The Tennessee Valley heat is so blistering, sometimes it looks like the air is sweating.
It’s July of 2021 at Farragut High School and there’s a lone man atop the turf at 1 p.m., where temperatures regularly eclipse 100 degrees. Brawny with a beard befitting an East Tennessee upbringing, he’s 6-foot-5, 300 pounds, and he’s sprinting far faster than someone with those dimensions has any business running. Eventually, he makes his way to the hill next to the football team’s weight room to intensify his workout.
“Our kids are looking at him like, ‘Who is this guy?” assistant coach Tom Doucette said. “‘Who is this monster out here?’”
That monster is Cole Strange. He’s home from UT-Chattanooga. And he’s been doing this his entire life.
From the moment he could walk, Cole Strange was ready to run.
The second boy in his family, Cole has an older brother named Dylan and was born with boundless energy. By all accounts, he was a fired up, rambunctious little boy.
Dylan and his father put it another way.
“We always said he was a psycho,” Dylan Strange, now 25, chuckled.
Greg Strange was a young father with a degree from the University of Tennessee, so naturally, the boys grew up fans of the Vols. He was a teacher and football coach, then eventually took to landscaping because he preferred being outside. Greg worked every weekend as the kids grew up — except during football season — and before long, his boys were eager to help, too.
“They grew up on the backside of a damn wheelbarrow,” Greg said. “Wheelbarrowing rocks and mulch and dirt. (Cole) comes by hard work honest.”
The Strange boys grew up in Lenoir City, a Knoxville suburb, and when Dylan was old enough to play football, he began working out with his father. Naturally, young Cole tagged along.
“He bugged me to death to let him work out with us,” Greg said. “Of course, I didn’t let him push the weights, but I’d give him menial crap like pushups and sit-ups, and he started doing pull-ups, and this kid, you ought to have seen him pumping the pushups and pull-ups out.”
When it came time to run, they ventured to that hill next to the high school weight room, the one Cole was still summiting years later. They’d sprint, backpedal, bear crawl. Anything to get a sweat going.
“And this is the truth: Cole couldn’t get enough of it, man,” Greg said. “He was always a workhorse in the weight room.”
That was a sign of things to come.
By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Cole was the strongest Strange.
While Dylan played offensive line, Cole was already turning heads as a linebacker. One day in the weight room, the team was maxing out on the bench press. Dylan put up 250 pounds and “felt unbelievable.” Two 45-pound plates and a little more on each side is no joke. That felt like a high-water mark until Cole, 15, followed him and lifted 275.
At Farragut, the coaching staff’s office is right near the weight room. Before long, they always knew when Cole Strange was the one deadlifting or hang-cleaning. There was an easy tell.
“When he dropped the weight, the whole damn place shook,” Doucette said.
On Friday nights, Cole’s energy and football’s natural aggression were a match made in heaven. He was thriving as an underclassman. By the time he was a junior, however, it was becoming a bit of an issue on the practice field. The Farragut coaches began to pull Cole out of drills for the safety of those around him.
“He played it the right way, he didn’t play it cheap, but I was afraid he was going to hurt one of his teammates,” head coach Eddie Courtney said. “It’s not that he was that much bigger. It was just his approach to the game of football. It’s old school. I can explain it this way: He plays to the echo of the whistle. It’s not cheap, that’s the way it should be played. He’s not going to help you up when he knocks you down, but he will shake your hand at the end of the game. That’s kind of the kid he’s always been.”
Strange wasn’t happy about being sidelined — Doucette says he’d get “pissed” — but the coaching staff knew their best player only had one speed: Full.
None of his teammates held Cole’s intensity against him. As just a junior, he was voted a captain by the team’s leadership council, a rarity at Farragut. En route to recording 100 tackles, he set the tone for his team behind the scenes. Cole didn’t say things for the sake of saying them, but when the team needed to hear a message, he sent it.
“If Cole said something, it was law,” Doucette said. “He controlled our locker room.”
Though they grew up in Lenoir City, the boys both attended neighboring Farragut for reasons that had nothing to do with football. In addition to being an amped up kid, Cole was a smart one, as was Dylan, and Greg wanted his sons to go to the school with stronger academics. As graduation neared, Cole was an Honor student eying the medical field, though his family thought he’d be best-suited as an engineer.
