01:00 AM EDT on Sunday, October 22, 2006
Liam Coen's life forever changed the day his mother committed suicide in their North Providence home.
It was last January, and he was just a couple of months removed from ending his first season as the starting quarterback at the University of Massachusetts, home on semester break. He was 20.
On the surface, he was leading a storybook life, throwing passes in college football games, becoming one of the best young quarterbacks in the northeast, living the life he always had dreamed about as a kid in South Kingstown when he came of age following his father's teams.
In truth, it was more complicated than that.
He had become one of three people in a family drama that was turning into a tragedy.
A decade earlier, his mother, Beth, had contacted Lyme disease, which had gradually sent her spiraling into a personal hell. Once, she had run marathons, prided herself on having many interests. Now she couldn't do anything, descending into a depression that came to define her life.
Ultimately, she couldn't work anymore as a teacher at South Kingstown High School. She couldn't read. She couldn't run. She couldn't do any of the things she had always loved to do. She really couldn't do anything. Mostly, she stayed in her room in the dark taking pain medications, retreating into her pain and the darkness, shutting everyone out.
Once, she had been Liam's biggest fan, her life revolving around him and his career, football being the centerpiece of her family's life. She was the wife of a football coach, Liam was her only child, football was the family game.
Liam went to La Salle so he could play for his father. The family moved from South Kingstown to North Providence so Liam could be closer to his new school, new friends. The goal was to give Liam the best high school football experience he could have, to one day have the chance to play in college, the dream that had become like a family quest.
Then Beth Coen got sick, and everything changed.
"We had such a bond," says Liam. "We had been so tight. Now it was all strained. I couldn't even have a conversation with her. I couldn't deal with it. It wasn't my Mom."
Liam Coen had a storybook career at La Salle, one of the most recruited football players in recent Rhode Island history. And when the smoke cleared, he went to UMass essentially because Boston College didn't take him, and UMass coach Mark Whipple said it would be the perfect offense for him. Coen was red-shirted the first year, and then quickly became the starter shortly into his second season, ending up completing 63 percent of his passes.
Then came a night last January when it seemed his family was imploding around him. His father was in the hospital with what was to believed to be heart congestion. The tension between his parents was palpable. And he was on the phone with his mother.
"It was the first time I had had a real conversation with her in a long time," he says. "She was bawling her eyes out the whole time. It was like I was the parent and she was the kid. It was like our roles were reversed. She said she felt terrible and I kept trying to build her up, [saying] that we could go to family counseling, that we could get through this. She kept asking me if I still loved her. She kept asking me if I was all right. It was the best conversation I had with her in two years."
Beth Coen was found dead in her room the next morning, a neighbor finding a bottle of Vicodin beside the bed.
She was 46.
"I was scared to death about what was going to happen to Liam," says Tim Coen. "He was so scarred."
Liam Coen had help getting through those first few days, no question about that. The wake was an outpouring of support and affection for him and his father. His Rhode Island friends. His UMass teammates and coaches. His relatives. His world circling around him, propping him up, teammates in the best sense of the word.
"But it wasn't like her death came out of the blue," Liam says. "I think the three of us were in this horrible family struggle, and no one knew a way to get out of it."
It's now nine months later, and Liam Coen is in the middle of the football season of his life. He is the highest percentage passer in 1-AA in the country, with a 69 percent completion rate. Last week he threw five touchdowns against Towson State, tying the UMass school record. Yesterday, he was 14 for 19 and threw for two touchdowns as UMass rolled over URI.
"I couldn't have written this any better," he says. "Pro football was never the goal. It was always to get to college and play college football. This is my dream right here."
And how does he deal with the loss of his mother?
"I don't talk about it much," he says. "When I feel it come over me, I tear up for a few minutes, then it passes. If I think about it all the time, I can't do the things it takes for me to be successful.
He believes he had only two ways to deal with with his mother's death: let it crush him emotionally, or tuck it away in some private place and move on with his life.
And he's come to believe that his mother killed herself for a reason, took her life so that he and his father could have theirs back. Has come to believe that that last phone conversation was his mother's way of making things right between them, regardless of what happened to her. Her way of apologizing, even if he knew it wasn't her fault, that her illness had turned her into someone else.
"I see it as a sign," he says.
For Liam Coen's come to believe in such things in ways he never did before, in signs and spirituality, in love that doesn't stop just because someone's not around anymore, in a bond as old as time itself. So he has "Mom" written on the little strips of black tape he wears under his eyes during games. And every time he throws a touchdown he points a finger skyward, what he calls "a little point."
A little point for his mother, whose presence he feels watching over this dream season of his, the one he's been preparing for all his life.
Once, she ran marathons...
Once, she ran marathons...