Mason Cole, all 6-foot-5 of him, sat down in his coach’s office.
Beside him was his dad, John, who had flown up to Ann Arbor from Tampa, and sitting across the room at his desk was offensive coordinator Tim Drevno. But the maestro in the room, Jim Harbaugh, was standing, pacing around. Harbaugh, still wearing his football cleats and dressed in the vintage Harbaugh look, eventually sat down, but only for 10 seconds before getting up again to pace back and forth.
The four gathered to discuss Mason’s future. It was Dec. 23rd, 2016, just a couple days before Christmas, and Schembechler Hall was bustling. Staff ran around in preparation for the upcoming bowl game in Miami. Recruits were visiting the building for the first time. Mason and John felt lucky to get Harbaugh alone, even if it was for only an hour.
The meeting was important though — Mason’s father wouldn’t have made the trip if it weren’t. Should he go pro? Mason, always even-tempered, wasn’t sure how serious he was about leaving college early to go to the NFL Draft. There was a lot going well for him in Ann Arbor. But it was the NFL; he had to consider it.
On their own time, Mason and his parents had laid out their own versions of the pros and cons. At first, John figured they should just have the conversation over a conference call, but he later changed his mind. He doesn’t get to meet with Harbaugh face-to-face very often, and after all — John thought — who better for advice about going pro than someone who had coached in a Super Bowl?
So John flew up to see Mason and meet with the coaches. The trip would be short, but it was well worth it.
“If you guys want to go (into the NFL Draft), we’ll support you a hundred percent,” John remembers Harbaugh saying in the meeting. “We’ll do all we can through the contacts we have to help the process.”
And so the four talked. They talked about Mason’s age, his size and what position he would play going forward.
Mason’s junior season had just finished, and like every season dating all the way back to his freshman year of high school, he had started every game. In 2016, he played center. He had played left tackle for the two years before, but his coaches envisioned he would play inside whenever he moved to the NFL.
If Michigan needed him to, Mason would’ve moved to play anywhere on the offensive line.
“I think if you asked Mason, he’d play wide receiver if he thought it would help us win,” said Michigan tackles coach Greg Frey.
Mason’s talent was undeniable. For three straight years, he had been the Wolverines’ most reliable player. The former coaching staff under Brady Hoke saw it from the beginning.
In mid-August of 2014, there had been hints and signs that Mason, a true freshman at the time, might get serious playing time. He’d been practicing well and rotating with the expected starters, and toward the end of fall camp, he finally got the nod. Soon after, he called his parents to tell them the news.
Mason’s parents, John and Maggie, were at a business conference in Banff, Alberta when they found out their son was going to start. They had promised him that if he were starting, they would go to every game. They just didn’t know it was going to happen that quickly.
Against Appalachian State in September 2014, Mason Cole became the first-ever true freshman at Michigan to start a season opener on the offensive line.
He was just plain good, and his coaches knew it. They couldn’t describe what made him better than the next guy, he just was.
Frey saw his potential from an early age. He recruited Mason when he was coaching at Indiana, and still remembers the day Mason turned down an offer to play for the Hoosiers.
“He was special in high school,” Frey said. “When you went and watched him practice, there was something different. They call it the ‘it factor’ or whatever. He had it, and he has it.”
Perhaps it was his dependability — nobody could play more consistently. Harbaugh has said that Mason is a “standout” at all times. Mason’s dad called him a “Steady Eddie.”
It was one the reasons he was able to consider going pro.
At the meeting in Drevno’s office, they talked about Mason’s goals and how he would fit in in the NFL.
Mason was younger than a lot of the others entering the draft. He had never redshirted a season, and despite all of his experience, he was still young — just 20 years old at the time.
Another year under Harbaugh would add to his résumé, and staying for a fourth season could substantially help his career. After his junior year, he was projected to get drafted somewhere between the second and fourth rounds. With another season, he could maybe sneak into the first.
The NFL and all its money were attractive, but playing on the biggest stage as soon as possible didn’t matter to him. He didn’t want to pass up on the chance to graduate from school, a lesson he learned from his dad.
John’s mother — Mason’s grandmother — was the oldest of 13 kids. Growing up, John had lots of extended family, but he was the first one to graduate from college. During John’s senior year of high school, his dad encouraged him to continue pursuing his education.
“You gotta go at least one year to try it,” he recalls his father saying.
Then John asked his father who was going to pay for college.
“Well, you are,” his father replied.
