The hardest part for her was knowing where she wasn't.

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HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — The hardest part for her was knowing where she wasn’t.

Cynthia Coleman missed her baby Erik’s prom, she missed his graduation, she missed sending him off to Washington State.

The hardest part for Erik Coleman was knowing where his mother was.

They slammed the bars behind her at the Geiger Corrections Facility back home, just outside Spokane. The charge was embezzling nearly $100,000 from the Social Security Administration. The sentence for Cynthia Coleman was six months in jail. The sentence for Erik Coleman was sixth months to grow up fast.

It all seems so far away now, a distant and brutal memory they try to bury and leave behind. A source of strength for a family that needed every ounce that it could muster.

A beginning for this story of redemption.

Erik Coleman starts at safety for the New York Jets. Cynthia Coleman takes classes at Spokane Community College, carrying a 3.8 grade-point average. Together, they’d like to open a community center in Spokane, to thank to the community that never turned its back on them.

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“We’ve moved on,” Cynthia Coleman said by phone this week. “We drew strength from that experience. We draw strength from each other.”

The football coach met mom at the dentist’s office to explain the missing tooth.

Erik Coleman’s football future hung there in the balance less than one month into his freshman year at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane. Mom wasn’t going to let him play. Concern seeped out of her voice.

Right away, football coach John Hook could feel the bond between the single mother and her baby, the bond they relied on four years later. And when Cynthia Coleman finally relented, Hook had found himself a football player, a leader, the kind of guy who draws a team together with humility and skill and presence.

He needed them, too, when the cops came and mom went and his world shook with guilt and longing.

The Coleman family never had much money, what with Cynthia working for the Social Security Administration to support three kids all by her lonesome.

“I remember the cars,” Erik Coleman said. “Just a whole bunch of buckets. Old cars. The kind you were embarrassed to pull up at your friend’s house in.”

But money never mattered because the Coleman family had each other. Or they did until Cynthia pled guilty for theft of government property, for embezzling $97,000 from her job to support her children and a drug habit.

She spent six months in the Geiger Correctional Facility in 1998, while her son went to live with a high-school friend, while he graduated and went off to play football at nearby Washington State.

Erik could live with her mistakes. It was living without her that left him longing for her presence.

He felt guilty thinking about her sacrifices. The way she scraped together money to keep him involved in sports, only to miss the beginning of his college career. The way she came to all his games, wore his school colors, knew the cheers by heart.

“Without her, I don’t know where I’d be,” Coleman said. “She’s the strongest person I know.”

Erik Coleman is a daydreamer. Sometimes, he sits down in his Long Island abode, puts on the headphones and visualizes everything he holds most dear — football, friendships, faith and family.

When mom went away, he dreamed about the day she left and came back home. He could picture it down to the smallest details, down to their embrace.

So when Jets coaches and teammates call Coleman mature beyond his years, what they see is those dreams coming to fruition, that maturity and strength drawn from what he went through.

“He’s ahead of his time,” said Reggie Tongue, a former Seahawk and current Jet.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Not for a fifth-round pick. Not after the Jets signed Tongue away from Seattle in the offseason.

Then the calf muscle in Tongue’s leg tightened, and Coleman stepped into the starting lineup. Content just being there, he stumbled through a rocky preseason. Coach Herman Edwards pulled Coleman aside and challenged him to earn his starting spot.

“If you’ve got the position,” Edwards told him, “make them come take it from you.”

In the first week of the regular season, Coleman recorded six tackles and intercepted a pass from Carson Palmer while the Cincinnati Bengals were driving for the tying touchdown. The next week, in a win over San Diego, he tallied four tackles, intercepted another pass, recovered a fumble and cemented his place atop the depth chart.

“He’s doing fantastic,” Edwards said. “You’re talking about a guy that came in as a fifth-round draft choice. (First-round pick) Jonathan Vilma gets all the accolades, and rightly so, but Erik started before Vilma did. Really, it’s a tribute to him.”

Coleman has a history of stepping in for injured teammates. As a sophomore at WSU, he filled in for an injured Marcus Trufant, now the Seahawks’ starting cornerback. As a junior, he moved to safety in place of Lamont Thompson.

“That’s the kind of person he is,” Hook said. “I coached at Lewis and Clark for 17 years, and nobody had the same combination of qualities that he does. I think I know where he gets it.”

“His mother,” Cynthia Coleman said.

During the six months Cynthia Coleman spent behind bars, her baby visited as often as he could. They sat and talked for as long as time allowed. About football. About life. About his dreams and the NFL and the day she would come home.

These days, Erik Coleman admits to being homesick. He can live with his mom’s mistakes. He’s finding it difficult to live without her.

He visits as often as possible, returning to the community his spirit never really leaves. And when he pulls into her driveway on East 29th Street, there isn’t a bucket in sight, but rather a Buick Regal he purchased for her before the season.

“I definitely appreciate things more,” Coleman said. “She made a bad decision. She paid for it. And now, she’s in school, calling me about math problems, doing really well. And I’m here, playing in the NFL, living out my dream.”

Making up for lost time. Concentrating on where Cynthia Coleman is, not where she was or wasn’t.

Greg Bishop: 206-464-3191 or