There wasn’t a pop. There wasn’t a rip. There wasn’t any pain.
Corey Cola just felt a strange sensation in his knee — “like bones shifting between rubber” — and dropped to the ground.
Cola was playing in a scrimmage with the Park Vista Cobras on May 11, and he knew he was hurt. Probably a hyperextension, which was disappointing because Park Vista’s spring game against Royal Palm Beach was coming up, and Cola had never played in a spring game before. Various injuries had taken care of that.
Then he got to the bleachers, shed his cleats and sat down.
“I realized it might be my ACL,” he said, “and I just bursted out in tears.”
‘I’d rather it be me (instead of) him’
Cola was correct, but he didn’t want to believe it. He saw a doctor, who confirmed his fears, but he asked his mother, Marie Simon, to take him for a second opinion. He couldn’t have torn his ACL because that meant his entire senior season was in jeopardy.
Despite the initial disbelief, they accepted the doctor’s opinion. With a diagnosis of a partially torn ACL, the decision came down to either repair Cola’s knee, which would likely mean missing his entire senior season, or to try to play on it and risk suffering a total tear.
After talking to the Park Vista coaching staff, Cola decided to have the surgery, sacrificing most, if not all, of his senior year so he could have a chance to play his freshman year of college.
Cola had never undergone any type of surgery and he had trouble processing the idea right up until he went in to have his knee repaired.
“I never actually believed I’d be having surgery,” he said.
It was an all-day affair for Cola and his family. They arrived at the hospital at 9 a.m. on May 16 and did not get home until 8 p.m. They had to stay in the waiting room for a stretch, then Cola was prepared for surgery, leaving his mother to wait for the two-hour procedure to wrap up.
“All I could think was, ‘I’d rather it be me,’ (instead of) him in there,” Simon said. “I just stayed in the waiting room, crying, because I know how much he loves football.”
Cola woke up with no pain in his knee (thanks to a nerve block that did not wear off for days) and joked around with his family before leaving the hospital. But the hardest part was yet to come.
“His position coach (Carlton Prescott) was telling me that when a player goes through this, the most difficult part is the depression,” Simon said.
After the surgery, Cola didn’t leave the house much. He stayed in his room, crying and watching his old highlights. His mind kept wandering back to the same question.
“How did this happen to me?” he said.
If that wasn’t enough, Cola had part of his potential future yanked away from him. The running back, who was a second-team All-Area pick as a junior, was part of a senior core of Cobras. The other three players — Jake Collins (South Florida), Atorian Perry (Alabama-Birmingham) and John Smith (Holy Cross) — are committed to play college football; Cola is not.
“The week he got hurt, he lost a few (offers),” Simon said. “A couple schools came there, ready to offer him.
“Then they saw him on crutches.”
With opportunities to play football at the next level and receive a free education gone — maybe for good — it would be easy to stay in bed and curse fate. Depression sank in, but Cola worked his way out of it.
He started working out four days after his surgery, trying to straighten his knee despite the pain.
“You have to just break out of it,” he said, “and bring the same mentality you have for football into physical therapy.”
Cola did not stay in his funk for long. He soon channeled the determination he had to sprint toward the end zone and play football at the college level into a desire to just get back on the field.
He attributes his ability to quickly snap out of post-surgery depression to his friends and family. While his teammates and coaches were out of town and playing in tournaments, they would constantly call and text him to check in.
“All my coaches, they all text me,” he said. “Sometimes, I feel like they talk about me and then all just text me at the same. My phone gets blown up.”
Perry has been one of the most frequent visitors at Cola’s house, along with Prescott.
“It’s been good for me to be there for him and him to know that I’m there for him,” Perry said. “Our friendship is becoming better. … I hope our friendship just carries on when we’re in college and grown men.”
But Perry has one part of his future planned. Cola does not. He is still trying to prove that he can play again.
“I told him,” Simon said, “all it’s going to take is one coach to believe in you.”
Another big decision
It’s late July, and fall football practice is around the corner. Cola has been training for months.
Getting ready for his senior year has taken on a larger significance now, as Cola, who transferred from Park Vista to Atlantic, works out at Fyzical Therapy and Balance Center in Lake Worth. He is eyeing a return to the field before the regular season ends so he can get one more chance to play in high school.
“I’m healing really fast, and everything’s perfect,” he said. “Things people would be doing at their four-month mark, I’m doing at my two-month mark, and so I’m just doing everything I can to keep it that way so I can make a huge comeback.”
Cola announced that he would transfer to the Eagles on his Twitter account Monday night and has gotten flack for it, but he thinks it is the best thing he can do for his future in football.
“After three years of being highly scouted, I am still waiting for my blessing,” Cola said in a text message. “I want to play ball at the next level. … All I want is my chance.”
Simon said that she would prefer her son to sit out the year, take his time with recovering and be ready to play when a college comes calling. But she knows one last year of high school ball is important to Cola.
On this muggy night in suburban Lake Worth, Cola gets set up on an elliptical machine. His trainer, David Yurick, says he normally start people on Level 5. He puts Cola on Level 8. Within minutes, Cola ups it to Level 10.
“Eight was easy,” he says.
Yurick has Cola sit on a wheeled stool and do laps around the therapy center’s workout room. Cola scoots around the room, dodging other patients working out and training equipment like linebackers. Minutes later, he lets Yurick know he’s done.
“Damn,” Yurick tells the running back, “that was quick.”