AUBURN – Josiah Greene never has been one to get caught up in all the hype surrounding college football recruiting, but this year, the College of Ag animal sciences major and ardent Auburn fan got hooked.
From his U.S. Army Reserve quarters at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, Greene cruised the Internet almost daily in the months and weeks leading up to national signing day 2010, keeping up with the latest rumors on which high-school football standouts were leaning toward Auburn.
“It was a way for me to connect to home,” says Greene, who, as a soldier in the Reserve’s Battle Group Med Falcon unit, was a good 5,500 miles from his Auburn home on a nine-month peacekeeping mission. “I didn’t feel so far away.”
Near the end of recruiting season, Greene started following five-star recruit Shon Coleman of Olive Branch, Miss. The 6-foot 7-inch, 285-pound Coleman – rated by top college-football-recruiting authorities at Rivals.com as the No. 1 recruit from the state of Mississippi and the third-best offensive tackle in the nation – had verbally committed to Auburn in April 2009, but a stellar senior season as a lineman for the Olive Branch Conquistadors upped his stock significantly. As Feb. 3 and national signing day approached, the Web was abuzz with reports that Coleman was ditching Auburn for Miami, Ole Miss, even Alabama.
When, on the big day, Coleman honored his commitment and officially signed with Auburn, Greene let go a mighty “War Eagle” into the Kosovo night. And to think, by the time Coleman and the rest of Auburn’s highly ranked class of signees made their debut at Jordan-Hare to the roar of 87,000 fans, he’d be among those roaring.
“Something like that, it gave me a lot to keep my head up for, to work hard and finish my job – as a radiology specialist at Camp Bondsteel’s hospital – so I could come home and be a part of it all in 2010,” says Greene, 25, a sergeant in the Reserve.
In late July, he and his unit wrapped up their mission in Kosovo, and Greene returned safely to his family and friends in Auburn. He’s back in school this semester, three credit hours shy of his junior year in animal sciences’ production track. “I’ve had to take off a couple of semesters because of Army training,” he says.
For a huge all-sports fan like Greene, Auburn’s 2010 football season couldn’t get here fast enough. But his favorite new player Coleman is not in the lineup – not this season, anyway. Less than two months after he signed with Auburn, Coleman was diagnosed with leukemia.
It was in mid-March, and De Keisha Tunstall had taken her seemingly healthy 18-year-old son to a doctor to have a lump on his chest and another on his head removed.
“The one on his head bothered him when he’d put on his helmet,” she says. “We were taking care of that, getting him ready to go to Auburn.”
Tests results delivered the tragic news that the knots were symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Coleman was admitted to St. Jude Children’s Hospital in nearby Memphis. He already had a couple of chemotherapy treatments behind him by the time word of his diagnosis got out.
In Kosovo, Greene was stunned when he came across the news online, and his heart went out to Coleman and his family. But he wanted to do something that would let Coleman know members of his newly acquired Auburn family were behind him 110 percent.
His first move was to honor Coleman by carrying an orange-and-blue Auburn flag with “Shon Coleman” written on it on a 26-km, Royal Danish Army-sponsored unity march through the Kosovo countryside. He also wore a specially designed patch with Coleman’s name, the image of a lineman in his stance and a yellow ribbon dangling from the interlocking AU. The five other soldiers from his unit on the march wore the patches on their sleeves, too.
“None of them had any affiliation with Auburn, but they wanted to step up and show their support for not just Shon but others with cancer,” says Greene, who sent the patch he wore to Coleman.
The second thing Greene did was establish a fund – the Shon Coleman Tribute Fund – at St. Jude, with all donations to go toward cancer research at the world-class hospital.
“I felt like it would be a small gesture of support for a brother in need,” Greene says. “And I hoped it would be a way to get the Auburn family back home involved.”
As soon as the fund was in place, Greene e-mailed family and friends about it and posted it on Auburn message boards, and by the first day’s end, the fund had topped $2,000. Greene was so enthused he sent another e-mail promoting the fund, this one to ESPN The Magazine’s senior writer, Bruce Feldman.
“I thought maybe with some bigger exposure to not just SEC rival fans but fans of college football around the nation we could make a huge, huge impact for children fighting against this terrible disease,” Greene wrote.
So in his April 29 blog, Feldman wrote about Greene and Coleman and the tribute fund, and donations from across the United States rolled in, pushing the fund past its original goal of $10,000. By the time Greene landed back in the States July 18, the fund stood at $16,196. As of Sept. 18, more than $20,000 has been raised. So far, 329 people from 21 states have contributed. Greene doesn’t plan to let things fizzle out, either. The current goal is $30,000, but Greene is perfectly willing to keep bumping that goal higher.
Before he set up the fund, Greene got Tunstall’s OK via a Facebook message. “I teared up,” Coleman’s mother says. “What a sweet and generous thing to do.”
When she told Coleman what an Auburn student deployed in Kosovo was about to do, “he said, ‘are you serious?’ He’s very touched by what Josiah’s done.”
As for Coleman, his progress has been nothing short of amazing. He started phase one of chemo the last week in March and 15 days later tested 100-percent cancer free. He finished the second phase of chemo in July and has begun phase three, which entails lower dosages of chemo for 120 weeks.
“Shon has taken it all like a champ,” Tunstall says. “He hasn’t lost any of his hair and has lost only a little weight.” On May 16, the Auburn signee graduated from high school with his class. Tunstall says Coleman intends to start classes at Auburn in January if his doctor gives the OK. His sister, Sha’ona, also a 2010 high-school graduate, plans to enroll at Auburn as well. “He will be down on the Plains in no time,” his mother says, “and I can’t wait to personally thank everyone who prayed healing onto my son.”
Though Greene may have set up the fund, he says he didn’t do anything but get the ball rolling. “It was the hearts of people back home that kept it rolling and that keep it rolling today,” he says.
Greene finally met Coleman and his family in person at the Auburn-Clemson game Sept. 18. Greene presented Coleman with a U.S. flag that flew over Camp Bondsteel and the medal that Josiah and others received for establishing a march in Coleman’s honor. “It was just a like a little family reunion right there outside the stadium,” Greene said. “They are such good people and positive people and that rubs right off on you when you’re around them.”
Tax-deductible donations to the Shon Coleman Tribute Fund can be made online at http://stj.convio.net/goto/wareagleshon.
(Written by Jamie Creamer.)