Former Temple baseball player John Coyle is now a civil rights attorney with McEldrew Young Purtrell & Merritt, and he’s been involved in some of the nation’s more notable cases.
Story by Sam Neumann
John Coyle never set out to become a civil rights attorney.
When he went to law school, the former Temple baseball player thought he was going to be a sports agent. He dove into that field and worked for an NFL agent his first summer of law school.
He absolutely hated it.
Coyle wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to do. He ended up working for a judge right after law school, then took a job with the city of Philadelphia, defending officers in civil rights cases for the first five years of his career.
He handled civil rights litigation in the Philadelphia school district before the opportunity arose to join a plaintiff’s firm.
Coyle jumped at it.
Since joining his current firm, McEldrew Young Purtrell & Merritt, Coyle has helped build this civil practice from the ground up over the past few years, and he’s been involved in some of the nation’s more notable cases.
“I don’t think attorney’s surprising, I think civil rights attorney is probably surprising to me,” Pat Riley, Coyle’s former teammate and roommate, said. “I always thought it would be more business lawyer, more so than civil rights. That was surprising.”
Turning back the clock to when Coyle first arrived at Temple, he was recruited by the legendary head coach Skip Wilson to play for the baseball program back in 2005.
Coming over from Springfield’s Cardinal O’Hara High School, Coyle was a self-described “undersized and scrawny” athlete, so he decided to redshirt when he arrived on campus.
“The next three years were a mixed bag,” Coyle said, jokingly. ”I wasn’t the best ballplayer on the club by any stretch of the imagination. But, I did have a little bit of success when I switched over and started pitching.”
For Riley, Coyle’s playstyle was reminiscent of MLB Hall of Famer, Jim Thome.
“We actually used to call him the lumberjack when we were playing baseball,” Riley said. “He had longer hair back in college and he was the type that if he got a hold of the ball, he’d hit it a long way.”
Coyle made the successful transition over to pitcher after originally coming to the program as a first baseman.
In 13 ⅔ innings pitched across his junior season, Coyle went 1-1 with a 3.95 earned run average. In six appearances, he allowed six runs on 10 hits, while walking eight batters and striking out seven.
The summer after Coyle’s junior year, he partially tore his elbow ligament. He originally thought it was a sprain, so he opted not to get Tommy John surgery. At that point in time going into his senior year, there were two options for Coyle: get Tommy John and possibly come back for a fifth year or move on to law school at Temple.
“I wasn’t showing up in the big leagues anytime soon, so I figured it was time to move on and try a new chapter in my life,” he said.
Now, Coyle does trial litigation. He estimates that he spends around 75% of his practice on civil rights litigation that is spread around the country.
One of the more notable cases that his firm has been involved in includes Antwon Rose, a 17-year-old African American teenager who was fatally shot by the police in East Pittsburgh back in 2018.
“We’ve sort of built up a reputation of doing things the right way and engaging not just to recover damages,” Coyle said, “but also in the advocacy spectrum.”
Coyle’s firm wrote a letter to Congress. They went down and testified in front of the senate judiciary committee. They are constantly working with local and national leaders to try to “fix” some of the structural issues that exist in the way that policing takes place in this country, he said.
They also represented Wanda Cooper, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery. In February of 2020, Arbery was pursued and fatally shot while jogging in a neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia.
Coyle said his firm had recently filed litigation in federal court down in Georgia related to Arbery’s death and the subsequent cover-up by local county officials.
Coyle and his firm have also represented Jemel Roberson, Atatiana Jefferson, Jonathan Price and Adrian Roberts. Unfortunately, as Coyle said, there are dozens more of these cases across the country.
When dealing with these types of cases, Coyle has to put his emotion aside.
“That’s really hard,” he said. “That’s a very hard thing. As a human, you have emotional reactions to things, whether they’re angry or sympathy or sorrow or whatever it may be. They certainly come into play. But, if you allow those emotions to impact your decision-making and your critical thinking in the way you handle a case, you’re doing a disservice to your client. The last thing that family members of these victims of excessive force and police brutality need is someone that’s not doing the best job they can, not doing everything they can.”
Coyle used to be an adjunct professor at Temple. The last time he taught was in the spring of 2019, where he taught a class called Strategic Considerations in Civil Rights Litigation.
“I would love to keep teaching there,” he said. “It just didn’t work out and I haven’t really had the opportunity to get back into it. I found teaching at Temple to be a very rewarding experience.”
Coyle is pretty involved as an alumnus of Temple, but his support hasn’t always been consistent.
When he first graduated, he donated to the Owl Club, the Beasley School of Law and the Fox School of Business.
In addition, Coyle used to have basketball season tickets and would attend his fair share of football games. He no longer has season tickets anymore and said it’s possibly a reflection on the state of the athletic department rather than his fandom.
“It’s ebbed and flowed both because of personal aspects of my life and also in the way I viewed how things were going at Temple,” Coyle said regarding his involvement. “I think I’ve been pretty consistent in my support of the law school and the business school, maybe athletics not so much for a variety of reasons. But, I try to be involved on a real personal level with the alumni, talking to anyone that reaches out.”
A friend of Coyle’s toward the beginning of the pandemic set up a meeting with J.P. Moorman II. The former Temple basketball player was interested in getting involved in civil rights advocacy. Coyle and Moorman spoke for 45 minutes and discussed different aspects of what social justice reform looks like and avenues to accomplish those things.
Coyle is always willing to go the extra mile, but says his “systemic” support has been inconsistent, he said.
Riley described Coyle as the type of guy, “who would go pick you up if you were stranded somewhere.”
He recounted a story in college when they had a teammate who was stranded an hour and a half away down the shore.
“He called John in the middle of the night for help,” Riley recalls. “He got up, drove all the way down, drove him back to Temple. Middle of the night, we have practice the next morning. I think that stands out and speaks to his character.”