GREEN BAY — Cole Madison is in a good place — back on a football field, but more importantly, in his own head.
Speaking publicly Tuesday for the first time since not reporting to training camp last summer, the Green Bay Packers 24-year-old offensive lineman discussed the mental health issues that led him to stay away from the game and the team while focusing on dealing with what he called “demons.”
“I’ve taken a year to get my mind right, get my mental health right,” Madison said. “It feels really good to be back.”
Madison took part in Tuesday’s first practice of new coach Matt LaFleur’s voluntary minicamp, the first time he’d played football since last June, when he took part in the Packers’ final minicamp of the offseason but didn’t come back for training camp and spent the year on the reserve/did not report list. He is technically still a rookie, with his contract having been tolled while away from the team.
Madison didn’t delve into specifics about the kind of mental health issues he was dealing with. But he said the death of his former Washington State teammate and close friend Tyler Hilinski, who committed suicide in January 2018, was not the reason why he stayed away. In fact, Madison said Hilinski’s sudden passing led him to seek help.
“I was going through some stuff for a long time that I was putting off, and that caught up to me with the decisions off the field I was doing. I wasn’t making good decisions and it led to bad thoughts,” Madison explained. “This was before Tyler. Tyler, if anything, helped me with knowing that other people go through things, too. It was a little light at the end of the tunnel — light in a dark area. This stuff originated a long time before Tyler.
“If anything, when that happened, it was a first beginning step of a wake-up call for me, how I needed to handle my mental health. (That) was after that entire situation. Me and him were great friends. I would have never known any of that was going on, or vice-versa. I had my demons going on and no one had any idea what was going on.
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“I love football, but at that point it was my health, and my life was on the line. I had to go help myself before my football career. If I didn’t get my chickens in order back then, I don’t think I’d be here right now.”
As for the Packers, who stood by him but also gave him his space during his time away, Madison said: “However they want me to play, I’ll play for them. They had my back, I’ll have their back now.”
Madison, who was sporting a close-cropped haircut after having Clay Matthews-esque flowing locks last year, said he worked at center and left guard during Tuesday’s practice. But from general manager Brian Gutekunst to quarterback Aaron Rodgers to LaFleur, the Packers were just happy to have him back in the fold.
Gutekunst said Madison may fit the Packers’ new offensive scheme better than he fit ex-coach Mike McCarthy’s system, and new offensive line coach Adam Stenavich has been a Madison fan since working him out for the San Francisco 49ers before last year’s draft.
“We were really high on Cole when he was coming out and I’ll tell you what, we’re certainly glad that he’s back in this building. He’s been great,” said LaFleur, who was the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator last year. “(Stenavich) told me that the Niners were planning on drafting him but he got picked a couple picks before they were going to pick him. So certainly, we feel like he adds a lot of value to what we can do with him in our system.”
Said Rodgers: “It’s great to see Cole back. He’s happy to be here, it seems like. We’re happy to have him back. He’s a talented guy. I actually didn’t quite recognize him the first time I saw him because he cut his hair off because he had some nice locks when he got here last year. But we’re happy to have him here. He’s a Packer and it’s important that he feels like this is home. And we’re definitely doing everything we can to make him feel comfortable.”
For his part, Madison said the clouds began to lift in November or December, and credited his family — his parents, sister, sister’s fiancé and his girlfriend — for supporting him and his decision to step away from football and get help.
“That decision to really go out and seek help — especially for men our age — is real tough. Real tough. (But) if I had to make it again, I’d do it again. Because it was the greatest decision I think I ever made,” Madison said.
“After that, it was getting over the hump, (getting to) that period of, ‘I feel like me again.’ I hadn’t felt like me in God knows how long and I finally started to feel positive, feel like, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ and no second-guessing myself.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.