 10 times for another 57 on that treacherous field. He also finished with zero animosity toward Lett for botching his coming-out party.

“Leon’s a great guy and was a heck of a player,” Coleman says. “I was just a nobody rookie trying to keep a job.”

While the Dolphins didn’t win another game that season, the Cowboys never lost. They rolled the Buffalo Bills, 30-13, to win Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta. Coleman got in for garbage time, carrying one time in the closing seconds.

“I’ve got my ring in a safe place,” Coleman says. “After all I’ve been through, I’m afraid to keep it on me.”

But when owner Jerry Jones parted ways with Johnson and hired Barry Switzer in 1994, Coleman knew his days were numbered. During a recruiting visit to Bryan Adams years prior, Switzer, then the head coach at Oklahoma, barged into head coach Jackie Edwards’ office and told him to leave. Switzer, according to Coleman, demanded a private one-on-one with the star recruit. What he got instead was a reputation, and a rejection.

“Uh-uh, he disrespected my head coach and that was it,” says Coleman, who later turned down a recruiting visit to Norman. “I was done with him right then and there.”

But there they were in 1994, an awkward, arranged marriage at Valley Ranch. Switzer immediately made Coleman his whipping boy, telling him in front of live TV cameras and microphones, “Linc, you’re outta shape. Gotta get you down to 240 by training camp. Or else.”

In the Super Bowl, Coleman weighed 255 pounds. The day of Switzer’s fabricated tirade, the running back stepped on the scales at 257.

“He had a bug up his ass against me all that time,” Coleman says. “Dude held an eight-year grudge.”

Three days into training camp the Cowboys scrimmaged the Houston Oilers. Coleman scored a touchdown, graded out 100 percent on film and … was cut two weeks later.

His Cowboys career was meteoric, burning bright but then, just as quickly, out. He lasted 18 games with a star on his helmet, rushing for 312 yards and three touchdowns.

“It was disappointing and, I thought, unfair at the time,” Coleman says. “But all I ever wanted to do is play for the Cowboys. And I did it. Even with all the bad stuff that’s happened to me, they can never take that away from me.”

Asked if he remains a fan of the Cowboys, Coleman doesn’t hesitate.

“Always. Forever and always.”

click to enlarge Lincoln Coleman as a running back for the Cowboys from 1993 to 1995 - COURTESY MARIA SWANSON
Lincoln Coleman as a running back for the Cowboys from 1993 to 1995
courtesy Maria Swanson
Dangerous Mind
Though Coleman can recite the entire starting lineup on that Cowboys Super Bowl team, when not fixated on football, his mind can wander. Not only aimlessly, but dangerously.

The day before the lunch interview at Pecan Lodge, his fiancée, Maria Swanson, entered their living room to find Coleman muttering, walking in circles, naked. When she jostled him back on the grid, he gave her a befuddled smile.

“Baby,” he said. “Where am I going? What am I doing?”

Says Swanson, “He’s doing really well, and his meds have things under control. But still, for some reason usually at the end of the month, he has these weird spells. He’ll get very angry at himself and just completely shut down. It’s like he’s right in front of me, but at the same time he’s missing. I call them Black Holes, because he’s just gone. Blank. I’m not going to lie and say it’s easy, but he’s worth it. He’s not only my fiancé, he’s my best friend.”

After his release from the Cowboys, Coleman signed but never played with the Atlanta Falcons before eventually returning to the AFL with the Milwaukee Mustangs. In 2001 he moved to the Grand Rapids Rampage and led them to the ArenaBowl XV championship.

He then retired from football, but football’s side effects didn’t retire from him. Functional though deeply flawed, Coleman commenced his downward spiral. Drugs begat depression begat (almost) death.

“I was forced to deal with football being gone, and I didn’t deal with it very well,” Coleman says. “I basically spent a year not leaving my house in Grand Rapids. I got separated from my wife. I was drinking. It was not good.”

Intent on never enduring another football-less morning, one fall evening in 2001 Coleman solemnly walked into his closed garage, rolled the windows down on his car and started the engine. He fell asleep, but the potentially deadly exhaust fumes escaped through gaps in the roof. Neighbors alarmed by the smell arrived to awake him and … save him?

“It wasn’t like I had some light-bulb moment of clarity when they found me,” Coleman says. “I still felt the same as when I turned those keys. I was just thinking, ‘When will I get the opportunity to try this again?’"

After coaching football in Michigan for a couple of years, Coleman moved back to Dallas in 2007 and took a job at Samuell High School.

