Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole understands better than most the importance of preparing for life after football: He’s already experienced it.
Cole was out of the NFL for two years before cold-calling the Panthers in 2013. That led to a workout, which led to a contract, which resulted in Cole playing in 31 of the 32 regular-season games the past two seasons, including 23 starts.
But Cole turned 35 last month and knows he’s nearing the NFL exit ramp. He wants to be better prepared for that day than he was a few years ago, when he dealt with bouts of depression after an ankle injury precipitated his hiatus from the NFL.
“I definitely know there were times when it looked kind of bleak for me and I was still trying to work out. I was losing the ambition and I was losing the energy to do it because I didn’t see the fruits of my labor coming through,” Cole said. “I got sidetracked and I got to the point where I was depressed, being honest.”
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Sunday afternoons in the fall of 2012 were the worst.
Cole, who was living in south Charlotte, would start watching the early NFL games, then start zipping through channels to find something other than football. Eventually Cole would sequester himself in his home gym.
When I had the opportunity to come back and play, I really vowed not to be behind the 8-ball once the time came for me to move on from football.
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole
Cole’s a smart guy with a liberal arts degree from Iowa and a good perspective on life. But he wasn’t sure how to spend his time after having had most of it regimented for so long.
“We all have to move on at some point,” Cole said in a phone interview Friday. “I can definitely see how easy it can be for a person to get distracted or to not feel like they have direction or spend money they don’t have.
“I can see how any of that can be the case. When I had the opportunity to come back and play, I really vowed not to be behind the 8-ball once the time came for me to move on from football.”
With that in mind, Cole used this offseason to launch a business and line up other post-football opportunities.
Not all were money-making pursuits.
Last weekend Cole hosted a free football camp at Fort Jackson in Columbia for nearly 200 kids, most of whom live on the Army base. With five family members who served in the military, Cole said he wanted to give something back.
It also was good training for another venture Cole is starting – a marketing and event planning business that will help NFL players establish their brand, run their camps and form non-profit organizations.
Cole also is interested in broadcasting and sideline reporting after he retires.
“I have three beautiful children and a beautiful wife, but you have to have a purpose,” Cole said. “When you don’t have a purpose, generally speaking, life typically ends for you.”
Cole’s football life isn’t over just yet.
The Panthers signed him to another one-year contract in March, worth $1.05 million.
When you don’t have a purpose, generally speaking, life typically ends for you.
Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Colin Cole
Cole is the team’s oldest player, but he says the two years he was unemployed and the Panthers’ four-man rotation at defensive tackle have helped save his legs. He’s also been fortunate: While the four surgeries on his left ankle hastened the end of his stint with Seattle in 2011, Cole has survived 10 seasons without a serious knee injury.
He worked out during the spring with a martial arts instructor, learning hand techniques to “get a guy off-balance and ultimately to beat your opponent.”
Only a few members of Cole’s 2003 draft class are still in the league, including Carson Palmer, Andre Johnson, Calvin Pace and Kevin Williams, the veteran defensive tackle who signed with New Orleans in June.
Cole and Williams roomed together at the Senior Bowl a dozen years ago and make a point to acknowledge each other whenever their teams play.
“We kind of give each other that eye and that wink like, ‘Still getting after it,’” Cole said.
Cole isn’t sure how long he’ll continue getting after it, saying he’s thankful for another year to prove he belongs.
But he knows his next hiatus from the game will be for good, and this time he plans to be ready for it.
“I’ve found a few things that I’m excited about, but I’m not going to stop searching,” he said. “And I’m not going to rest on my laurels, either. I have a lot of learning to do, but I have a lot of teaching to do also, with 20 years of football knowledge.”