Matt Cole’s dad bought champagne on Thursday, but when the cork will be popped is anyone’s guess.
Cole is a senior football player at McKendree University in downstate Lebanon. Despite his college’s Division II status and out-of-the-way location, Cole has emerged as one of the feel-good stories of this year’s NFL Draft.
The 5-9, 197-pound Curie grad made a name for himself at Northwestern’s pro day on March 10, running a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash and posting a 37.5-inch vertical jump.
“That was my combine since I didn’t get a chance to get invited to the actual combine,” Cole said.
The stakes were high. But he said, there was “no need to be nervous. I knew I had to make an impression, to prove I belong and can compete at the next level.”
The various draft evaluators have taken notice.
Athlon Sports ranks the top 60 wide receiver prospects in the draft. Cole, at No. 47, is one of only two who didn’t play in Division I. Pro Football Network highlighted Cole as one of four underrated prospects.
During McKendree’s season, representatives of 24 NFL teams came to meet with Cole, something he still can’t quite wrap his head around.
“They came to Lebanon, Ill., to talk to me,” Cole said with a bit of wonder.
Part of the attraction is Cole’s versatility, He was McKendree’s top receiver last season with team highs of 43 catches, 939 yards and 12 TDs. But he also was the Bearcats’ primary return man, averaging 27,2 yards on kickoffs with one TD and 26.0 yards on punts with another touchdown. And he had 18 tackles.
Cole is a realist, understanding his chances of an NFL career would be slim if he were just a receiver. The special teams dimension is what has pro scouts giving him a longer look.
“Most guys at my position, unless you’re a first- or second-rounder, your hopes of playing ... are slight,” he said.
But with the ability to contribute as a returner and on coverage, he’s hearing he could go anywhere between the fifth and seventh rounds on Saturday’s final day of the draft. The teams he’s been getting the most interest from are the Baltimore Ravens, the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s been quite a journey for a kid whose athletic career began as a gymnast at Marquette Park on the Southwest Side. Cole got into football as an eighth-grader with the Buccaneers youth program after seeing his older brother Kevin play cornerback at Bogan.
“This is fun to watch,” Cole remembers thinking. “He’s making it look easy.”
Initially, Cole wanted to play defense: “I wanted to hit people.” He was a safety and cornerback all four years at Curie in addition to playing running back and then receiver.
When it came time to pick a college, Cole found his options limited. “Back then I wasn’t doing too good with academics,” he said. “I was just horsing around. I didn’t take school too serious till junior year, senior year.”
A former Curie teammate who went on to play at McKendree told the school’s offensive coordinator about Cole. When the Bearcats started recruiting him, Cole wasn’t sure what to think.
“I never even heard of McKendree before,” Cole said. “They had to tell me where it was located, in Lebanon, Ill.”
But they also told him he could be on the field as a true freshman, and that sold Cole.
Now he’s back home in Chicago, finishing his final semester of classes remotely and on track to graduate this spring with a degree in psychology. And he’s also waiting to see what happens with the draft while he thinks back on his previous opportunity to play in an NFL stadium. That came in 2014 when Curie faced Loyola in the Prep Bowl at Soldier Field.
“I had chills the whole game,” Cole said,
Six years later, he might be getting the chance to play in that kind of venue as a professional.
How will he react if his name is called in the draft?
“To be honest, I might lose my mind,” Cole said. “It’s going to be an epic moment.”