Dickie Dingle wasn’t quite sure how to label Dexter Coakley in high school.
Coakley was quicker than any of Dingle’s defensive backs but stronger than any of his linebackers. He was an effective ball carrier too. So to Dingle, Coakley was simply a football player.
“In every way,” said Dingle, who coached Coakley for four years at Wando High School. “He was a football player in every way. Strong, fast, well respected by his teammates, he was just a solid citizen.”
Labeling Coakley is much easier now. It was less to do with positions or teams and more to do with distinction.
Already a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and Southern Conference Hall of Fame, Coakley is one of seven athletes to be inducted into the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame this spring. The 2019 class will be officially honored on April 12 at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.
“Now he’s a Hall of Famer,” Dingle said. “Just an amazing honor. No one deserves it more.”
Coakley was the epitome of a hybrid player long before positionless players were as valued as they are in today’s game. He started four years on Wando’s varsity team, beginning his career at defensive back where his assignment was regularly to shadow the opponent’s best receiver. Standing 5-foot-10 and about 200 pounds, he showed a keen penchant for big hits in the box too though. So when injuries marred Wando’s linebacking corps, Coakley slid forward to shore up the Warriors’ front seven.
“He had incredible natural strength for his age,” Dingle said. “His dad was a brick mason and I know he worked with him a lot. I’m sure that helped. He understood the value of hard work. He had the speed and quickness to play wherever we needed him.”
Coakley played the linebacker position like a defense back, disrupting passes underneath while stuffing the gaps up front. He posted 295 tackles through his junior and senior seasons at Wando.
He was versatile enough to make an impact on offense too. He tallied more than 2,000 total yards of offense his final two years of high school, laying viscous blocks at the goal line and earning the nickname “Rock.”
“He made an excellent running back with not only his speed and strength but his low center of gravity. He was so tough to bring down,” Dingle said. “I thought he may move back to defensive back in college but he was such a good athlete it doesn’t really surprise me that he was so successful at linebacker."
Coakley also letter in wrestling and was named Wando’s Athlete of the Year as a senior in 1992. He spent a year at Fork Union Military Academy as a postgraduate before earning a scholarship to Appalachian State.
He put together one of the more decorated college careers in college football history in his four-year career as a Mountaineer. He’s still the school’s all-time leader in total tackles (616), solo tackles (350) and assists (266). He logged 37 games with 10 or more tackles and seven with 20 or more, both school records.
Coakley was named the Southern Conference Freshman of the Year in 1993 and then SoCon Defensive Player of the Year each of the three seasons after, making him the league’s only three-time recipient. He was a three-time All-American and is still the only player to twice win the Buck Buchanan Award, given annually to the nation's best defensive player in FCS. In 2005, Coakley became one of just four players to have his number (32) retired by the school.
"He could have been a terrific running back for us," former Appalachian State coach Jerry Moore told the Wintston-Salem Journal in 2011. "He could have done a lot of things, he was so athletic. At linebacker, he had such savvy for what was going on to anticipate things, a feel for the game.
"He was the same way in the NFL. He was an undersized player for the NFL, so there had to be something different about him."
Coakley weighed in at 5-foot-8 and 215 pounds at the 1997 NFL Combine, the shortest and second lightest of all of outside linebackers measured. His 4.52-second 40-yard dash was the fastest of the position group, though, and his 38-inch vertical leap was second highest.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Coakley in the third round with the 65th overall pick. He started immediately at weakside linebacker as a rookie, posting 136 tackles that season, along with a team-best 10 for a loss to earn All-Rookie honors. He’d play nine more years in the NFL, twice earning All-Pro distinction and making three Pro Bowls. He finished his career with Cowboys as the team’s fourth-leading tackler and tied for most defensive touchdowns all time. He missed just one game of 128 in his career with Dallas.
“I expected him to have a good career in college but he had an incredible career in the NFL too,” Dingle said. “You just don’t see guys his size have that kind of success on the pro level. But he was so ahead of his time. He was just amazing.”
Joining Coakley in the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame’s 2019 class is John Abraham of Timmonsville, who ranks second on the University of South Carolina’s career tackles list and played 14 years in the NFL, making five Pro Bowls and earning four All-Pro selections; Chris Gardocki, a two-time All-American kicker at Clemson, who was named an All-Pro during his 16-year NFL career, the longest of any former Tiger; Nancy Wilson of Lake City, who won 542 games as head women’s basketball coach at USC and the College of Charleston, while also serving as head coach of the 1992 USA World Junior Olympic Team; Shane Monahan, a former All-American baseball player at Clemson who still holds five team records and was the first player in ACC history to be named league MVP, ACC Tournament MVP, MVP of an NCAA Regional and a first-team All-American in his career; Roberto Hernanadez, who led USC Aiken to the NAIA World Series as a NAIA All-American before a 17-year career in the MLB, where he made two All-Star appearances and retired among the top 15 in career saves in league history; and Miriam Walker-Samuels, a two-time All-American who led the Claflin College’s women’s basketball team to two NAIA National Championship appearnaces and set nine NAIA records as a player and consecutive national tournament appearances as a coach.