By then — unbeknownst to him — the aftershocks of his concussions were causing wild mood swings, easy agitation and agonizing lapses in memory. The sudden passing of his father, Lincoln Sr., to a heart attack in 2010 only exacerbated his strained state of mind.

After making it through various appearances and parties in conjunction with Super Bowl XLV in Dallas in February 2011, Coleman sought help for his drug and alcohol addictions at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches in Florida.

The treatment and therapy worked, as did his immersion into Alcoholics Anonymous. By 2013 Coleman was clean and sober, splitting his time between Dallas and Florida. He jump-started Coleman’s Coaching, a foundation to help at-risk children, and met the woman he calls “my angel.”

Invited to coffee in Florida by a mutual friend, Coleman and Swanson immediately hit it off. She was the brash girl from New Jersey, recently divorced, relocated to be close to family and with a track record for helping the physically and mentally challenged. He was the big, charming guy desperate for help.

He asked her to go snorkeling.

“I’m thinking ‘This guy snorkels?’” jokes Swanson at Pecan Lodge. “Part of me went on the date just out of curiosity.”

On the advice of his AA sponsor, Coleman had vowed to stop dating for 18 months. Swanson, however, was the rule-obliterating asterisk.

“She wasn’t like anyone I’d ever met,” he says. “She taught me to be vulnerable, to speak honestly about my feelings. I’d always been the football player that was a macho man. But Maria taught me that being open and sensitive isn’t a defect. She’s my true strength. She saved my life. Several times.”

Swanson may be the strong one, but on the picnic table bench next to Lincoln she’s now dabbing the tears before they run down her cheek and off into the brisket.

“I’m an intuitive empath, and that’s fucked me up my whole life having to sense what others are feeling,” Swanson says. “But the instant I met Lincoln, I knew. My life experience has set me up just so I could be prepared to take care of this man. I’m his sponge. He can ooze out all this bad shit, and I just soak it up. It’s an honor to do so.”

It was the heart attack that interrupted “happily ever after.”

Things Fall Apart
By late 2015 the couple had grown serious enough to go apartment hunting. Coleman was eyeing a front-office job with the Dolphins and had been accepted to the NFL and Wharton’s prestigious Athlete Development Professional Certification Program for former players seeking a fast track to league employment.

The seminar was in December. Then, so went the plan, came the apartment and the happy holidays and the job, but hypertension cut in line. The day after Thanksgiving, Coleman and Swanson were in their real estate agent’s office in Boca Raton when he complained about a searing toothache. His eyes glazed. His face froze. Swanson immediately drove him to the nearest urgent care.

Announced the physician, “Mr. Coleman, you’re having a heart attack.”

Says Swanson, “Five minutes later he was in an ambulance headed to the hospital and I was a total wreck.”

The good news: Coleman only stayed overnight. Doctors told him he had an “athlete’s heart” and merely needed medication to control the hereditary high blood pressure that contributed to his father’s death.

The bad news: The event altered everything.

In the wake of all the claims related to the heart attack, his insurance company in Florida dropped him. Without health insurance, he couldn't afford to stay on his regular, expensive medication. Still too healthy for his own good, he was denied disability benefits. With his various personality quirks and unmedicated urges now loose on the prowl, he was in no shape to attend the seminar. Without the job, the apartment shopping abruptly halted.

“Everything,” says Swanson, “went to shit, just like that.”

Around Christmas the couple watched the movie Concussion, which details football players suffering post-concussion problems and the doctor who attempted to inform the NFL of the looming epidemic. Coleman wondered aloud if using his head as a weapon all those years had finally caught up to him. Swanson did more than wonder, calling a family friend who is a doctor to test Coleman for, well, everything.

“That movie horrified me,” she says. “Because I knew. We both knew. We were watching Lincoln.”

In April, Coleman underwent a weeklong battery of neuropsychological tests at a clinic in Boynton Beach. Sure enough, everything.

Bipolar disorder. Attention deficit disorder. Schizophrenia (which explained his hallucinations and hearing voices). Post-traumatic stress disorder. And, yes, early onset dementia, caused by repeated head trauma.

It was a mortifying, yet perversely comforting cocktail of enlightenment and surrender.

“At that point, I stopped trying to fool myself,” Coleman says. “I wasn’t OK. But then I knew it wasn’t just because I was an asshole. There was stuff seriously wrong with me. My brain had been bouncing off the inside of my skull for years. That scared the hell out of me. Still does.”

Already part of the 2011 class-action lawsuit against the NFL because of the potential damage of his eight concussions, Coleman now had evidence. A month later the results were confirmed in an NFL-sanctioned visit to a board-certified neurologist in St. Petersburg.

