Cole Madison making fans in locker room with return to Packers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It’s been one year, six months and five days since Cole Madison played football in a stadium in front of thousands of people.

That will end Friday, when he walks through the tunnel at Lambeau Field for the Green Bay Packers' annual Family Night practice.

A year ago, no one -- not even Madison -- knew if he’d ever play football in front of people again. The fifth-round pick from Washington State was back home in Shelton, Washington, fighting a much more important battle -- one with his own mental health that would keep him away for his entire rookie season.

Now, the 24-year-old offensive lineman will have some 70,000 fans cheering for him -- and the rest of the Packers -- as they take the field for one of the highlights of the summer, the annual prime-time practice in the stadium.

At first, Madison tried to play it off as no big deal.

“For me, I look at it as just another day at work,” he said initially.

But then, he broke out in an ear-to-ear grin.

“Just thinking about it gets you going a little bit,” Madison said. “We’ll see when we get out there how we feel. I’m sure I’ll be running around, hair on fire.”

Madison has already won over some fans in his own locker room.

“Not speaking on his situation, it’s not for me to discuss because I don’t have any knowledge of it, but I think just the whole aspect of what he went through being away and now coming to camp ... you definitely are rooting for a guy like that,” veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga said.

Madison’s locker was originally right next to Bulaga’s and among the rest of the offensive linemen expected to contribute last season. Now, Madison is in the auxiliary locker room, among those who are just battling for a roster spot.

“For him to go through something like that and come back and rise up to the top, he’s an underdog story and that’s always my deal,” second-year defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster said.

Lancaster and Madison came to the Packers in the same class, although Lancaster was an undrafted free agent, and they quickly became friends.

But even Lancaster didn’t -- and still doesn’t -- fully understand what Madison was going through last season. Madison shed some light on it when he returned to the Packers at the start of the offseason program, when he said: “My life was on the line” if he didn’t seek mental health help.

“I know a lot of that stuff you can’t really understand,” Lancaster said. “I haven’t been there, so I don’t want to reopen something that might [upset him]. I’ll be there for him if he needs it, but I’m not going to initiate something he doesn’t want to talk about.”

Madison’s last meaningful football came at the Senior Bowl on Jan. 27, 2018. This past weekend was the first time since then that he put on pads. He promptly went out and blocked Lancaster to win his first two reps in the one-on-one pass-rushing drill.

“I was thinking about this earlier, he’s a guy who hasn’t put on pads since college,” Lancaster said. “To see him back and to see him moving so well is surprising. I’m really, really happy for the guy. He came in with my class, and we became friends during OTAs. I’ve seen a lot of good things. Obviously nothing’s perfect and that’s with all of us. Things are rusty and that’s going to happen, but I think he’s on an upward trajectory.”

Of course, pass-blocking should be his forte, considering, as he said: “At Washington State, we threw the ball 95 percent of the time.”

But he’s playing a new position. Actually, new positions, plural. He started all 47 of his games in college at right tackle, but the Packers drafted him as a guard and also have worked him in at center. He also has to learn a new offense with first-year coach Matt LaFleur, and it’s more run-oriented than anything he did in college, where they had three basic run plays.

“We had run right, run left and a trap-counter run up the middle,” Madison said. “It was pretty simple.”

For Madison, it’s a long way between now and final cuts on Aug. 31. But each event along the way represents a milestone -- from the first day in pads to Friday night’s practice to the preseason opener on Aug. 8.

“The biggest thing for me is just being around the guys,” Madison said. “As a football player, being in the locker room and being with the guys was the thing I missed. The camaraderie, that’s what I missed.”