By PAUL LETLOW
Written for the Louisiana Sports Writers Association
Raised in Bastrop, Ronnie Coleman made his mark in college as a middle linebacker from 1983-86 for Coach Eddie Robinson’s Grambling Tigers on the football field, and by graduating cum laude in accounting.
His body rippled with muscles, the product of a zest for powerlifting that was ignited at Bastrop and continued through his college years.
But there was no hint how far that passion would take him: to the status of being the Michael Jordan of bodybuilding, with a world-record eight Mr. Olympia championships; to having a Netflix documentary done about him; and now, to entering the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame this weekend in Natchitoches.
He and another Grambling hero, Tigers’ baseball ace and Monroe-Richwood High championship football coach Mackie Freeze, are among the Hall’s 11 inductees Saturday night. So are Louisiana Tech icons Phil Robertson, the world-famous outdoorsman known as the Duck Commander, and Lady Techster basketball’s Angela Turner Johnson, a star on four straight Final Four teams, two national champions in 1981 and 1982.
For more information and participation opportunities for seven LSHOF events beginning Thursday, visit LaSportsHall.com or call 318-238-4255.
Prior to entering bodybuilding, Coleman was no stranger to the weight room, dating back to his formative years at Bastrop High School.
“I started on the powerlifting team,” Coleman said. “We didn’t have but a few sports back then. Basketball, football, track and baseball. So I was on the powerlifting team when I was in high school, along with the football team and track team.
“I was pretty strong back then, pretty big also. I showed my strength and size right away. I was pretty big in elementary school. I was bigger than everybody else. I’ve been muscular my entire life.”
In college, Coleman’s sporting life focused on the football field – and the weight room. His legendary coach made sure his players were on the right path away from the game.
“(Coach Robinson) always preached family and family values and doing the right things,” said Coleman. “He used to wake us up every morning to go to class. He made sure everybody went to class. If you somehow didn’t go to class, you had to run after practice. You’d only do that one time.”
After Grambling, Coleman never left the gym, while moving to Arlington and joining the police force. It wasn’t until he met Metroflex Gym owner Brian Dobson that he truly uncovered his natural gifts.
Dobson first wanted to bring in Coleman as a workout partner but realized quickly he’d found a powerhouse prodigy.
“He had the best arms I’d ever seen in person and I’d been around the best bodybuilders in the nation at that time,” Dobson said. “He’d never been in a contest or done a real arm workout outside of football training. He didn’t know who Mr. Olympia was when I told him he could probably be Mr. Olympia.”
Coleman enjoyed early success, including a Mr. Texas win in 1990, but his emergence on a world-wide stage took longer. Although he was sometimes frustrated along the way, the thrill of competition always brought him back.
“I was pretty hooked on it my first show,” Coleman said. “I had so much fun up there on that stage. I enjoyed myself so much, even if I wasn’t winning. There were a bunch of times I didn’t win and I still had a lot of fun. Once I started winning and became No. 1 in the whole world, the feeling was so great it’s hard to describe.”
Then came more accolades, including the prestigious Mr. Universe title in 1991 and ultimately his first Mr. Olympia crown in 1998. Coleman won his eight titles consecutively through 2005, tied with Lee Haney for the longest streak in Mr. Olympia history.
Coleman’s reign ended when he lost the Mr. Olympia title to Jay Cutler in 2006. He finished fourth in 2007, his last Mr. Olympia competition.
From there, Coleman used his brains by launching a business selling his own line of bodybuilding products. The athlete’s encouraging catchphrases like “Yeah buddy!” and “Light weight baby!” became famous to his followers.
Coleman’s story reached a wider audience in in 2018, thanks to Russian filmmaker Vlad Yudin’s documentary “Ronnie Coleman: The King,” released on Netflix. This weekend, he’ll be knighted as state sports royalty.
PHOTO: Portrait by Chris Brown, Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame artist