TAMPA — At last count, the legion of Mason Cole supporters expected for the Outback Bowl had outgrown a nook of Raymond James Stadium and was set to overtake a whole section.
Specifically, Section 203, in the northwest corner. Most of the 100 or so members of this contingent — ranging from parents to pals to siblings — will nestle there today, bedecked in custom-designed maize and blue shirts. All are emblazoned with Cole’s jersey number (52) and a logo: Welcome Home Mason.
"They’re T-shirts," noted Cole’s father, John, "so hopefully it’s warm enough where we can wear ’em."
If durability and grit run in the Cole clan, braving a little brisk weather should be no issue. The guy they’re gathering to watch — a Wolverines senior captain and East Lake High alumnus — has braved worse while perpetuating one of the most astounding streaks in Michigan lore.
Cole — a 6-foot-5, 297-pound left tackle — is set to make his 51st consecutive start in 51 career games as a Wolverine, tying the program record.
"That guy’s a beast," Michigan tailback (and Sarasota native) Karan Higdon said.
It gets more beastly. Cole also never missed a start in four seasons — 51 games — at East Lake, Eagles coach Bob Hudson confirmed. In five seasons of youth football prior to that, John Cole never recalls his son missing a game.
"To play the sport we play, with how violent it is, not to miss a game since high school is unheard of," said USF safety Devin Abraham, Cole’s former East Lake teammate. "He is one of a kind."
No sense trying to ascertain reasons for the inexplicable. Oh sure, Cole deflects some of the credit for the streak to Michigan’s strength coaches and trainers, and his bloodlines are filled with resolve and resilience.
His maternal grandfather ran his own construction business, where off-days were a foreign concept; his paternal grandfather logged 40 years as a driver for a national moving company. Even John, who works in sales for a commodity-trading company, says he never has taken a sick day.
But neither heredity nor protein shakes nor power cleans can explain how a lineman can navigate more than 100 games without having someone roll his ankle or wrench his knee. And the law of averages would insist at some point over the course of eight autumns, Cole would’ve been stricken with one malady or another.
"I don’t think there really is a secret," he said. "I’ve said this a few times; A lot of it is just good luck. Someone will fall on the ground and you just being a half-second away from injury and you weren’t."
That’s not to say Cole has averted fractures and flu bugs altogether. He was so sick the week before the 2016 game against Michigan State, he was quarantined inside his Ann Arbor residence a few days.
"Didn’t practice ’til like, Thursday that week," he recalled. "I didn’t really leave my house until Thursday that week. But like I said, I just made it through."
John says his son played at least one game as an East Lake freshman with a fractured wrist protected by a cast.
"Mason Coles, they don’t come around that often," Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh said.
While such durability is rare, Cole’s blend of steadiness and versatility make him a veritable outlier.
He started his first college game — against Appalachian State on Aug. 30, 2014 — at left tackle and made 24 consecutive starts at that position before switching to center last season. He moved back to left tackle this year, earning second-team All-Big Ten and an invitation to the Senior Bowl.
Offensive coordinator Tim Drevno said he feels Cole’s future is at guard or center. While his agility or power isn’t likely to make Senior Bowl scouts swoon, his football IQ and coachability might. WalterFootball.com lists him as the No. 10 center prospect in the 2018 NFL draft.
"I think he’d be an outstanding guard, but he could play the center position, too," Drevno said. "I think just the way he sets anchor on the pass and is able to move his feet on a three-technique, that’s a hard thing to do in the National Football League, just with the speed and adversity those guys bring with their pass rushes and things.
"But he could be a great center, too, because he’s got a great mind. He could direct traffic inside, getting the calls and things."
If history is any sign, his future employer can almost bank on him showing up for work every day. Rain or shine, sore knee or sinus infection.
"He’ll be a great pro," Harbaugh said. "He’ll play for a long time, play at a very high level in the NFL. Looking forward to watching that."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.