He can’t sleep. Earlier that night, as the draft’s second and third rounds played out on television, he was so nervous that he stopped watching altogether and started doing homework. His dad was stunned to find him choosing schoolwork over the draft.
Now it’s 3 a.m. and he’s still up. He FaceTimes his girlfriend. What do you want? It’s too late, or too early, for this nonsense, and she doesn’t have the patience.
“I just can’t sleep, I’m too excited,” he says, putting his face so close to the screen, as is his habit when he’s emphasizing a point.
“Your nose is shiny,” she says. “Everyone says pregnant women are the ones who shine, but it’s really you.”
He laughs. It was just the distraction he needed. His girlfriend hangs up. He takes some Nyquil and drifts off.
On Saturday, Prospect X sits in front of the TV in the living room for Day 3 of the NFL draft. He starts livestreaming on his Facebook and Instagram so his friends can follow along, and his mom digs out the old camcorder to shoot some old-school home video.
X’s dad hangs up two banners, purple for his alma mater. One says Good Luck [Prospect X] and the other says, Congratulations [Prospect X]. His girlfriend reclines on the couch with her feet up, she’s still tired from the 3 a.m. interruption. At the beginning of the sixth round, X puts his phone to his ear. Mom quiets everyone down and starts recording on her handheld camera. But it’s just a position coach calling to wish him good luck—X calls off mom’s camera with a shake of his hand. He gets several more calls like it throughout the afternoon, all from NFL scouts or coaches he’s developed a relationship with. Nobody says the words, We’re going to draft you, but coaches from the Eagles, Saints and Panthers tell him, we’re trying to figure something out. I’m hammering for them to draft you. His girlfriend’s phone is now full of videos that were all false alarms. Still, X believes.
Philadelphia, a team that’s shown a lot of interest in him, picks another player at his position with their first sixth-round selection. It’s fine, plenty more teams like me and still have a need, X tells himself. But then Baltimore, San Francisco, and the Chargers—all teams that had expressed interest—do the same with their sixth- and seventh-round picks. X looks at the players drafted instead of him. They went to bigger schools than him, but other than that, are undersized just like him. Now he’s feeling anxious. Damn, I guess they were just blowing smoke up my ass.
Meanwhile, X’s agent is busy. Six different teams have already inquired about him as a priority free agent, and the agent, working from his home in Cincinnati, is weighing the offers and opportunities to make the roster with each one. The signing bonus isn’t the most important thing, but money is still a factor. X has several good opportunities, but the agent doesn’t want him to make a decision until he has all the information possible. One team that’s been really interested in him all week has suddenly started ghosting. X’s agent had been in contact with an executive there that morning, and again in the fifth round talking about X. They really need X’s position, so the agent calls back in to see if they are still interested. The executive doesn’t answer the phone. He shoots him a text. Hit me back as soon as you can. No reply. The agent waits 11 minutes and follows up again with another text.
Receiving inquiries for [Prospect X], are you still interested?
This time the executive replies with a curt and definitive, No.
The agent mutters an expletive. He’s stunned that the team has changed its mind so quickly. The draft is technically still unfolding, but the “eighth round,” the post-draft free agency scramble, is even wilder this year because teams aren’t operating from one facility with everyone in the same room.
In his parent’s living room, X gets a call from a Fort Lauderdale area code. The seventh round is over. The room falls silent again. Dad doesn’t even breathe.
Hi, is this Matt Cole?, asks the voice on the other end.
This is Brian Flores, head coach of the Miami Dolphins.
* * *
Last week's Prospect X teaser video included clues that revealed Prospect X's first and last name, his position, his college—including campus location, conference and mascot—and his high school. Here's what you should have been looking for:
If you watched closely enough you would have identified him. And if you didn't? Try again next year—though we'll be making it much more difficult.
* * *
As many correctly guessed—on Twitter, Reddit, and in emails to The MMQB, among other places—Prospect X is Matt Cole, who played wide receiver, gunner, kick and punt returner at McKendree University, one of the smallest schools in Division II, in Lebanon, Illinois (pop: 4,274).
The 5' 10'', 197-pound Cole was the Great Lakes Valley Conference Special Teams player of the year. When scouts talked about him, they always mentioned his 18 special teams tackles last season (11 solo) and 48 for his career. (Also, the day the first Prospect X article ran, a scout interested in Matt sent him a text, Dang man, you got other teams sending you golf balls!?!?)
