Colin Cole called the Carolina Panthers and asked if they needed a nose tackle.
“I was absolutely in position where pretty much it was my last opportunity,” says Cole, 32.
This is how important the call was. If the Panthers reject him, Cole figures he’s out of football.
He’s not out of football.
Coach Ron Rivera says Cole is likely to make the team and the defensive tackle rotation.
“I’m going to get, like, 2,000 phone calls because of this,” says Mark Koncz, Carolina’s director of pro scouting.
Let’s help Koncz, a nice guy who usually stays to the side and allows his employers talk to the media.
The Panthers will never post an advertisement that says: CAROLINA TO HOLD JOB FAIR FOR MEN WHO WEIGH 300 TO 350 POUNDS.
The Panthers keep a list of about 200 candidates they can call if starters or reserves get hurt. Cole was on it. He’s played in 84 NFL games and started 34.
But Cole, who was living in the Charlotte suburbs, had been out of football two seasons. He had fired his agent.
“He did cold call,” Koncz says Wednesday outside Bank of America Stadium. “But we knew of him and he was on our radar and it was just ironic that we were going to reach out to him and he reached out to us.”
Cole is 6-foot-2 and weighs 330 pounds. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and played collegiately at Iowa. Undrafted, he made the practice squad of the Minnesota Vikings as a rookie in 2003. He played for Green Bay from 2004-08.
Seattle offered a five-year, $21 million contract – the bulk of it not guaranteed. In 2009 Cole started for one of the NFL’s best run defenses. He also started in 2010, but severely injured an ankle.
He had four surgeries on the ankle and Seattle cut him before the 2011 season. He missed all of 2011 and, even though he was healthy, all of 2012.
Cole’s wife is from South Carolina and her sister lives in Charlotte. Charlotte’s cost of living was much more accommodating. The Coles liked the climate and thought Charlotte would be a good place to raise their two young children (and a third on the way).
Cole arranged a workout and negotiated his contract. Due to make $3.75 million in 2011 in Seattle, he agreed to play for the veteran minimum with the Panthers.
“He will do what he has to,” says Koncz. “Hopefully it will turn out to be a good story.”
Koncz didn’t act offer Cole a contract until Dave Gettleman was in place as general manager. Gettleman also was a Cole proponent and Cole became the first hire of the Gettleman era.
When Cole was away from the game, he spent time with his family, participated in two NFL programs for players looking for real-world experience and attended a conference hosted by the International Franchise Association.
He also worried he would never play football again.
“There were a number of times when I just didn’t know what to do,” says Cole. “I felt like I’d given everything I could in 2010 to try to help the team and reach the playoffs and get a playoff win, and I was trying to show the team I really cared. And it backfired on me.”
Cole talks after practice on the edge of Carolina’s practice field. A football field always feels 10 degrees hotter than the streets and sidewalks around it, and the streets and sidewalks around the field are hot, too. By now Cole’s new teammates have returned to their air-conditioned stadium. He is the only player left. I tell him I’ve kept him too long. He says he’s fine to stay and talk.
Ron Rivera was cut by the Chicago Bears in 1992. He remembers wanting one more season. Give him one more season and he’ll be ready to retire. Or he’ll play so hard and so well he won’t be asked to.
A second chance is a great motivator, Rivera says.
“In the years leading up to now I didn’t take it as seriously, I didn’t give as much effort,” Cole says from the artificial turf.” I didn’t really see it as much of an opportunity to really hone in and get better in my skills. It was a more tedious get-it-done, do what we have to do.”
His candor is rare.
“But that’s what I viewed it as,” Cole says. “Now I’m out here competing with the top of the top again and I have an opportunity to be part of this organization for some years to come. I just want to do everything I possibly can to be better so that everybody has confidence in me.
“You know what?” he adds. “I’m more happy now than I have ever been. I’ve been an undrafted free agent, I’ve been through the wringer, I’ve been cut a few times and I’ve made the squad a few times. It’s been difficult. But I’m going to put everything I have into this right now. See where the chips might fall. But they’re going to get a better Colin Cole.”
Cole says only 5 percent of the players who are out of the NFL for two seasons make it back.
I ask Koncz if the number is that low.
It’s lower, he says.