Junior Coffey, who broke racial barriers as a star running back for the Washington Huskies and played in the NFL before spending decades as a local Thoroughbred trainer, died Monday from congestive heart failure in Federal Way. He was 79.
“He was a very kind person with a ready smile, and people were drawn to him because he always had a laugh,” said Kathy Coffey, Junior’s wife for 55 years.
Coffey was born in Kyle, Texas, and grew up in Dimmitt, in the Texas Panhandle.
He had not played sports before high school but was talked into playing football, and he became the school’s first Black athlete. Blessed with great speed and athletic ability, he rushed for 1,294 yards as a junior and for 1,562 as a senior. He also had 185 tackles as a senior linebacker.
He was the first Black athlete to play in the Texas state boys basketball tournament and twice led his team to the championship game.
In 1997, Coffey was inducted into the Panhandle Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2015, he was inducted into the Texas High School Football Hall of Fame.
“He integrated his high school in the early ’60s, and I always say (that Dimmitt) was like a little oasis, because they just embraced him,” Kathy Coffey said.
It wasn’t like that everywhere for Coffey, who was taunted by high-school athletic opponents and sometimes refused service at restaurants.
Coffey accepted a scholarship to UW, and he quickly excelled. As a sophomore in 1962, Coffey led the AAWU (Athletic Association of Western Universities) in rushing with 581 yards (averaging 5.9 yards per carry) despite starting in just one game.
Coffey suffered foot injuries, which limited his playing time in 1963, when Washington earned a berth in the Rose Bowl. But he led UW in rushing again as a senior, gaining 638 yards.
“It wasn’t really well known at the time, but he sort of integrated (UW football) too,” Kathy Coffey said. “He was the first Black player to share a room with a white player. Back in the ’60s, things were just beginning to happen. A lot of things that happened to him in college career-wise (such as being benched the second half of his senior season) had to do with racism, but he was very practical about that.
“He always stood up for himself, but sometimes he realized it was baby steps.”
Coffey was selected in the seventh round of the NFL draft in 1965 by the Green Bay Packers. Playing mostly special teams, he was part of the Packers’ NFL championship team under coach Vince Lombardi.
“Vince Lombardi said he was the most valuable special-teams player that they had,” Kathy Coffey said.
Coffey was selected in the 1966 expansion draft by the Atlanta Falcons and rushed for a team-high 722 yards in each of his first two seasons, ranking ninth and eighth in the NFL, respectively.
His NFL career ended after the 1971 season, having rushed for 2,037 yards as a pro, and he was ready for the next phase of his life as horse trainer.
Coffey was introduced to horse racing while working at Longacres racetrack in Renton as he was attending UW. When he reached the NFL, he started buying racehorses.
“The horses were his passion,” Kathy Coffey said, “When he knew his career was winding down, he said to me, ‘I think (horse training) is what I want to do for a living.’ “
Coffey read a few books, spent time working with Jim Penney, who trained Coffey’s horses, and other veterans of the sport before venturing on his own and becoming one of the few Black trainers in the sport.
According to Equibase, Coffey had horses in 3,820 races from 1976-2018, with 625 victories. He was usually among the top trainers in win percentage at Longacres until it closed, and then at Emerald Downs in Auburn once it opened in 1996.
Coffey ranks No. 5 in all-time win percentage at 20.13% at Emerald Downs. He won eight stakes races at Emerald Downs, and Raise the Bluff ran second for him in the 2005 Longacres Mile.
“I think mostly he was successful because he had a natural affinity for the animal,” Kathy Coffey said. “He spent a lot of time with them, and was like a horse whisperer, so to speak, He was very intelligent that way.”
Coffey spoke fluent Spanish, and his wife said he was “an advocate for the Hispanic workers, especially when they first came to the track.”
“They would say, ‘Ask for Junior Coffey,’ and he would show them the ropes and help them out if they had a problem.”
Emerald Downs founder Ron Crockett said he hired Coffey to train some of his horses, including Raise the Bluff, because Coffey took such good care of the horses. They also were longtime friends.
“A lot of people of his age group don’t realize how good he was (at football),” Crockett said. “He was a wonderful, wonderful football player and one of the first involved in the equality movement … and then to a new life, becoming a horse trainer. He was really good at his trade, one of the most cautious horse trainers that there was.”
“People don’t know unless they know him quite well that he was a philosopher of sorts. If you sat down with Junior, he would get in depth in many varied conversations, and he was just a solid human being.”
Coffey quit training in 2018 because of early onset Alzheimer’s and congestive heart failure.
“I will miss him a lot,” Kathy Coffey said. “It’s the end of an era.”