PHOENIX — Before his former Louisiana-Lafayette teammate nearly died, before his buddy began a long, slow, painful recovery after getting ambushed in Afghanistan, Jonathan Lucroy figures he was like a lot of folks.
“I was one of those dumb Americans that kind of took everything for granted,” the Milwaukee Brewers catcher said. “And all of a sudden, something personal happens like that. One of your best friends and your college roommate, a guy you played with, a guy you’re tight with, all of a sudden gets shot, nearly dies and comes back.
“You start realizing, those guys are over there doing that every day. Every single day.”
John Coker Jr. is the reason Lucroy wears camouflage on his cleats. It’s why the 2014 All-Star volunteers countless hours to support the troops. It’s why he attended President Barack Obama’s State of the Union this year, sitting with wounded veterans.
“He’s been through a lot,” Lucroy said of his friend.
Before Coker was awarded a Purple Heart, he was the speedy, 5-foot-8 fireplug of the Ragin’ Cajuns for two seasons a decade ago. Coach Tony Robichaux vividly remembers his signature moment: running full speed, head-first into the center-field wall to make a catch in 2005.
“It was a hot day and it was almost like an outline was left on the wall,” Robichaux said. “So many people remember that play as being one of the best catches they’ve ever seen here.”
Coker also left a different mark. He was the happy-go-lucky kid from Oklahoma who was everybody’s friend. He became close with the under-recruited Florida prospect who roomed with him his freshman year, long before he became one of Major League Baseball’s top catchers.
“He always had a smile on his face,” Robichaux said. “He could go 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, and John Coker was still happy. When he went to serve and was injured, you could understand why his former players stood up so fast.”
A sergeant in the Oklahoma National Guard, Coker, then 28, was manning a machine gun in Afghanistan in September 2011 when his sniper team was attacked. It happened shortly after they had taken off their body armor.
The firefight left three Americans dead. Two, including Coker, were severely wounded. He nearly bled to death before being rescued.
Coker was shot in both legs and his pelvis. One leg was crushed.
“I do not have any direct feeling from my knee down due to the sciatic nerve being struck during contact,” Coker explained in an email. “I have drop foot in which I am maintaining muscle training both physically and mentally to expedite nerve regeneration. So as of now I walk with a limp, but it is OK because I am here.”
There’s still a bullet inside his body that occasionally moves around and causes pain. A titanium rod runs from his hip to his knee to replace the shattered femur. He takes medication to alleviate fluid buildup. He still needs regular blood transfusions at the Oklahoma City VA hospital.
Through it all, he’s going to pharmacy school while doing most of his rehab at his home in Moore, Oklahoma, with his wife and young child.
What fuels him is the support he gets from his former Ragin’ Cajuns teammates. That includes Lucroy, who in between leading the major leagues with 53 doubles last season checked in with Coker at least once a week.
“You know you always have that brotherhood while playing,” Coker said. “And after years have passed losing contact with most, it still quivers the heart knowing once again that you are in the trench and they are right there with you.
“The guys have really kept me motivated throughout therapy, keeping me going, most importantly driving me to maintain a positive outlook on things whenever I get depressed.”
As Lucroy has taken over as the face of the Brewers following Ryan Braun’s drug suspension, he has used his fame to raise awareness for veteran causes.
He visits them in hospitals. He brings veterans to Brewers games. He raises funds for Milwaukee’s Fisher House, which provides military families free housing when loved ones are being treated at VA hospitals.
“Not only to help them, but help their families as well,” Lucroy said. “You do what you can to distract them from their issues, their problems. A lot of those guys bring that stuff back with them.”
Coker recalls several key moments in his recovery. One was last fall, when Lucroy brought Coker to Washington on the Wisconsin Honor Flight with World War II and Korean War veterans.
Another was a couple of years ago when he returned to Lafayette. Robichaux invited him to throw out the first pitch before a game. They even played his old walkout music.
“He made a big impact on our players that day,” Robichaux said. “He took those wind pants off and showed the fragments and the bullets and the marks.”
Coker’s lasting effect on the program? Just watch the team line up for the national anthem before a game.
“There’s no shrugging of the shoulders or looking to the left or right, talking, whispering,” Robichaux said. “People fight for our freedom and die for our freedom. They do that so we can play baseball.”
Robichaux has been in charge in Lafayette for 21 years. A gem in his career that recently reached 1,000 wins is Lucroy, who hit .301 a year ago for the Brewers in his best pro season.
Lucroy, Milwaukee’s third-round pick in 2007, is fiercely loyal to the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship. He lives in Lafayette in the offseason, his daughter goes to school there and he works out with the team before heading to spring training.
The hard work and dedication — “Proving people wrong is something I like to do,” Lucroy said — has made him a feared hitter and one of the best pitch-framers in baseball.
“What Luc does back there, if they can steal pitches at times, it changes a ballgame,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “It’s really important what he does.”
The no-nonsense 28-year-old doesn’t have time for messing around and small talk, though. There’s his family, baseball and the causes that are important to him.
Want to just chat away at his locker? Not going to happen. Interested in talking about veterans? Lucroy finds the time, including his attendance at the State of the Union.
“It was very humbling for me,” Lucroy said. “They were saying, ‘You’re a baseball player!’ I said, ‘What are you talking to me for?’ I’m just a stupid baseball player. Why don’t you talk to these guys here who are missing limbs in wheelchairs? One guy had half his face blown off. Come on, dude; I’m not worth it.”
Coker begs to differ — especially on those bad days, when the rehab was exhausting, the pain intense and he needed a lift.
“I believe I speak for all veterans when I say how thankful we are for all he has contributed,” Coker said, “and how he has sacrificed time away from his loved ones to make our day or that moment better for us.”