- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

THIBODAUX, La. (AP) - Thibodaux High senior Dwayne Coleman has played football most of his life. As a starting linebacker for the Tigers, he has participated in many important football games in front of thousands of spectators.

But one person who has never seen him play is his mother, Jennifer Coleman.

That changed during Thibodaux’s football jamboree game against Assumption recently when Jennifer got to watch her son play for the first time.

Jennifer, a 40-year-old Thibodaux native, spent the last 15 years in prison due on second-degree aggravated battery and kidnapping charges. Dwayne, 17, was only 3 when his mother went to prison.

As she walked up to Thibodaux High’s football stadium for the first time, Jennifer said she was overjoyed to get to watch her son play football.

“It’s very special. I’m over-excited,” she said. “I’m probably going to cry. I’m really out here. This is really happening. It’s been a really long time, and I can’t believe I’m really out here. He was only 3 when I left. So now that it’s his very last year, I’m just happy to be out here to see him play.”

Dwayne, a key senior leader and potential college football recruit for Thibodaux, said he could barely contain his emotions before the game. He has waited all his life to see his mom attend one of his football games. With it finally taking place, he said it felt like he was in a movie.

“It just felt weird. It just couldn’t believe it,” said Dwayne, who led his team with 95 tackles last year. “It just don’t feel real at all. I know she was excited to be here. Words can’t explain it. It was emotional.”

Jennifer, a mother of four, was scheduled to complete her prison sentence next year but was released early on June 30. Now she’s taking advantage of it by catching up on missed time with family.

“It was a mistake,” she said. “It was just like being in the wrong place at the wrong time and following the wrong people, but I’m sorry for the mistakes I made. I’ve learned a lot from my experience.”

While she was serving her prison sentence, Jennifer said, she heard about her son’s success in football from family and friends, which was tough to swallow since she couldn’t see him play.

“It hurt real bad. I still cry about it, but I’m here to support him now. I’m so proud of him,” Jennifer said. “I’m glad he’s still doing the right thing despite me being in prison. It’s nice that I get to see him because I wasn’t supposed to get out until next year, but God just made a way for me to come home this year to see my baby play ball. I’m really excited.”

Whenever he visited his mother in prison, Dwayne said she would advise him to stay out of trouble and focus on getting a good education.

“She always encouraged me to keep doing what I’m doing,” Dwayne said. “I was hoping that one day she could see me play, and now she’s got that chance. God is good.”

Dwayne said he could tell his mother was having the time of her life in the stands watching him play.

“I heard her. I could just tell her voice,” Dwayne said. “From that squeak in the way she screams my name, I could just tell her voice. She was happy to be there. She just couldn’t stop screaming.”

Both Jennifer and Dwayne expressed gratitude to family and friends for stepping in to take care of things while she was in prison, including his father, Wayne Morgan, uncle Henry Coleman Jr. and aunt Brenika Coleman.

Dwayne’s grandparents, Henry Coleman Sr. and Olivia Coleman, raised him. His grandfather died in a car crash March 4, 2015, and Dwayne said he plays every game in his honor.

“My grandfather meant the world to me,” Dwayne said. “He taught me how to become a man. He passed away last year on March 4. That’s why I wear the jersey No. 4, to never forget that day.”

Dwayne said the situation inspired him to take care of his family, including his 8-year-old cousin Dylan Walker, who has a hearing disorder but still plays bantam football.

“He really loves the game,” Dwayne said. “He inspires me. He really loves to watch me play and does everything I do. I love him like he’s my own child.”

After missing so many games in the past, Jennifer said she will be there, ready to support her son.

“I’m going to every last one of them. I’m not missing a game,” she said. “All I’m going to be watching is No. 4. I’m going to be the loudest one in the stands. I just hope I don’t get too carried away out here screaming too hard. I get too excited.”

And no one will be happier to see her there than Dwayne.

“Every night, I’m ready to give her something good to cheer about,” Dwayne said. “I’m extra motivated to play well for her and give it my all every night. We lost our jamboree game, but she was still happy for me. I’m just happy she was there to see me.”

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