Before there was Rob Gronkowski, there was Ben Coates.
Football experts argue Gronkowski is the best tight end in New England Patriots franchise history. On the bases of on-field performance and Super Bowl titles, Gronkowski is the undisputed winner.
However, Coates was THE tight end way before the Gronkowski era began in New England.
When Bill Parcells and Drew Bledsoe came aboard in 1993, Coates blossomed.
Coates played in five consecutive Pro Bowls from 1994 to 1998. He helped the Patriots turn their fortunes around in the mid-1990s.
No wonder Coates is the Patriots Hall of Fame.
Ben Coates’ legacy as one of the most prolific tight ends in Patriots franchise history will live on forever.
Benjamin Terrence Coates, Jr. was born to parents Ben, Sr. and Moselle in Greenwood, SC on August 16, 1969.
Coates had four sisters and three brothers. Their parents, who never finished high school, worked at the local cotton mill to make ends meet.
The ten family members lived in a three-bedroom house.
Coates told the Springfield News-Sun’s Tom Archdeacon in August 2011 he and his brothers shared one room, his sisters shared another one, and their parents stayed in the third bedroom.
He told UBS.com there wasn’t a lot of money to go around during his childhood in Western South Carolina. However, he gave his parents credit for doing their best to provide for him and his siblings.
Ben Coates was a late bloomer to the gridiron.
He didn’t play organized football until his senior year at Greenwood High School.
The unheralded Coates received just three offers from three college football programs: the Livingstone Blue Bears, Savannah State Tigers, and Johnson C. Smith Golden Bulls.
While Coates got off to a late start in football, he would go on to become one of the most prolific tight ends in New England Patriots team history.
College Days With The Livingstone Blue Bears
Ben Coates earned a scholarship at little-known Livingstone College, a historically black Christian school in Salisbury, NC.
He majored in sports management.
Coates became the first member of his family to go to college, per UBS.com.
He also excelled on the track: he was the school’s track team’s Most Improved Player as a sophomore.
Ben Coates promptly picked up where he left off on the high school gridiron.
Coates was so good he earned Livingstone College’s MVP honors in 1987, 1988, and 1990.
He could’ve racked up a fourth one had he not sat out his junior season. He played basketball in 1989 before returning to the gridiron a season later.
Coates came back with a vengeance for his senior season.
Before terrorizing NFL defenses, Ben Coates was a big problem for CIAA DBs at Livingstone pic.twitter.com/th4gS2hJsn
— HBCU Gameday (@HBCUGameday) August 27, 2016
He had 504 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on 36 receptions in 1990. He became a First-Team All-CIAA selection and Black College Sports All-American that year.
Nonetheless, pro football recruiters were oblivious to this unheralded talent who hailed from South Carolina.
They thought his lack of size and competition in the collegiate ranks were detrimental to his draft stock in the NFL.
Ben Coates proved them wrong once he set foot on the pro gridiron.
Pro Football Career
The New England Patriots made Ben Coates the 124th overall selection of the 1991 NFL Draft.
He wasn’t a big-name tight end when he entered the professional ranks.
Coates even told Archdeacon he remembered several Boston Globe writers questioning his credentials and wondering why the Patriots drafted him.
He squashed their doubts with his tremendous play with the Patriots from 1991 to 1999.
When Coates entered the National Football League in 1991, he admitted to UBS.com that he had little knowledge about money.
He started receiving checks his parents could never earn in their lifetimes. Guilt started to set in.
At this point, he wrote checks worth between $5,000 and $10,000 to many people. His financial woes would continue deep into his 10-year NFL tenure.
Coates’ pro football career got off to a slow start.
Despite suiting up all 32 games in his first two NFL seasons, he had a combined 266 receiving yards and four touchdowns during that span.
The Patriots were also the league’s laughingstock in the early 1990s: they averaged a measly four victories per year from 1991 to 1992.
When Bill Parcells took over as head coach and Drew Bledsoe became the Patriots’ starting quarterback in 1993, Ben Coates’ NFL career took off.
During Parcells’ four-year tenure as New England’s head coach from 1993 to 1996, Coates never had fewer than 659 receiving yards and six touchdowns in a season.
Happy birthday Ben Coates! Also, I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I can’t emphasize enough how great the Drew Bledsoe – Ben Coates thing was. Brady & Gronk before Brady & Gronk.
— Honest☘️Larry (@HonestLarry1) August 16, 2021
Coates blossomed into a first-rate tight end for the Patriots. He also became one of Bledsoe’s favorite targets.
Coates told the Springfield News-Sun in 2011 “there was just something with Drew” when they met for the first time in 1993.
Their amazing chemistry produced a spectacular quarterback-tight end duo that made defenses look downright silly.
Coates enjoyed a breakout season in 1994. He had 1,174 receiving yards and seven touchdowns that year.
