For the first time since August, fans received an update on the status of Cole Madison who the Green Bay Packers selected in the fifth-round of last year’s NFL Draft. The former Washington State offensive lineman never reported to training camp last summer due to “personal reasons” and ended up sitting out the entire 2018 season. According to Michael Cohen of The Athletic, Madison’s absence is related to the death of his former college teammate, quarterback Tyler Hilinski.
According to Cohen, it is uncertain whether Madison will ever play football again. The story has far-reaching implications beyond the Packers and Madison.
Hilinski took his own life on January 16, 2018, just a few weeks after his team’s bowl appearance. The cause of death was a self-inflicted gun shot. He was just 21 years old.
In late June, it was revealed that Hilinski had been diagnosed with stage one chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the brain condition that has affected so many former football players. CTE can only be confirmed after death. It can cause depression, mood swings, dementia and many other debilitating symptoms. Former NFL stars like Mike Webster, Junior Seau and Andre Waters were all posthumously diagnosed with CTE. It is suspected the CTE was a cause of Hilinksi’s suicide.
We don’t know the exact reason why Madison decided not to report to the Packers training camp last summer. Neither Madison nor his agent have given any specific details and the Packers organization has also refused to discuss the exact reasons the player stayed away with the media.
Still, it is often easy to forget that the athletes we enjoy watching on the football field each weekend are human beings. On television, they look so big and so tough. We are reminded how they overcome injuries and pain to go off to do battle before the TV cameras to entertain us. But these young men are sons, brothers, fathers, husbands and friends. They are vulnerable. They are human.
Tyler Hilinski was a quarterback. Under normal circumstances, quarterbacks don’t take blows to the head on every play. Typically, they endure less contact than players at almost any other position in the game except kickers and punters.
Madison plays offensive line. Each time the ball is snapped in a game or in practice, linemen on both sides of the ball are involved in contact with one or more players. There are the occasional big blows to the head that result in concussions and other noticeable injuries and then there are the small, typical collisions that eventually take a cumulative toll on the bodies of so many football players.
Remember, the average football player starts in Pee Wee or Pop Warner at a very young age. Even if they start playing football in middle school at roughly the age of 12, that’s almost 10 years of collisions and contact before a player even reaches the NFL. It’s also a lot of potential brain trauma.
If Hilinski already had stage one CTE at 21 while playing quarterback, what would another four years of playing in the NFL against bigger, stronger and faster players mean for Madison playing on the offensive line? The sad realization of losing a close friend at the age of 21 is bad enough, but how can a young man come to grips with the fact that the way he was trying to make a living was the very same thing that likely caused his friend’s death. Furthermore, he was certainly a candidate for a worse case of CTE based on the position he played, and the extra years of collisions a pro career would entail.
While we don’t yet know the specifics, Madison clearly had a lot to think about last June when his friend’s diagnosis was announced. What role if any, did football play in his friend’s death and what did this mean for his own future?
Football players work hard to play a game that puts their bodies and apparently their minds at great risk. Cole Madison needed to take time to sort all of this out and to determine what if any role football would play in his future. We do not know if Madison will return to the Packers this year or ever. But we do know that the game of football and the people who run it need to do all they can to make the game as safe as possible for all the men who take the field to play it so there will not be any more cases like Tyler Hilinski in the future.