GREEN BAY – One of the biggest questions surrounding the Packers over the past year was answered earlier this month when 2018 fifth-round pick Cole Madison reported for the start of the team's offseason program.
The former Washington State offensive lineman was a full participant in last year's offseason and was expected to compete for a starting job at guard before not reporting to Green Bay when the team reconvened for training camp last July.
General Manager Brian Gutekunst, peppered regularly with questions about Madison's whereabouts, routinely stated the organization was fully supportive of the rookie and the personal situation he was dealing with.
On Tuesday, in his third week back with the team, Madison finally answered the question everyone wanted to know with a rather simple reply – he was taking care of his mental health.
"This last year was really just focused on myself," said Madison after Tuesday's voluntary minicamp practice. "Not even football or nothing, just myself and my mental health and everything like that. I was dealing with a lot of things off the field for a long time that I was putting off, and it finally caught up to me, and I had to take care of that, make a grown-man decision. I did that, and then after that I decided I wanted to come back and play some football. So that's why I'm here."
The biggest hurdle for Madison was overcoming the stigmas attached to mental health. He reached out for help and had "weekly, biweekly and monthly" conversations with a counselor.
Undeniably, the suicide of his close friend, former Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski, in January 2018 had an impact on Madison. While it opened Madison's eyes to the battle others are facing, he says the issues he's been dealing with began much earlier than Hilinski's death.
Back home in Washington, Madison has benefited from a strong family support system. He credits his parents, his sister and her fiancé, and his girlfriend for being his bedrock.
"I love football, but at that point it was my health, and my life was on the line," Madison said. "I had to go help myself before my football career. If I didn't get my chickens in order back then, I don't think I'd be here right now."
Madison didn't watch any football last year, but also didn't lose his love for the sport, either. A three-year starter at Washington State, Madison tied for the second-most starts (47) in program history during his time in Pullman.
Madison started to feel like himself again late last year. It was around that time he started to get the itch to play football.
While Tuesday's practice inside the Hutson Center wasn't an overly competitive session, Madison said it felt good being back on a football field again. He took reps at both guard and center, and is open to playing wherever the coaching staff sees fit.
Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur and new offensive line coach Adam Stenavich are already familiar with Madison. As the assistant offensive line coach last year in San Francisco, Stenavich worked out Madison at his high school before last year's draft, while LaFleur scouted him a little as the offensive coordinator in Tennessee.
Gutekunst believes Madison will fit in as well, if not better, into LaFleur's offense than what the Packers ran last year. Generally speaking, however, Gutekunst is just thrilled to have him back.
"It was great to see Cole back in the building and doing some football things again. That was a really, really pleasant surprise," Gutekunst said. "I think he was very appreciative about the way we handled things last year. We're excited to see what he can do for us because he had a really good offseason last year before everything transpired. Very optimistic."
Count Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers also among those who were happy to see Madison return to the team, though he didn't initially recognize the 6-foot-5, 308-pound offensive lineman after he cut off his trademark long hair.
"Yeah it's great to see Cole back," Rodgers said. "He's a Packer and it's important that he feels like this is home and we're definitely doing everything we can to make him feel comfortable."
If Madison had to do everything over again, he says he wouldn't do anything differently. "It was the greatest decision I think I ever made," he said. He's in a better place now and remains appreciative of the patient approach the Packers took with him.
In his own words, "They had my back, I'll have their back now."
And as for the fire to continue playing football?
"Oh yeah. It's still there," Madison said. "I'm ready to roll. Took a year off, twiddling my thumbs, now I'm back and I'm just going to let it loose."