So he did. John enrolled at Northern Illinois, and worked each summer to make enough money to cover tuition. While his friends were out doing other things, John spent long summer hours hauling furniture for a moving company in Chicago. He earned his way through college, and moved forward in the business world. Six years after Mason was born, the Cole family moved south from Batavia, Ill. to Tarpon Springs, Fla. John and Maggie raised three kids, and Mason always noticed the hard work his parents were putting in.
Every day in high school, Mason woke up at 6:00 a.m. His dad would be up at the same time to get to work, and his mom would always have breakfast ready. After school, he’d go to football practice, and when that ended he would come home to another cooked meal from his mom. Mason had the whole house to himself, as his two older siblings had gone away to college while he was at East Lake High School.
“Golden child,” Mason says with a laugh. “Dinner would always be ready, and Mom would be the first one to put all my football laundry in the washer to get it ready for the next day.”
As he describes it, he was just like any other kid. He liked hanging out with his friends in the neighborhood, riding his bike around town and going to the beach. In the summer, he worked on the docks at the Homeport Marina in Palm Harbor, tying up boats and refueling tanks. He’d always come home with a pocket full of singles from the tips he had made.
And every fall Friday before a football game, his mom picked up the same turkey sub sandwich from the supermarket and brought it to him for lunch. It was a steady routine, and nothing too out of the ordinary, but it was just what Mason wanted.
He was a humble, hard-working kid, and it made him good at his job.
Whether he was paying for college by playing football — which he ended up doing — or paying for it through another job like his dad, he wanted to earn his way through life. He wanted to make his parents proud.
In Drevno’s office, Harbaugh sat down. Then he got back up. They talked about what Mason could do, and what he already had done, for the team.
With 37 consecutive starts over three years, Mason’s impact on Michigan football was easy to grasp. He was a two-time All-Big Ten honoree, with a second team award in 2016 and an honorable mention in 2015.
To start a true freshman at left tackle in the season opener sounded crazy, but with Mason it seemed like nothing short of necessary. Guarding the quarterback’s blind side is one of the most important roles on the field, but he established himself as the frontrunner from the moment he arrived.
He impressed the coaching staff with his abilities on the field, and his teammates took a liking to him as well.
He became close with the fellow Brady Hoke-holdovers like Patrick Kugler, Wilton Speight and Henry Poggi — guys that stuck with the program even when the team was losing. They’d fought together through the hard times their freshman year when the team went 5-7, when their coach was fired and when they really asked themselves, ‘How are we ever gonna be good?’
But those struggles brought them closer, and it motivated them. The program had been through so much in the time between his official recruiting visit and the meeting in Drevno’s office, but he never doubted it was right the place for him.
‘You should choose a school for the school’, Mason’s high school coach used to tell him. Regardless of who the coach was or would be, Mason felt like he was in a great place.
As he grew older, his coaches expected him to cultivate and sustain the environment he loved so much.
Mason would host recruits when they came to visit. When offensive linemen Nolan Ulizio and Ben Bredeson arrived on each of their official visits, it was Mason’s responsibility to make sure they would want to return.
“Two-for-two on those,” Mason laughs.
The trust among Mason, his coaches and his teammates continued to grow. He developed as a mentor, and his whole team understood how big of an impact he was making.
Poggi once said that Mason was “so special for our program.”
Ulizio added: “Anything I need help with, I just go up to Mason and ask for advice.”
Mason was reliable off of the football field — just as much as he was on it.
And in Drevno’s office, they talked about making Mason a captain.
The coaches couldn’t guarantee it. Michigan football captains are elected by their teammates, but they gave him their full support. They all knew that Mason was next in line for the position, and the coaches told him that during the meeting.
Mason never tried to become a leader. He just did. With his success in high school and college, the role just came to him. At first, John and Mason weren’t sure they understood what being a captain entailed.
“I play offensive line. It’s not really a spotlight position to begin with,” Mason said. “But I think that’s one of the ways to be successful.”
Mason had made a career by staying under the radar. He made the right choices and never complained. He always kept a cool mind and showed up ready to work.
As he sat in that meeting in December, with Harbaugh, Drevno and his dad around him, Mason made his decision.
In eight months, he would start his final year of school. In eight months, he would start on Michigan’s offensive line for a fourth straight season. In eight months, he would hear his name in All-American discussions.
In eight months, he would be elected a captain for Michigan, text his parents, “Got it”, and call them later to hear how proud they were.
The meeting in Drevno’s office went on for about an hour and a half that day, as the four continued laying out what was best for Mason. Harbaugh gave him his assurance. No matter what Mason chose, he would have his coaches’ full support.
“But,” Harbaugh said, “we’d love to have you stay.”