His 96 receptions in 1994 stood as a record for tight ends for the next two decades.
Consequently, he earned the first of his five consecutive Pro Bowl berths. He also earned the first of two straight First-Team All-Pro selections in 1994.
With Coates wreaking havoc on offense, New England improved to 10-6 that year. They only won five games the year before.
The Patriots won eleven games and reached Super Bowl XXXI two years later.
Unfortunately, they lost to Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers, 35-21.
Coates had 67 yards and a touchdown on a game-high six receptions in the loss.
— John Dudley (@ForemostFives) August 16, 2017
That was the only time Ben Coates made it to the Super Bowl with New England during his nine-year tenure with the squad.
Three months after the Patriots won their fourth Super Bowl title in the 2014 NFL season, Coates expressed elation over the victory.
However, he still had regrets about not winning Super Bowl XXXI twenty-eight years earlier.
“I’m very happy for them (the 2014 Patriots),” Coates told the Greenville News‘ Willie T. Smith III. “But I wish we would have gotten (a victory) with the opportunity we had when we went to the Super Bowl.”
Despite the loss, Coates was genuinely happy for his cousin, Packers wide receiver Robert Brooks. The latter is also from Greenwood, SC.
Coates told the Greenville News in 2014 that Brooks winning a Super Bowl ring was his only consolation. The fact that he’s also from Greenwood made the win sweeter.
Coates also considered making it to Super Bowl XXXI in 1996 his fondest memory of his time in New England.
Coates didn’t let the loss deter him. He knew he would return to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy again some day.
Little did he know he’d win a Super Bowl ring with a different team five years later.
At the time of Coates’ interview with the Greenville News, the NFL suspended Patriots quarterback Tom Brady four games for his alleged involvement in the infamous “Deflategate” scandal.
Coates felt that fiasco was nothing out of the ordinary. For some reason, the Patriots are the ones who are always making headlines.
“You’ve got friends who are always bringing it up,” Coates told Smith in May 2015. “But honestly, this stuff happens all the time. It’s just that the Patriots are getting scruitinized so much.”
At this point in Ben Coates’ NFL career, he had been earning at least $3 million a year.
He told UBS.com more people asked him for more money as his salary grew each season. He not only provided for his wife and young children, but he also provided for his wife’s family members.
Coates also worked with a financial advisor who told him to limit his spending sprees.
Coates blatantly ignored his advice.
He regretted not listening to his advisor, per UBS.com.
“When you’re young, you don’t listen. You’re making all this money and you believe you’re untouchable.”
“I wish I would have listened. Ego and pride were my downfall.”
The spending sprees, bills, and expenses eventually got out of hand for Coates. He even told UBS.com that a family member lent some of his money to others behind his back.
Coates finally came to his senses after the loss to Green Bay in the Super Bowl. He began to think about his life after football.
Coates drastically cut down on his luxuries, picked his spots in terms of lending money, and prioritized wealth management so he could get his life back on track.
Ben Coates. New England Patriots. Stud. pic.twitter.com/O9NEEJa4Zz
— Honest☘️Larry (@HonestLarry1) August 16, 2021
Ben Coates continued playing at a high level for the next three seasons since that heart-breaking loss to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.
He had a combined 1,775 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns for the Patriots from 1997 to 1999.
New England averaged nine wins per season during that stretch. They couldn’t go past the AFC Divisional Round during that three-year time frame.
Ben Coates earned another accolade. He made it to the NFL’s Second-Team All-Pro roster in 1998.
The New England Patriots released Ben Coates to free up salary cap space on February 9, 2000.
He had a cap hit of $3.46 million against New England’s $64 million salary cap.
Coates signed with the Baltimore Ravens for the 2000 NFL season.
Coates was already 31 years old when he signed his deal with the Ravens. He readily admitted to UBS.com that he had slowed down and his skills had diminished at that point in his pro football career.
However, he wasn’t prepared for the sharp pay decrease.
“You have to take a pay cut to keep playing,” he told UBS.com. “You get paid a basement rate.”
Even though Coates suited up in just nine games and had the worst statistical season of his 10-year NFL career, he earned a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens.
Baltimore routed the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, 34-7.
Ben Coates was a Super Bowl champion at last. His risk of taking a massive pay cut paid off in the end.
Coates retired from the National Football League after the 2000 NFL season.
He finished his 10-year NFL career with 5,555 receiving yards and 50 touchdowns on 499 receptions.
The 6’5″, 245-lb. Coates was a durable tight end who missed just two of a possible 160 regular-season games from 1991 to 2000.
He led New England in receptions five times in six seasons. He established himself as one of the NFL’s premier tight ends for more than half a decade.
