FOXBORO — Jim Fleming remembers the first time he saw Isaiah Coulter in Kingston.
The freshman was running on the University of Rhode Island’s practice field. He didn't have the typical look of a player at this level of college football. He ran with the kind of smoothness and athleticism that you see at a high-major collegiate football program.
“So, Isaiah shows up and walked on the field and I remember very clearly sitting there, commenting to one of the coaches on the field after he started moving,” said Fleming, URI’s head coach. “I said, ‘That's what they look like in Florida State as freshmen and that guy will be a pro player.’ You know, he just had that glide. He had that kind of speed and that kind of movement skills.”
Then there was the freshman’s first game for the Rams. They opened the 2017 season at Central Michigan, which played in the higher Division I FBS level. Fleming had another premonition about his new wide receiver.
“I said the first time that that kid's going to touch the ball, he’s going to score a touchdown,” Fleming said. “And I think he proved me right. Like he caught a little head screen or something like that and took it a long distance for a touchdown.”
Fleming was right. Coulter caught one pass that day and took it 56 yards for a touchdown. Three years later, the longtime coach was proved right again. In 2020, Coulter became the first URI player to be selected in the NFL Draft since 1986, when the Houston Texans drafted Bob White in the fifth round, 171st overall.
Three years later, Coulter is still living his NFL dream. Last week, the Chicago Bears signed the receiver to their 53-man roster. He’ll be in Foxboro when the Patriots host the Bears on Monday night and will have the chance to record his first NFL catch just miles away from the Kingston campus.
“It would mean a lot,” Coulter said. “Knowing that I went to school not too far from there. I know a couple of my teammates from Rhode Island will be watching the game. It would be really cool.”
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URI was in the cards for Coulter
It wasn’t an accident that Coulter ended up at URI. In fact, it wasn’t hard to recruit the talented receiver at all. At the time, Coulter’s cousin, Aaron Parker, was already on the football team. The two cousins were close and grew up together. Their family wanted them to go to the same college.
“My senior year, he was always in my ear talking about it — even though I had other offers,” Coulter said. “It was like, ‘Come out here and we can ball together.’ That’s how we did it. It was more comfortable for me like that — knowing somebody and knowing what he went through. We went ahead and got it done.”
Parker and Coulter were under-recruited out of Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, Maryland. They both turned into stars for URI. Parker became the second player in Rhode Island history to hit 3,000 career receiving yards. As a junior, Coulter finished with 72 catches for 1,039 yards and eight touchdowns.
NFL scouts were impressed with his nine-catch, 152-yard performance at Virginia Tech. Coulter looked as if he belonged on that field that day and it played a part in him declaring for the NFL Draft a year early as a junior. To make his story even more remarkable, Coulter, Parker and teammate Kyle Murphy all participated and represented URI in the 2019 NFL Combine.
“He’s a tremendously competitive 100% ball guy that really benefited from some guidance from Aaron just in terms of toughness and physicality,” Fleming said. “Shoot, the rest is history.”
Although Fleming thought Coulter should have returned to Kingston for his senior year, the choice actually saved Coulter from having to wait multiple years to live his NFL dream. COVID-19 ultimately ruined URI’s season in 2020. Had Coulter not declared early, it likely would have set his NFL dream back multiple years.
“I think that at the end of the day, God was looking out for him,” Fleming said. “Because if he had stayed and not declared that year, he would have had to wait all the way until COVID spring and then COVID fall, so he’d be two years behind right now.”
“It’s crazy. I think about it a lot, actually,” Coulter said. “Knowing what all went down. I went to the Combine and two weeks later, maybe a week later, COVID kind of happened and everybody’s Pro Days got canceled. It was timing, a little bit of luck. It was crazy how it all happened. I kind of took a leap of faith and bet on myself — 'Go ahead, go with it and don’t look back.' "
Life in the NFL is hard.
In 2020, Coulter started his rookie season on injured reserve. He rejoined the Texans in October and played in one game that season. That year, the head coach and general manager who drafted him, Bill O’Brien, was fired. Coulter was released the next summer.
That’s not unusual. Coulter was a fifth-round pick and the Texan’s new regime decided to part ways with the receiver. That's how he landed in Chicago. The Bears were one of the teams in 2019 that met with Coulter multiple times during the predraft process. Chicago’s front office hadn't forgotten about the receiver and signed Coulter to its practice squad last season.
Over the last three years, Coulter has focused on his mental health. He made sure to have a positive mindset.
“Really, just having to fight through the ups and the downs, the trials and tribulations — being strong-minded,” Coulter said. "Of course, I had to learn a new system and things like that. Really working on my mental and making sure my mental is sharp and just believing in myself. Knowing I can only control what I can, so not worrying about things I can’t. Really just that — my mental and locking in on what I can control.
Coulter was elevated to the game-day roster twice last season, and played 15 offensive snaps and saw one target. The receiver is still searching for his first NFL reception. The hope is that it will happen soon. During the summer, it started to click. Coulter led the Bears in the preseason with eight receptions for 112 yards.
Although he started this fall on its practice squad, the team signed him to the 53-man roster on Tuesday.
“It definitely means a lot,” Coulter said. “It’s real cool and I’m real humbled and honored that they moved me up. I’m excited. I want to help the team out in any way I can. I’m ready to get to working and get some [wins].”
Making a difference
The University of Rhode Island football program changed for the better in part because of Coulter.
He was not only the first Rams player to be drafted since 1986 but the first URI alumnus to appear on a regular-season NFL roster since Tyler Catalina in 2017. Coulter showed high school kids all over the country that they could join Fleming’s program and land in the NFL.
Since Coulter entered the league, Fleming has had an easier time getting recruits and transfers to join his program.
For Coulter, it’s special that he played a part in helping the Rams. He looks back at his time in college fondly and is grateful for his roots.
“It’s an honor, to be honest,” Coulter said. “Just knowing that we can help out with the accomplishments that we had, the success we had down there, it’s great. I’m grateful to be a part of the Rhode Island Rams.”
Now, he presses on. It’s not easy to make it in the NFL, especially as a fifth-round pick from the University of Rhode Island. Coulter, however, has grown up a lot over the last three seasons. Now, he looks to add to his and his school’s legacy.
“Just playing with that chip on my shoulder, not being the first guy that was picked, being counted out,” Coulter said. “It’s been having that chip on my shoulder, continuing to keep pressing and keep going forward. If it doesn’t work one time, you’ve got to keep getting up and keep getting going.”
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: URI football's Isaiah Coulter will face Patriots as a Chicago Bear