Cole grew up on the Southwest side of Chicago, where he’s lived in the same two-flat red-brick apartment building his entire life. His parents, Floyd and Marie, bought the building when they started having kids, so they could raise Matt, and his three older siblings, Kandace, Kevin and Joseph, in the downstairs apartment while the grandparents lived in the upstairs apartment and served as the family’s live-in babysitters. Now, Cole’s oldest brother, his sister-in-law, and his seven-month-old nephew live downstairs.
He played football at Curie Metropolitan High School in Chicago’s Public League, where many of the basketball teams are sponsored by shoe brands while the football teams struggle to get a turnout.
Because there were no top-30 visits to team facilities or private workouts, Cole took all his pre-draft “business calls” from his childhood bedroom. Sometimes he forgot to shut the door, and inevitably, one of his older brothers would peek his head in to find out who little bro was talking with now. When that happened, Cole would wave his hands frantically and motion for the intruder to get out of his office.
His middle brother, Joseph, typically brings in the mail, and several times this past month, he carried a big box from an NFL team up to Cole’s room. The Ravens sent what Cole described as, “a whole wardrobe.” The Bears sent him a selection of shirts and shorts. Now that he’s a Dolphin, his brothers are claiming and dividing up all the goods from other teams.
“Cole World” is tattooed on his biceps, a tribute to his strong family support system (and a play on the rapper J. Cole’s first album). Floyd and Marie aren’t surprised Matt is now a professional athlete, but they wouldn’t have guessed football would be his sport. “I thought he was going to be a gymnast and go to the Olympics,” Floyd says.
When Matt was four years old, he saw the Jesse White Tumblers, a popular Chicago-based group of youth acrobats, flip and twist in a local parade. He was transfixed by their movements and started telling everyone that he was a Power Ranger just like them. He ran and jumped and rolled and flipped off the big tree in the yard until Marie decided to put him in organized gymnastics to more safely channel his fearless acrobatics. Cole competed in tumbling, gymnastics and cheerleading up until he started playing football in eighth grade. He was even invited to join the Jesse White Tumblers, but by then he’d decided to give football a shot.
He traded the mat for the field, but Matt never stopped flipping. His college coach, Mike Babcock, could hardly watch when his best player casually threw four consecutive backflips on the field after games, soaring higher into the air with each rotation. Please don’t land on your head, Babcock thought to himself each time. Matt never did.
To help scouts remember him (and to show off his athleticism), Cole texted them videos of himself spinning around the barbell, squatting 500 lbs, and then effortlessly backflipping.
When the first NFL scout showed up to fall camp at McKendree, the first person Cole called was his dad. “I was so surprised,” Cole says. “I’m like, a scout? Here?”
Each week brought a new scout to the small campus, and he kept a running list of the date and the team on a notepad on his bedside table. Next to the notepad, he neatly stacked each business card. Some nights, days after the scout had come and gone, he’d flip through them with pride: Ravens, Bears, Rams. As the teams kept coming, he kept calling home with more updates.
Matt gets his energy from his dad. He’d call home and share the latest team to stop by, and as soon as he’d hang up Floyd would rush to group-text Matt’s four uncles to update them with the latest news. Look who came by today! Then he’d make the rounds to his favorite diner, Granny B’s, the type of familiar spot on the corner of a block that serves comfort food to the neighborhood cops and a close-knit group of regulars. They’d ask, How is Matt doing? Over his usual order, a grilled chicken salad, he’d gush about the latest group of scouts to show interest in his son.
Matt looks back at his notepad now: Miami’s area scout, Grant Wallace, visited Oct. 21.
* * *
We are excited about you, Flores tells him on that call. We are going to work something out with your agent because we definitely want you.
Flores was the only head coach who called Cole, and the coach sounded so excited about his future in Miami that Cole cried while he was still on the phone.
Cole agrees to Miami’s offer, which includes a $12,000 signing bonus and a $10,000 paragraph 5 guarantee. He’s not even disappointed he wasn’t drafted; this is just another chip on his Division II shoulder.
He hangs up the phone with his agent and walks back into the living where his family is waiting for him. “It’s official,” he says, grinning. “I’m going to the Miami Dolphins.”
Marie stops him. She wasn’t recording, so he’ll have to start over. Matt repeats himself, and Marie bounces around the room with the camera, going up to everyone in the family and asking, “Are you excited?! Are you excited?!”
The Cole family cracks open a bottle of Dom Pérignon and everyone fills their glasses for a toast. Everyone except Matt’s girlfriend, Eyona White, who is seven months pregnant with their first child. She fills her glass with water.
Ten minutes after Cole agrees to Miami’s offer, his agent, Brian Hamilton, gets a call from the team that had surprisingly dropped out of the race to sign Cole. It’s a different executive this time, not the one he’d spoken and texted with earlier that day. What happened with Matt Cole? Why did you guys send him somewhere else?
