This is the third story in a three-part series highlighting Vanderbilt's graduating student-athletes. Check back on Monday's feature on Jacob Schultz and Tuesday's feature on Georgina Sellyn.
By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Ro Coleman would be wise to bring a box of Kleenex with him to his graduation from Vanderbilt.
“When I walk across that stage, and see that piece of paper,” Coleman said, “that’s when I might break down.”
Graduation is a rewarding accomplishment for any student-athlete. But to Coleman, it might mean a little more. The Chicago native will graduate from Vanderbilt this week with a degree in American Studies, becoming the first male in his immediate family to obtain a college degree. According to Coleman, no member of his extended family has graduated from college since 1990.
A chance to don a cap and gown is perhaps the primary reason Coleman chose to attend Vanderbilt.
“This is truly a blessing to have made it this far and get a degree from a university like Vanderbilt,” Coleman said. “I’m just trying to do better and start a trend for younger generations.”
Coleman came to Vanderbilt as a four-year starter at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy High, where he earned All-State honors after hitting .525 as a senior. Since then, Coleman has made the most of his time in Nashville. He began his senior season in 2017 as the team leader in career games played (168) and career starts (117). This season, the 5’5’’ outfielder is hitting .247 with seven RBIs for the Dores, who won two of three in their most recent SEC series against Missouri.
Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin recalls recognizing Coleman’s potential as a high school recruit. During Coleman’s sophomore season, Corbin ventured to Fort Myers, Fla. to watch Coleman’s Wisconsin-based club team, Hitters, play in a tournament. That year, Corbin says, the program was stacked with Division-I recruits. So during one practice, Corbin pulled the coach aside and asked him to pinpoint the team’s best prospect.
“He pointed at Ro at second base,” Corbin said. “I thought, okay, this guy’s fallen in love with Ro. He goes, ‘I’m telling you, it’s this kid right here.’”
The next day, Corbin returned to watch Coleman’s squad play four games. That was all the coach needed to see. “When I left I said to myself, I know why his coach said that,” Corbin said.
Coleman said once Vanderbilt began pursuing him, he “pushed all other schools aside.” He ended up committing to the Commodores the week of his official visit.
Though Coleman always had dreams of playing college baseball, leaving home was not an easy decision. He is close with his father Roynal Coleman, mother Willisa Jackson and younger brother Randal, and his family lives in a rough Chicago-area neighborhood. A move to Nashville meant an adjustment period for the normally reserved Ro: new city, new teammates, new life and immediate family no closer than a seven-hour drive.
“When I first got to Nashville, I was a little more timid towards opening up to people,” Coleman said. “As the years went on, and the more I got to know people, my communications skills got better. Vanderbilt just opened my eyes to a lot of new things.”
Added Corbin: “Ro just had to step out of the boundaries of his life. It would have been very comfortable for him to stay back and not leave. But now he’s been part of two World Series teams that went to the final game, part of a championship team, all while acquiring an education that’s steep. It’s steep for a regular student, let alone a student-athlete like him.”
Soon, Coleman found a home at Hawkins Field, a locker room full of new brothers and a coach who personifies the growth he expects from his players.
“Coach Corbin runs this program like a family,” Coleman said. “I look at him as another father figure to me. He doesn’t only help you in baseball. His main reason for you to come here is to help you develop into a young man."
Coleman hopes to continue his baseball career after he earns his degree. In 2013, the Chicago White Sox selected him in the 40th round of the Major League Baseball draft. But Coleman has managed to cultivate an interest in business during his time at Vanderbilt. He has a job lined up as an advisor with Merrill Lynch, if and when his baseball career comes to a close.
Coleman’s maturation is a particular point of pride for Corbin, who has watched dozens of student-athletes filter through his program, many in search of a direction. But few paths have been as rewarding to follow as Coleman’s own journey.
“As tough as it’s been, being here will change the trajectory of Ro’s life,” Corbin said. “He’ll always be one of the best stories we’ve had inside our program.”