Flashback: Paul Coffman fought hard for NFL chance
Paul Coffman empathizes with the Green Bay Packers free agents and rookies at this time of training camp.
The countdown is on to finalize the final 53-man roster. Jobs and careers are on the line. The pressure on players is intense.
Coffman, the former Packers’ Pro Bowl tight end from 1978-’85, knows the scenario all too well. He shared his story at a charity golf outing benefiting Junior Achievement last Thursday in Eau Claire.
In 1978, Coffman was a rookie free agent from Kansas State, trying to crack the Packers’ 45-man roster under head coach Bart Starr.
“I didn’t have an agent and back then there was no NFL combine,” Coffman said. “Coaches had to go out to the schools and see players and work them out.”
John Meyer, Green Bay’s linebacker coach at the time, flew to Kansas to work out Coffman’s roommate, All-American middle linebacker Gary Spani. “Gary asked if I could go through the workout, which was held indoors,” Coffman said. “So I did, but Gary couldn’t throw very well, so on some balls I was diving into the bleachers.”
Coffman said he heard the story later on how he was invited Packers’ training camp, which Green Bay entered with just three tight ends.
“They needed more bodies, so Bart asked if there were any other tight ends that they had worked out,” Coffman explained. “Meyer said, ‘Yeah, Paul Coffman at Kansas State. He won’t make the team, but he won’t embarrass us either.’”
The 6-foot-3, 222-pound receiver barely passed his team physical due to elbow surgeries that didn’t allow him to fully extend his arms.
“That was stressful, just waiting around with other players to see if we passed — some did, some didn’t,” Coffman said. “I was the fifth tight end on the depth chart. With jersey No. 94, I wasn’t expected to be around long.”
Coffman did the only thing the Chase, Kansas, native (600 residents) could: he worked as hard as humanly possible in the weight room, practice field, and during preseason games to show he belonged.
“I wasn’t the fastest or biggest or strongest, but they can’t measure what’s in here,” said Coffman, tapping his chest. “Heart. My favorite player was Walter Payton, who gave it his all in games and practices and running hills. I liked his drive and determination.”
Coffman moved up the depth chart during camp with his consistent play and work ethic, but there was one problem: he was losing weight and tipped the scales at 212 at one point. But he had a solution.
“I knew I’d be in trouble if I dropped under 215 pounds,” Coffman said. “So I stuck a five-pound weight in my jock and wore a bigger pair of shorts when I stepped on the scale.”
Coffman sweated out final cuts, but he made the roster as backup to starter Rich McGeorge and as a core special teams player.
“I was elated — one of the highlights of my career,” he said. “To be a Green Bay Packer, to make it in the NFL as an undrafted free agent.”
He only saw action on special teams in 1978 and recorded no receiving statistics, but broke out in 1979 and replaced McGeorge as the starter.
Coffman became the favorite target of quarterback David Whitehurst, and set a then tight end franchise record with 56 receptions for 711 yards and four touchdowns. Future Hall of Famer James Lofton caught 52 passes for 968 yards and four scores.
With Lynn Dickey returning from injury in 1980, the Packers offense developed into one of the league’s most prolific aerial attacks in the ensuing years. The problem was while the offense put up points, the Green Bay defense had troubling stopping the opposition.
Green Bay finished 5-3-1 in the strike-shortened 1982 season and won a playoff game at Lambeau Field over the St. Louis Cardinals, 41-16, for the first time since the famed Ice Bowl. The Packers lost, 37-26, in Dallas the following week.
Those would be the only postseason appearances in Coffman’s eight-year tenure. He developed into one of the best tight ends in the game and earned Pro Bowl honors three times (1982-’84).
“You just have to give it everything you have,” Coffman said. “I was very fortunate to be a Green Bay Packer. Coach Lombardi had a saying, ‘Winning isn’t a something, it’s an all-the-time thing.’ It doesn’t mean that we’re going to win every time or we’re going to be successful every time.
“What coach Lombardi was talking about is to form winning habits. Do the little things that grow into big things. I was told once that excuses are like rear ends: we all have them and they all stink.
“You ask, what can I do to make the team better? Do I need to block? Do I need to catch passes? Do you need me to run down on kickoffs? The more you can do, the longer you can stay around in the NFL.”
After Starr was relieved of his head coaching duties following the disappointing 8-8 1983 season, Coffman continued to be productive under Forrest Gregg with 43 receptions (562 yards, nine TDs) in 1984 and 49 catches (666 yards, six TDs) in 1985.
“Things were different under Gregg, who was very vocal and told us that he was looking for better players,” Coffman said. “Lynn and I were cut on the same day of camp in 1986.”
The duo drove to Dickey’s home to retrieve his playbook to turn it in, but on the drive back to the Packers offices were stopped by local police for speeding. “Lynn told the officer what had happened and they let us go,” Coffman said. “They got on the radio and couldn’t believe it.”
Coffman played two seasons in Kansas City before finishing his career in 1988 with Minnesota, where he did not record a receiving stat. He finished with 322 receptions for 4,223 yards and 39 touchdowns in a Packers uniform. Coffman added 17 catches, 117 yards, and three touchdowns in his final three seasons.
He was inducted in the Packers Hall of Fame in 1994.
“When we’re home, we’re fathers, we’re husbands, we’re business people,” said Coffman, 61, who has been married for 32 years and has four children, including his son, Chase, an eight-year NFL veteran.
“When we come back to Wisconsin, we get to be Green Bay Packers again. That’s pretty cool and I enjoy coming back and reminiscing with Packers fans.”
PAUL COFFMAN FILE
College: Kansas State.
Packers years: 1978-’85.
Jersey No.: 82.
Packers highlights: Former free agent who still holds the franchise career records for tight ends with 322 catches for 4,223 yards and 39 TDs in eight seasons. Played on the 1982 NFC Central Division-winning team featuring one of NFL’s top-rated passing offenses. Recorded career-best 56 receptions in 1979 and set team season records in yards (814) and TDs (11) in 1983. Earned Pro Bowl honors three times: 1982-’84. Inducted into Packers Hall of Fame in 1994.
Other teams: Chiefs, 1986-’87; Vikings, 1988.
Residence: Peculiar, Mo.
Occupation: Salesman for Meyer Labs; motivational speaker.
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