First, let’s dispense with the folklore surrounding Keelan Cole when he first arrived at Kentucky Wesleyan College as a freshman in 2012: he was not 135 pounds.
“I’d say he was 140,” coach Brent Holsclaw said.
See, these are the tall tales that make Cole’s sudden star turn in the NFL playoffs seem so outrageous. When you strip away the hyperbole, it’s perfectly plausible that an undrafted free agent who was a glorified walk-on at a lower-echelon NCAA Division II school would catch the biggest pass in Jacksonville’s divisional playoff upset of Pittsburgh last weekend. Really, what’s so surprising about a kid who started a total of three games in high school becoming the stealth deep threat whose 45-yard reception helped beat the Steelers?
“Every time I talk about it,” Holsclaw said, “I get giggly.”
And sure enough, he’s laughing a few seconds later.
To be sure, Cole’s climb from spindly bench warmer at Louisville Central High School to the Jaguars’ roster is flatly laughable. But he followed the credo of fellow Central graduate Muhammad Ali, who famously declared, “I’m going to show you how great I am.” All it required was for someone to actually pay attention.
That someone was a Jacksonville scout, who first saw Cole play at Kentucky Wesleyan and put the speedy wideout on the franchise’s radar. Later, when he was not selected in the 2017 NFL draft, the Jaguars signed Cole to a free-agent contract within minutes after the draft ended. And then on Aug. 10, in Jacksonville’s first exhibition game, Cole quickly locked up a roster spot by going deep for a 97-yard touchdown catch.
The opponent that day: New England. The same team Jacksonville will face Sunday in Foxborough for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
So rest assured, the Patriots have had Cole on their scouting report this week. Which is amazing to think about: Bill Belichick is fully aware of a guy nobody was aware of just a few months ago.
“He was itty bitty,” Ty Scroggins said.
The former coach of the Central High Yellow Jackets estimates Keelan Cole was 5-foot-6, 125 pounds when he first reported to practice as a freshman. For a coach who sent nine players to Division I football programs, he didn’t see much reason to think Cole would someday become his most accomplished player ever.
But the kid loved the game. Loved the hitting, which is why he played safety more than any other position at Central. Loved the competition. Loved being on a team.
“The smile we see on TV now is what we saw coming in here every day,” Scroggins said. “His attitude was excellent. He was always just happy being around football.”
Still, a nice smile isn’t going to earn playing time. Cole didn’t crack Central’s starting lineup until his senior year, and then he was sidelined for the season by a concussion after just three games.
Still, he wasn’t ready to give up on the sport — even though the sport was plenty ready to give up on him. There were no scholarship offers. Anywhere. Cole considered playing baseball instead. But Holsclaw, a Louisville native, made an annual habit of checking in with Scroggins for overlooked prospects at Central. That put Cole on his radar in December of his senior year of high school, and the player consulted with his uncle, Kent Lewis, who was the campus minister at Kentucky Wesleyan.
Cole visited the small school in Owensboro in March, and accepted a very small partial scholarship. He was basically a walk-on.
“He was not a top recruit by any means,” Holsclaw said. “He was not even close to being ready his freshman year.”
So Cole redshirted — at a place that has never had consecutive winning seasons in its 35-year football history. In the college football hierarchy, Wesleyan is way down the line, hardly the kind of place anyone goes with dreams of being an NFL player. The place has won eight Division II national titles in basketball while never really figuring out the pointed ball.
But while tucked away in obscurity, something happened to Keelan Cole.
He started to grow.
He shot up 5 or 6 inches and started packing on the pounds, while maintaining elite speed. He made the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman and made an impact. By his sophomore year, he was a blossoming star, on his way to shattering school records for receptions, yards and touchdowns.
“To see it happen,” Holsclaw said, “it was just, wow.”
But breaking records at Kentucky Wesleyan wasn’t going to get the attention of the NFL. Holsclaw and his staff knew that, so they inquired about sending Cole to Western Kentucky University’s pro day in the spring of 2016, Cole’s junior year. Holsclaw was a high school teammate of then-WKU coach Jeff Brohm, which helped make it happen. The Hilltoppers agreed to give Cole a chance to run and catch in front of a full complement of scouts.
When Cole nailed that audition, he’d accomplished something unprecedented. He’d become the first NFL prospect in Kentucky Wesleyan history.
Keelan Cole didn’t just make an impact on the field at Kentucky Wesleyan. The smile that coaches noted at Central made him a campus favorite in college, as well. Even school president Bart Darrell took note.
“He really transcended sport here,” Darrell said. “I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as Keelan Cole.”
When he wasn’t working out for football, he was working out for the track team. When he wasn’t doing that, he spent the summers in Owensboro working with children at the YMCA. And when he had a few spare minutes on campus, he’d drop by the president’s office to chat.
One sweltering August day, Darrell was walking across campus and saw some girls chalking a sidewalk with invitations to a sorority rush event. There was Cole, chalk in hand, right alongside them.
“Keelan,” Darrell asked, “what are you doing here?”
“They looked like they needed some help,” Cole responded.
Cole completed work for his undergraduate degree in December 2016, but walked in the Wesleyan commencement the following spring. Darrell handed out the diplomas.
“I didn’t shake his hand when I gave him his diploma,” Darrell said. “I hugged him.”
Later that day, Cole signed with the Jaguars. By then he had bulked up to 194 pounds, grown to 6-foot-1. He was ready for his shot.
The 97-yard bomb against the Patriots helped earn a roster spot, and Cole kept producing. He had 42 catches in the regular season for 748 yards, with a four-game December stretch that produced 442 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Still, it’s unlikely that anyone at Heinz Field was thinking about Cole in the fourth quarter of the Jags-Steelers playoff game. Which was part of the beauty of the play where Cole made his name.
Jacksonville had given away most of a 21-0 advantage and was clinging to a 28-21 lead. With the ball near midfield, Blake Bortles dropped back on first down and chucked it deep — into double coverage. But Cole split the defenders and rose to make the catch, crashing to the ground at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line.
Leonard Fournette scored one play later and Jacksonville went on to record one of the biggest victories in franchise history. And five-plus years after a 135-pounder — no, wait, 140-pounder — first showed up as an afterthought at small Division II school, America knew Keelan Cole’s name.