Last January, the NFL announced a $1 billion settlement in the 2011 lawsuit filed by 4,500 concussion complainants. But in a court filing in May, lawyers for the players asserted that of the 1,712 dementia claims, only six had received a check.

Because of his level of impairment Coleman was due a payment of $1.2 million in June.

“Sure, we’re hopeful,” Coleman says with a shrug. “But apparently the NFL is now appealing all the individual settlements and … reality is we may never see a dime.”

Out of meds. Desperately low on income. Flimsy with hope. And, after a dispute with Swanson's family, with no roof over their heads. Early 2017 was close enough to rock bottom until the real rock bottom showed up.

For two months Coleman and Swanson made their way down Florida’s southeastern coast from Palm Beach to Miami. They ate at homeless shelters and food pantries and slept anywhere from their cramped car to the vast beach. They called every friend they knew asking for donations of as little as $20, just to be able to buy gas for their journey to nowhere.

“It was devastating,” Coleman admits. “I knew we were failing, but we couldn’t pull out of it. She had trouble taking care of me, and I had no luck at finding any kind of job. I had to stay focused, stay in the present. I couldn’t think about the big picture or else I would’ve found a way to just shoot myself right then and there.”

Says Swanson, “I seriously don’t know how we did it. We were just struggling to hold it together.”

They did it with guile, using the Wi-Fi from Walmart parking lots for phone and internet service. And they did it with levity, once pausing the sorrow long enough to spend an afternoon playing tennis.

After dinner at a Golden Corral in March, Coleman decided to drop what was left of his pride and call the NFL for help. Its Player Care Foundation responded, paying for a night at a hotel and overnighting a $1,000 gift card to help the couple get where they were going.

Which, suddenly, was Dallas.

“There was nothing left for us in Florida,” Swanson says. “Just bad memories. Bad vibes. In Dallas, we could be around his family.”

Not for long.

They moved into where they still live, a small, unattached apartment behind the home occupied by Coleman’s mother and aunt. But after only a couple of weeks out from under the intense stress of being homeless, the unmedicated Coleman snapped.

He was done worrying. Done thinking. Done being. Swanson was safe with a place to live.

In May 2017 he simply took off, walking five miles before randomly stopping at a homeless shelter, the Dallas International Street Church on 2nd Avenue. He talked to no one. He worked and ate and all but vanished into thin air.

“I just wanted to disappear,” Coleman explains. “I didn’t want to be anybody or anything. Matter of fact when people would ask, I honestly wasn’t sure who I was.”

Says Swanson, “It was a complete psychotic breakdown.”

Police distributed a missing person alert, describing Coleman as a person with “diminished mental capacity and need for medical assistance.”

“I was afraid he was dead,” Swanson says.

One day former Cowboys defensive end Greg Ellis arrived at the shelter for a volunteer media event. It tweaked Coleman’s awareness. He remembered who and where he was. But he didn’t like it.

The next day he went into the shelter’s kitchen, opened a three-quart bottle of bleach and guzzled it almost empty.

“I had given up hope and just wanted to die,” Coleman says. “I didn’t want to try anymore.”

Miraculously — again — the suicide attempt failed. Coleman became violently ill, repeatedly throwing up and screaming for hours from the pain throughout his chest, throat and eyes. To coat and soothe Coleman’s agony, a fellow resident handed him a jug of milk. In doing so, the Good Samaritan also recognized Coleman from a recent TV news segment about his family’s search.

“Hey!” the man told Coleman, “you know your family is looking for you, right?”

After the burning subsided, Coleman, after 10 days AWOL, walked home as casually as he left.

“I don’t wanna do this to you anymore,” he cried to Swanson. “I’m tired of the ups and downs. I’ve got to get help.”

Says Swanson, “That one really scared him.”

The next day, longtime friend/sometime agent Chris Randolph used a personal connection to get Coleman admitted as a psychiatric patient at Zale Lipshy University Hospital at Dallas’ UT Southwestern Medical Center. For the next six days, Coleman was under the care of Dr. Edward Clark, who diagnosed the player's various illnesses and prescribed and provided the long-needed medications to subdue the symptoms.

“He put me at ease about being manic and all the other stuff,” Coleman says. “I got my will to live back.”

Swanson, who handles the couple’s finances and paperwork, isn’t sure who paid the bulk of the $6,000 hospital bill (only $540 remains due). Perhaps Zale Lipshy. Or maybe the NFL’s Player Trust, another organization under the sprawling league umbrella designed to support alumni.

