EAST LAKE — Mason Cole leans forward at left tackle, a mop of brown, curly hair sneaking out of his helmet, a No. 52 stretched across his jersey.
Cole, a junior at East Lake High School, sometimes wraps his hair in a band. He has not had a haircut since Christmas. Eventually, he will chop it off and donate it to Locks of Love, a non-profit organization that provides hairpieces to children suffering from long-term medical conditions.
His mother, Maggie, a former hairdresser, was fine with the idea.
“Once Mason told me why he was doing it I had no problem,” she said. “He really is a big teddy bear.”
His father, John, was not as thrilled.
“My dad wants me to cut it,” said Cole, whose Eagles (10-1) host Vero Beach (9-1) in Friday’s Class 8A region semifinals. “He even goes to my coaches to see if they’ll persuade me to get a haircut. My dad prefers a buzz cut. But I’m going to have to wait for that. I have to let it grow long enough to be in a ponytail.
“I just thought it was a good cause.”
Cole is soft-spoken and self-effacing off the field, but when the left tackle hits the gridiron, his hair comes down and the mauling begins.
He delivers the same physics lesson on each snap: force equals mass times acceleration. Cole thrusts his 6-foot-5, 275-pound frame into opposing defensive linemen, usually driving them into the ground.
But once the whistle blows, Cole appears to be the most serene person on the field. He often helps up an opponent he just walloped then saunters back to the huddle. He rarely talks trash.
“Mason is just a really good kid,” East Lake coach Bob Hudson said. “I don’t think he’s ever been in a fight in his life. But between the whistles, he is an absolute beast.”
His size, style of play and hair have made him the “mane” man when it comes to recruiting.
The past two summers, when Cole appeared at camps, he turned heads — the heads of those who coach impossibly large college students for a living. Cole is ranked a four-star recruit and has offers from several Division-I powers, including Florida, Michigan, Notre Dame and Southern California.
To college coaches, he looks like a huge tackle some program will happily build its offensive line around for four years.
To his teammates, he is a good friend and leader.
“Mason is like my brother,” quarterback Pete DiNovo said. “He’s soft-spoken and has a playful side to him. And he’s my best friend on the field because he protects my blind side.”
Cole has football in his blood thanks to his mother’s side of the family. Cole’s grandfather, Tony Bex, played at Illinois in the 1960s, including one season with Chicago Bear Hall of Famer Dick Butkus. Two of Cole’s uncles also played college football.
Cole shared his family’s love for sports growing up in Illinois, and it continued when they moved to Florida in 2004. He simply outgrew everyone else. Between the seventh and eighth grade, Cole grew 7 inches and hit 6-3. But he was stretching only 200 pounds over that frame.
By the time he was a freshman at East Lake, he weighed 220. Last year, he played at 250.
“I’ve really been able to add a lot of weight the past few years,” Cole said. “What can I say, my mom feeds me well.”
He also hit his ideal weight by retreating to East Lake’s weight room to work on his future. That is where Cole has made the biggest impression on those that know him, behind closed doors, where the work happens with no one watching. That is how he got to be that prized college recruit.
“Mason is such a good leader and works hard at everything he does on and off the field,” DiNovo said.
His body is not the only thing growing. So is his hair.
The idea for the long locks came shortly after East Lake lost to Plant in last year’s region final. Before that game, Cole’s mother had each of the linemen over at the house and gave them mohawks.
“Mason has always had some kind of hair thing going on,” Maggie said.
His hair is now like an appendage to his massive frame. And it is often the topic of conversation among teammates.
“We tease him all the time about it,” DiNovo said. “We all tell him to cut, but I think he needs to keep it. The long hair gives him swagger. Not that he needs any more, especially when he’s on the field.”
Bob Putnam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.