Mason Cole has one of the most unique streaks in all of football.
At East Lake High School (Tarpon Springs, Florida), Cole seized a starting spot as a freshman. He then proceeded to start 53 consecutive games for the team, never missing a single start. When he matriculated to the University of Michigan, he again grabbed a starting role as a freshman. He would start every single game for the Wolverines over the course of his four-year career.
That totals to an incredible 104 consecutive starts for Cole. He may be an ironman, but make no mistake—he is not indestructible. As an offensive lineman, Cole often persevered through severe pain and illness to keep the run intact. At Michigan, he rarely thought of the streak—he simply approached every game with a blue-collar mentality and a burning desire to emerge victorious. Only now that he's preparing for the NFL can he look back on the streak with any perspective.
"Looking back on it now, it seems incredible. But during my time at Michigan and East Lake, you don't think about that. You're so focused on the next game. You finish a game, and you don't really have time to sit back and think about that. You just have to move forward," Cole told STACK. "But looking back now, it's incredible. And it's due to a lot of people. It's a little bit of luck, obviously. But the strength staff at UM was incredible, our athletic training staff (was incredible with) putting our bodies back together when no one was watching. It was a team effort, for sure."
That quote sums up a lot about who Mason Cole is as a player and a person. If you were to take all the positive stereotypes about offensive linemen—humble, tough, hard-working, selfless—Cole embodies them. He also happens to be really talented. He was a two-time All-Big Ten selection at the University of Michigan while playing both left tackle and center. Now, he's on the precipice of realizing a lifelong dream.
"Growing up in a football family, I always wanted to play college football and then professional football. Having those goals for myself definitely motivated me. I had a goal in high school to play Division-I football and earn a scholarship. Then once I got to college, I knew I had to play well enough to play in the NFL one day," Cole says.
He was born outside of Chicago, but Cole moved to Tarpon Springs when he was 7. Soon enough, pick-up games at a nearby park became common practice. While a passerby might've just seen some kids running around, it might as well have been the Super Bowl to Cole and his buddies. "We had a big park in our neighborhood, so we'd always ride our bikes down there and have big pick-up games. And they were really competitive," Cole says. "When you're with your friends, that's the only thing that matters—winning."
Work ethic was mandatory in the Cole household. His father, John, paid his own way through Northern Illinois University before becoming a successful businessman. His grandparents on his mother Maggie's side started their own carpentry company and have owned it for over 50 years. "My parents helped my work ethic grow tremendously. My dad paid his way through college and climbed the socioeconomic ladder just by working hard and working 3-4 jobs at a time. My mom, her parents own a carpentry company, they started it and (have) owned it ever since. They always instilled in me that working hard and not complaining and doing the right thing, (then) good things will come," Cole says.
Cole hit a massive growth spurt during middle school, sprouting 7 inches in a single year. He suddenly found himself with giraffe-like physique, which inspired him to get inside the weight room. "I grew really tall between 6th and 7th grade, so I was this big lanky kid," says Cole, who now measures in at 6-foot-4, 305 pounds. "(That's when) I decided I should probably workout and try to fill in some of my frame."
Cole struggled to see results for the first couple years as his body continued to stretch out, but shortly after he arrived at East Lake High School, he began seeing a more athletic build in the mirror. Extra work in the weight room after his scheduled lifts helped that effort. "As you get older, the results get bigger and bigger," Cole says. "I would always try to stay late and do a little extra, just for my benefit. Whether it be extra conditioning or a few extra reps in the weight room."
As a high school freshman, Cole seized a starting job on the offensive line for the Eagles and never let go. He credits playing basketball and lacrosse during his youth with helping him build nimble footwork for his size. Cole would also often come in well before school started to break down film of East Lake's next opponent.
"He's that guy, as a coach, that you want a whole team of," Bob Hudson, Cole's head coach at East Lake, told MLive.com. "He's always moving. He's coachable. He can take criticism. He doesn't need praise every play. He's what you dream of as a coach."
Cole was the rock of East Lake's offensive line for four seasons, and the team had a tremendous amount of success during his time there, winning three district championships and twice making it to the state final four.
Cole's size and skillset quickly attracted an army of college recruiters. Per 247Sports, he earned a total of 22 offers, including Alabama, Clemson, Florida, Ohio State and USC. You'd think a kid raised in Florida would be drawn to the gravitas of the SEC, but there was something about the Big Ten Cole couldn't resist. Michigan's combination of tradition, facilities, academics and potential captivated him. He also believed the Big House offered the best atmosphere in all of college football. All of these factors led to Cole committing to Michigan in February of his junior year. That early commitment paved the way for Cole to graduate from high school early, and he enrolled at the University of Michigan in Winter of 2014. Cole knew he wanted to play as a freshman, and that was something that almost never happened for offensive lineman at Michigan. In fact, at the time of Cole's enrollment, a true freshman offensive lineman had never started a season opener for Michigan. Cole knew that enrolling early was the only realistic way he could achieve his goal.
"I think coming in and being able to learn the playbook was huge for me. I think that's the biggest thing (people struggle with) in the transition from high school to college, is learning a college system. I was lucky enough to be able to understand it for whatever reason," Cole says. "If I wouldn't have left (high school) early, I wouldn't have played my freshman year."
Cole didn't just play—he started the season-opener at left tackle. Since their number one job is to protect the quarterback's blind side, it's arguably the most important position on the entire offensive line. It was a bit of a baptism by fire, as Cole would line up opposite the ultra-athletic Frank Clark during practice (who's racked up 19 sacks in the past two seasons for the Seattle Seahawks) and talents like Joey Bosa (who was elected to the 2017 Pro Bowl) during games. "(That absolutely) made me better. Anytime you go against really talented players, it only makes you better," Cole says.