The trust assigned social worker/program director Mykal Johnson to handle Coleman’s case. He has helped Swanson navigate the available options, and she landed grants from the Gene Upshaw Foundation and the Gridiron Greats Foundation that are paying for Coleman’s medications.

“We’ve had his meds right for a while now,” she says. “We’re good for another six to seven months. For us, this is a good place.”

Not that it’s a perfect place.

Last February, Coleman briefly disappeared again, this time, wearing shorts and flip-flops. He says he got lost on the way home from lunch with former teammates. He walked for miles over three days before arriving safely home.

He had no idea where he left the car, and Swanson had to use GPS to locate it at a church less than a mile from home.

“Black holes,” she says. “Meds or not, it’s going to be part of who he is.”

click to enlarge Lincoln Coleman talks with Cowboys fans at a speaking engagement in Dallas - MARK GRAHAM
Lincoln Coleman talks with Cowboys fans at a speaking engagement in Dallas
Mark Graham
Glimmers of Hope
Drinking a beer probably isn’t the best choice for Coleman these days. But it’s a long way from bleach.

And on this occasion at the July 21 launch of the new Dallas Texas Dallas Cowboys Fan Club at Bar Louie in Arlington, there is relative reason to celebrate.

Coleman and Swanson met the founders of the organization at an appearance by current Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, then fostered the relationship to the point where he has become the group’s star paid attraction. On this night, Lincoln arrives to cheers. He is big. Bold. Boisterous. Lapping up the limelight.

He looks much more like the bully back who cratered Oliver on Thanksgiving and nothing like the hopeless homeless man who lived in an SUV in Florida. He signs autographs. Poses for photos. Downs his beer. He gets on stage to lead cheers and draw winning raffle tickets.

While the fan club launches, he is unveiling Lincoln Coleman 2.0.

“This is so great for him,” Swanson says, beaming.

Says Lincoln, “This isn’t for me. This is for [Maria]. I’ve been absolutely horrible to her emotionally. I just want her to see that all her work was worth it. I’m still a person with some value. I want to make my angel proud.”

The event, which ends around 1 a.m., doesn’t come without a price. Coleman’s body and mind are not equipped for such stimulation. The following two days, he doesn’t leave the house and barely gets out of bed.

“With him, it’s always going to be ‘What’s today like?’” Waynita says. “But he’s a good man at heart, and I pray and pray that he’s going to be OK for good this time.”

click to enlarge Lincoln Coleman chats with a fan. - MARK GRAHAM
Lincoln Coleman chats with a fan.
Mark Graham
Despite the adversity, Coleman's travails have pulled his family closer. His two brothers, whom he lovingly describes as “Neanderthals,” are now more understanding of shared feelings.

“The family has endured so much hurt through all this,” Waynita says. “I know Lincoln’s in pain. I can see it in his face. The last few months have been wonderful. But we all understand we’ve got to be prepared for more ups and downs.”

Citing the sport’s obvious dangers, she refuses to give her blessing to her three grandchildren playing football.

“It’s not safe,” she says. “But they want to play football like Lincoln did. Every boy around here wants to grow up to be a Cowboy. I just wish that team did a better job of taking care of its own.”

While Coleman and Swanson rarely leave the house — though they were giddy at being able to walk to Shakespeare in the Park last month — they do have a plan. Even if it’s a Hail Mary.

The imminent hope is for more paid gigs similar to the recent National Fantasy Football Convention in Fort Worth and his next appearance (Sept. 14 at Bar Louie) with the DTDCFC. The ultimate dream is a return to the Cowboys.

Through a mutual connection, Coleman is assured his phone number was relayed to his old Arena Football League cohort Will McClay, who once coached the Dallas Desperados but has since risen to assistant director of player personnel for the Cowboys.

“I’d do anything,” says Coleman, now 48. “Work in the scouting department. Work with the running backs. Shoot, I’d work for free. Just to be involved again.”

Jerry Jones signed Coleman to the 1993 championship team. Head coach Jason Garrett was a teammate. Same with defensive line coach Lett and volunteer coach Charles Haley, who regularly calls Waynita with motivational Bible verses to help her cope another day with her son’s struggles.

Despite an adoring fiancée, growing support group and twinkle in his eye for anything football, Coleman has no steady income. No car. No insurance. No reasonable expectation of landing a traditional job. No guarantee that his psychotic demons won’t someday return, or that the life-changing check from the NFL will ever arrive.

Lincoln Coleman is in trouble.

This time, 25 years later, it’s the Cowboys' turn to help him.