Hamilton is taken aback. “What do you mean, what happened?” Hamilton says. “Your guy said you weren’t interested.”
Hamilton explains that he got a no from the first team executive. Executive No. 2 can’t believe this. He asks for the receipts, so Hamilton sends him a screenshot of the text that said, No.
Executive No. 2 is upset, he still wanted Cole badly, but he chalks it up to an internal miscommunication. Because of coronavirus, he and the other executive are not in the same building.
“Something like that shouldn't happen, but you can understand how it might happen in these circumstances,” Hamilton says now. He’s never experienced anything like that until this year. The head coaches and general managers appeared calm and comfortable in their home offices on the draft broadcast, but undrafted free agency wasn’t nearly as simple.
Just as agents and scouts predicted, the small-school noncombine prospects were hurt by the restrictions put on the predraft process. Only nine non-FBS prospects were drafted this year, down from 17 in 2019. Over the last decade, between 17 and 24 small school prospects have been drafted each year. Of those nine small schoolers, just three were also combine snubs like Cole.
Cole is surprised he is now a Dolphin; they were not among the teams to shower him with interest during the predraft process. But it meant a lot to him that Flores was the one who called to recruit him—head coaches don’t make many calls to undrafted prospects. (The Dolphins are also not the team that sent Floyd team-branded golf balls as a recruiting ploy, but he plans to keep them on his mantle anyway, as a keepsake to remember this weird draft journey.)
During the predraft process, it looked like Philadelphia or Baltimore might be better fits for Cole, based on their interest in him and his potential to earn a roster spot, but on Saturday that all changed. Philadelphia drafted three receivers and acquired Marquise Goodwin in a trade with the 49ers, and Baltimore drafted two players similar to Cole, Devin Duvernay and James Proche, both the shorter, stockier receiver/returner types. The Dolphins drafted only one receiver, in the seventh round (Malcolm Perry of Navy). They have an accomplished return specialist in Jakeem Grant.
Cole is thrilled to have a chance to be part of Miami’s rebuild. “We are about to rebrand the whole organization,” he says. “If you paid attention to the draft, the kind of people they picked up, the offense and the defense. … And to have Tua out there throwing it to me as well? Oh, yeah.”
When Cole talks about the Dolphins, he switches between using the pronouns “we” and “they.” He’s still getting used to the fact that he is part of the team now.
* * *
On Sunday, the day after the draft, Cole lays in bed and responds to the hundreds of notifications on his social media congratulating him. It’s starting to feel real and he’s completely exhausted. The champagne toast was just the start of a long celebration Saturday night.
At 12:30 he hops on a Zoom call with his new special teams coordinator, Danny Crossman. Though it’s unclear what training camp will look like, and if and when there will be a season, Miami is wasting no time getting started. It’s a short conversation just to get to know each other, and Crossman lays out what he sees for Cole’s future in Miami.
Later that day, he FaceTimes with a reporter. When Cole is asked about what the Dolphins see for him, he tries and fails to hide his excitement. He won’t give details because Crossman wanted him to keep the conversation confidential, but his face gives him away. His lips curl up into an impossibly wide smile that takes over his whole face.
“I love what he told me.” he says. “I didn’t just like it, I loved it. He was speaking love language to me.”
The contracts for this draft class feature special coronavirus language regarding when the players will receive their signing bonuses, which typically hinges on passing the team’s physical. With travel restrictions in place, who knows when Cole will be able to travel to Miami to see the team’s doctor. The rookies will all be staying home this week and starting meetings on Zoom, instead of reporting for rookie mini-camps. The Dolphins’ 2020 rookie class is staying in touch with a group text for now.
Though his immediate future is uncertain, especially after going undrafted, both Matt and Eyona are unfailingly positive. Matt Cole Jr. is expected in June, and Matt will finish his psychology degree in May. Their lives are just taking off.
“It doesn’t matter if he got drafted on the TV or signed as a free agent,” Eyona says on the FaceTime call with the reporter. “I am just glad he made it to the other side.”
“Well, thank you kindly,” Matt says in a goofy voice as he pokes his head in front of the camera and rubs Eyona’s stomach.
One more thing before he hangs up the FaceTime call. “Check out my kicks too!” Cole lowers his phone camera to show off a pair of Nike sneakers in a teal and orange colorway. “I’ve had these for a minute because I liked the colors,” he says. “But now I can wear them with a purpose.”
Draft season is over, and there are three things he knows for sure: He’ll soon be a father, he'll soon be a college graduate, and, now, he is a Miami Dolphin.
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