As of 2022, Coates’ 490 receptions ranks him sixth all-time in Patriots franchise history. His 50 touchdown receptions ties him with Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss for third all-time in team history behind Rob Gronkowski (79) and Stanley Morgan (67).
Coates’ 50 career touchdown receptions are also the 14th-most in NFL history.
Ben Coates and his wife Yvette have six children: Lauren, Brianna, Brittany, Destiny, Ben, Jr, and Christopher. They currently reside in Concord, N.C.
The Livingstone Athletics Hall of Fame inducted Coates in 2002.
Coates became the Livingstone Blue Bears head football coach after he retired from the National Football League.
Coates described the transition to receiving a college football coach’s salary “a culture shock,” per UBS.com.
Ben Coates hemorrhaged money again. He went through some trying times during his post-football years.
Coates served in various coaching capacities with NFL Europe, World Bowl XII, Dallas Cowboys, Cleveland Browns, Central State Marauders, and Saint Augustine’s Falcons between 2001 and 2005.
During his coaching stint with the Cowboys, Coates helped develop tight end Jason Witten.
When he coached with the Browns, he helped Kellen Winslow II improve his game.
It didn’t take long before the arduous coaching grind took its toll on Ben Coates.
Coates’ back gave out when he bent down during one of his teams’ practices. It was so painful Coates couldn’t even get up.
He had to undergo emergency hip replacement surgery. That and his previous football injuries left him no choice but to stop coaching football.
According to UBS.com, Coates had to rely on NFL disability benefits to get by financially. Fortunately, he had enough savings to pay for his children’s education.
Ben Coates has learned one valuable lesson after another from his struggles with money.
He’s hoping NFL rookies don’t make the same mistakes he made when he was a young gridiron warrior.
Coates encourages them to work on a financial plan once they secure their first NFL contract, per UBS.com.
Better yet, they should educate themselves on financial matters and develop long-term financial goals.
We are wishing Ben Coates a Happy Birthday today!
The 5x pro bowler and 2x first-team all-pro tight end helped the Patriots get to one Super Bowl and accumulated 5,471 receiving yards with the team. In 2008, Ben was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/63kPAfCGCG
— Patriots Alumni (@NEPAC) August 16, 2021
Coates became a member of the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2008.
The South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame inducted Coates seven years later.
The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) inducted Ben Coats in 2018.
The Black College Football Hall of Fame enshrined Coates in January 2022.
For all of Ben Coates’ on-field accomplishments and accolades, he’s left wondering why he’s not on the Pro Football Hall of Fame ballot.
“I wonder why,” Coates told the Talk of Fame Network broadcast (via SI.com’s Clark Judge) in April 2019. “I’m like, ‘What is going on?’ I’m (an all-) decade tight end. Been to five Pro Bowls. Two-time All-Pro (First Team). I’m like, ‘Wow, is it because I didn’t win in New England? I mean, what is it?”
Coates compared to his Pro Football Hall of Fame aspirations to getting swept under a rug: he became one of New England’s best tight ends in franchise history only to get swept under a rug for the next several decades.
Coates also felt Hall of Fame tight ends such as Mike Ditka and John Mackey’s stats and Super Bowl titles stood out during their era.
He felt he had better stats than them but had to go up against stiffer competition such as Tony Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, and Jay Novacek in the 1990s.
Coates told the Talk of Fame Network broadcast he would’ve been in the running for a gold jacket and bust in Canton had the Patriots won Super Bowl XXXI.
Alas, they didn’t.
The closest Ben Coates came to getting inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame was in the fall of 2019.
Coates became one of 122 modern-era nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020.
For now, he’s happy he had established himself as one of the premier tight ends of his era.
“Sometimes it becomes a little overwhelming,” Coates told the Talk of Fame Network. “But hey, I played to have fun. That’s great. I’m up there with the Winslows, the Newsomes, and the Sharpes.”
Coates also cringes at the fact that today’s tight ends aren’t as complete as those of his era.
“Complete tight ends,” Coates told The Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont in 2021. “They’re a thing of the past.”
Ben Coates was truly a tight end ahead of his time. Run blocking, pass catching, the man did it all for the Patriots and alongside Drew Bledsoe helped lay down the foundation of what would become the Patriot way. pic.twitter.com/LtaOqMk2Y7
— George Balekji (@GeorgeBalekji) December 17, 2021
The former Patriots tight end was known not only for his pass-catching prowess, but also his exceptional blocking abilities.
He observed today’s tight ends are more concerned about scoring points. He even compared today’s game to flag football.
Coates also observed many modern-day tight ends look like kickers – they’re completely clueless about blocking techniques, he said per The Boston Globe.
Coates told Patriots.com in the aftermath of his induction into the Patriots Hall of Fame in 2008 he still keeps in touch with Drew Bledsoe and his former New England teammates.