Behind Michael Taaffe's No. 16 jersey, the Westlake alums honoring Jackson Coker

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Michael Taaffe’s college football aspirations were still daydreams in the spring of 2019.

He’d just wrapped up his sophomore season at Westlake High School playing JV football while waiting for his growth spurt to hit. During those first two weeks of the offseason, Taaffe attacked the mandatory team workouts and hoped for a physical leap. But every day after school, he noticed rising senior wide receivers Jackson Coker and Ryan Lindley ducking into the weight room for another lifting session when everyone else went home.

One afternoon, Taaffe took a deep breath and walked up to them before they closed the weight room door. Then, he pitched to join their workout. Taaffe told Lindley and Coker that his goal was to be a varsity starter.

The older Chaps let Taaffe into the weight room and their lives that day.

“From then on, it was us three trying to outwork everybody else in the state,” Taaffe said.

Big-time high school football programs are hierarchical in nature. So then-Westlake head coach Todd Dodge preached caring for the bottom 25 percent, the youngest guys and reserves. This trio lifting after school, running wind sprints by themselves and playing Fortnite together embodied that.

Coker was the team captain who starred on varsity since his sophomore year and earned an Ivy League scholarship to Columbia. Lindley had all the talent, but none of the game film for a college offer. He’d been ruled ineligible for a season after transferring to Westlake ahead of his junior year and also sought out Coker as a workout partner in preparation for the all-important senior campaign. Taaffe was the eager, unproven underclassman.

Westlake’s 2019 team won the program’s first state championship since 1996. Ryan Lindley earned a scholarship to Yale after compiling 101 receptions for 1,289 yards and 20 touchdowns in a storybook senior season. Michael Taaffe went from Varsity hopeful to Defensive MVP in the state title.

Four years later, Taaffe and Lindley are still living the college football dream that the three of them worked for every day after school. Jackson Coker never played a down at Columbia. He passed away in the early morning hours of March 10, 2021, in a single-car accident on his way to a workout.

Taaffe was a Burlsworth Trophy nominee this season for the Texas Longhorns as one of the nation’s most outstanding former walk-ons. After a circus interception against Kansas State or a blocked punt against Texas Tech, Taaffe patted his number 16 and pointed to the sky. That was Coker’s number at Westlake. Taaffe and Lindley wear it now for the friend who trained with them, invested in them, when no one else was watching. 

“He was so intentional about helping people below him,” Lindley said. “We used to talk about it all the time – planting trees you never see grow.”

Coker planted a lot of trees on this earth in his 18 years. Now, they’ve sprouted coast to coast. There’s Taaffe at Texas and Lindley at Yale. Westlake’s all-time leading receiver, Mason Mangum, dons the number 16 at Cal. Army linebacker Leo Lowin prays on the 16-yard-line before every game. Jackson’s not here anymore. His friends ensure his legacy still is.

“I think everybody on this planet who gets the opportunity should know who Jackson was and continues to be,” Taaffe said.

When Jackson Coker passed, the Westlake community gathered on the football field for a “16 Minutes of Light” ceremony. Jackson had become synonymous with that number.

“Everybody knew who '16' was,” his father, Jon, said. “He didn’t have an off button.”

When his former teammates wear that number in college, they know it comes with the responsibility of competing like Jackson did. He was Todd Dodge’s ideal ‘schizophrenic football player’ - a perfect gentleman off the field, a bad dude on it. 

“As soon as he stepped in between the lines, he was a menace,” Lindley said. “He played with so much passion. It was a very central theme throughout his life. Everything he did, he put his all into it.”

Jackson’s effort was constant, whether getting to score the touchdown or blocking on the perimeter for a teammate’s score. His pride in the dirty work elevated the entire wide receiver group to do the same. It helped set the tone for Westlake’s three straight state titles even after he graduated.

“He was the only person I felt like I could never outwork,” Lowin said. “We would do these mat drills called ‘Chap Makers,’ back in the day, and he was the only guy I felt like I couldn’t beat in some of the drills, and it was always frustrating. But he was a tough dude and wouldn’t quit.”

As stellar a football player Jackson was, it wasn’t why over 1,000 people attended his funeral.

Jon remembers the afternoon Jackson came home from his first varsity football practice. Jackson was a freshman who got called up to play with the big boys for Westlake’s playoff run that year. It was a momentous occasion for a kid who grew up watching his older brothers, Jake and Jared, play for the Chaparrals.

As Jackson gushed to his father about the day, Jon asked him if there was anything he didn’t like about playing with the Varsity. Jackson paused for a moment.

“The looks I got,” he said. “I felt like I didn’t belong.”
“Remember that,” Jon told him.

Jackson held onto that feeling, being the outcast freshman, even as he ascended to an all-district senior. Ryan Lindley just moved in and can’t play varsity yet? Jackson became a workout partner and one of his first friends at the new school. Michael Taaffe from the JV wants to stay after school for extra work? Hop on board.

“Jackson took it upon himself to treat people - that maybe others in a school or program would try to keep down - like kings,” Dodge said.

Everyone on the field for that night’s memorial had a previously untold story about Jackson. Many tales had stayed hidden because Jackson never drew attention to his kindness. Now that he was gone, the stories needed to be heard.

“I don’t know if any of us fully appreciated what a tremendous human being we were able to be around on a day-to-day basis,” Dodge said.

Jackson’s oldest brother, Jake, remembers that service sending shock through the family. All three Coker boys had gone through kindergarten to high school graduation in Westlake. It wasn’t until that night that they registered Jackson’s full impact on the people they’d spent their entire childhood around.

“This kid had everything going for him, and he was such a tremendous role model,” Jake said. “Not only for kids younger than him, but also I was looking up to him. My little brother, Jared, was looking up to him.” 

Lowin stood with friends taking in the scene when one of the Westlake dads approached them. 

“He just said, ‘You guys all have it in you. Be that light for others that he was for you,’” Lowin said. “You try to carry that with you and try to carry out who he was in all our personalities and the way we treat other people.”

It’s become the former Westlake players’ creed as they’ve ventured across the country to play college football. Jackson Coker helped them reach this platform they have now. They’ll use it to share his story.


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