Cole started every game at left tackle during his freshman season, and did the same during his sophomore campaign. As a sophomore, he helped the Wolverines to a 10-3 record which included a Citrus Bowl victory over the Florida Gators. Following the season, Jim Harbaugh—who had taken over the head coaching job from Brady Hoke prior to Cole's sophomore season—approached Cole about moving to center. Graham Glasgow, who played center for the team in 2015 and earned Michigan's most outstanding offensive lineman award, was off to the NFL and had left a void on the depth chart in his absence. The center is essentially the quarterback of the offensive line, and an effective center must be intelligent enough to make calls for all his line mates. Cole accepted his new role without hesitation. "They thought it would not only be good for my career, but for the team. And for me, doing what's best for the team is always more important," Cole says.
With a new position in tow, Cole experienced some major growth during the offseason between his sophomore and junior seasons. His body, once that of a baby fat-laden teenager, was maturing into that of a pro athlete.
"I was a chubby little 18-year-old my freshman year of college. But just staying in the weight room, and even when you're not supposed to be in the weight room when you have days off, just trying to do a little extra," Cole says. "(And) what I've learned over my last four years is really eating the right thing. It doesn't have to be a perfect diet, but just choosing the healthier options when they're available (is huge)."
Cole also became more confident on and off the field. He found that the more he prepared during the week, the faster he could play on game day. He also grew into a bigger leadership role for the Wolverines. "My leadership style was leading by example. I felt like we had a lot of guys on our team that were vocal. That's never really been me, being a huge vocal guy, just because I feel like anyone can be vocal—you can be vocal even if you're not (a leader). But leading by example, you gotta be true to it. You can't fake that," Cole says.
As a junior, Cole orchestrated an offensive line that helped the Wolverines average 40.3 points per game, 11th-most in the country, en route to another 10-3 record. He was subsequently elected to the coaches and media All-Big Ten second team. He again started every game, but this was the season where his streak came closest to peril. A succession of unfortunate events between the Illinois and Michigan State games befell Cole which would've sidelined most mortals.
"My junior year, I almost missed the Michigan State game. The week before, we played Illinois, and at the end of that game, I started feeling really achey, had a real bad fever that night and Sunday. I was sick all week. I didn't practice until Thursday, so I only had Thursday practice and Friday walk-through, then we played on Saturday. But then I woke up on Saturday and had food poisoning. So it was like the two worst things that could happen had happened. They pumped me with some IVs and got me on the field and luckily I was able to play," Cole says. Cole helped hold the Spartans to zero sacks as Michigan edged their rival 32-23.
Heading into his final season at Michigan, the coaching staff asked him to switch positions again—this time back to left tackle. Cole being Cole, he instantly accepted. Harbaugh only put him through the switches because he knew he was talented and intelligent enough to handle them.
"He's developed into a coach on the field," Harbaugh told Detroit News of Cole in August. "He is one of the most versatile offensive linemen I've ever been around when you play tackle, start there, then last season moved to center and was one of the best in the conference and now back to tackle. He can be an outstanding guard, as well. Intellect at a high level and ability at the highest level." His teammates held Cole in the same regard, electing him as a team captain for the 2017 season.
Cole was a force at left tackle for Michigan in 2017, earning All-Big Ten second-team honors from the coaches and media as well as the Associated Press. His 51 consecutive starts over the course of his career broke the record for most consecutive starts by a Michigan offensive lineman. With his eligibility exhausted, Cole set his sights on the NFL. To help him prepare for the draft process, he turned to EXOS in Carlsbad, California.
STACK caught up with Cole on location ahead of the NFL Combine and found an athlete delighted with the progress he'd made in previous weeks. "All these different people here at EXOS just work together to make sure that what's happening is really optimizing yourself," Cole says. He also learned to embrace the feelings of nervous energy that come before performance-intensive situations as a positive. "When the pressure's on and you have those butterflies and anxiety—like at the Combine, for example—using that as a positive thing. That's your body giving you a positive reaction and getting you into game mode—(it's not) your body freaking out," Cole says.
Cole also made full use of EXOS's extensive recovery tools, from their hot and cold tubs to the Normatec boots to their team of excellent physical therapists. While going from 51 consecutive college starts into the grind of Combine training sounds like a recipe for exhaustion, Cole took great care of his body and approached the training with a professional mindset.
"What pushes me when things are hard is that this is my job now…my job right now is to work out and train and become a better athlete. So going through a workout or set, I think to myself if I skip a set or if I skip a few reps, I'm getting worse at my job. No one wants that," Cole says.
Cole had a nice showing at the NFL Combine. His 5.23 in the 40-Yard Dash ranked second among all participating centers, while his performance in position drills received rave reviews from NFL analysts. We're also assuming the brilliant football IQ he displayed at Michigan came through during his team interviews. He's projected to play center or possibly guard at the next level.
Cole may be on the precipice of realizing a lifelong dream, but he hasn't forgotten what got him here. "My biggest thing (since high school has been) no matter how talented I was, or no matter how talented someone else was, I was going to do my best to outwork them. Coach Harbaugh taught that at Michigan, too. Keep your head down and work. Don't listen to outside noise and people who judge you, be it good or bad. Just put your head down and work hard," Cole says.
That simple mantra helped him start 104 consecutive games dating back to high school. With a little bit of luck and continued sacrifice, it might just allow him to continue his astonishing streak in the NFL.
Photo Credit: Leon Halip/Getty Images, Joe Robbins/Getty Images