Despite earning All-State honors and leading the Admirals to a 10-2 record as a senior, Cole was still just a two-star recruit. He’d originally committed to UT-Chattanooga, then Air Force entered the picture late. Beyond just the FBS status, the school itself certainly appealed to him. Growing up, Cole thought about becoming a military doctor.
“I think it’s one of those things where if he could live two lives at the same time, one would be in the service and one would be playing football,” Dylan said.
But ultimately, Cole stayed close to home, honoring his original commitment at UT-Chattanooga.
“He chose family in the end,” Dylan said.
Cole flipped to offensive line and redshirted as a freshman in 2016. A year later, he cracked the starting lineup, and from there Greg and Dylan never missed a game. The more he played at Chattanooga, the more realistic Cole’s NFL dreams began to look.
So, it was all hands on deck. College athletes are on lifting programs that schools dole out, but the Strange family found their own ways to contribute, too.
“For the past six years, mine and my dad’s life have rotated around it,” Dylan said. “In the offseason it’s getting Cole bigger, (helping with) eating, all the stuff that he would need.”
When Dylan was driving around town, he was hard to miss. His Acura TSX was the one with handprints next to the license plate. Cole had been pushing the car up hills with Dylan in the driver’s seat, and had quite literally left his mark.
When drive-blocking a car wasn’t enough, Cole graduated to pulling a truck around the parking lot at Two Rivers Church. With some ratchet string, the Strange boys rigged up a harness for Cole to essentially bear crawl through the vacant lot. It worked effectively, until Dylan decided to pull the emergency brake to get a rise out of his brother.
“I was glad I was in the vehicle and could lock the door,” Dylan laughed.
And no matter the day, Cole remained relentless in the weight room. All he needed was to find a way in… so he’d hound the heck out of his high school coaches.
“It’d be 10 o’clock at night. I’d be at home and I’d get a call, ‘Hey Coach, can you let me in?’ And I’d go let him in,” Doucette said. “My wife got upset, but I was like, ‘Hey I’ve gotta let Cole Strange in. I’ve gotta let Cole in over there or he’s going to keep calling us all night.’”
By Cole’s final year, he’d emerged as a bonafide NFL Draft prospect. He’d morphed from a 245-pound high schooler with a six pack to a 300-pound mauler at guard.
At Chattanooga he’d played all over the offensive line and was a force in the FCS school’s one game against an SEC opponent, Kentucky; there was no doubt Cole could hang with the big boys. He’d already graduated with a degree in Psychology and was working on a master’s in engineering management.
Cole earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl and excelled there, too, and soon was a Top 5 guard prospect on most NFL Draft boards. It was clear he was going to be taken in the early rounds. The only question was when.
The Friday before the draft, Courtney — who is still coaching at Farragut — came across his old standout doing a local TV interview on the turf. The two got to chatting and Courtney asked what his plans were for draft night. Always a homebody, the 23-year-old told his coach there was no party on tap. No big celebration. It’s just not his style.
“I said, ‘Cole, are you at least going to go get a steak or something?’” Courtney asked. “Finally he laughed and said, ‘Yeah, I guess we’ll do that.’”
The week of the draft, intel began coming in fast and furious. Cole was likely going to be long gone by the third round, and his camp had gleaned that he’d probably be picked somewhere between No. 30-40; very late first round or early second.
The Strange family decided they might invite a few close friends over on Friday, but nothing out of the norm for Thursday’s first round. Dylan was working at BlueCross BlueShield in Chattanooga that day — the brothers have had a place there since Cole started college — so at the family house in Lenoir City, it was just Cole, his dad, and his much younger sister Anna, who had gone to sleep long before the draft really got rolling.
As the night wore on, Cole and his father both started to fade. Greg usually wakes up at 4:30 or so, and it seemed like every team was using the full allotment of time in the first round. At around 11 p.m., Cole’s phone lit up with an unknown number.
The voice on the other end of the line said it was the Patriots — they’d traded down to pick No. 29 — but Cole has some friends (and a brother) who are pranksters, so he was naturally a little leery. He slid next to his father on the couch and hit the button for speaker phone.
Here’s how that phone call went, according to Greg:
“(Cole) said, ‘Sir, I don’t mean to be disrespectful at all, but I’ve gotta know because I’ve got some crazy friends. Is this a prank?’ The guy said, ‘Hold on just a second.’ And then Bill Belichick got on the phone and of course, unless you’ve been under a rock for the last 20 years, you know Bill Belichick’s voice.
“As soon as I heard Bill Belichick’s voice, Cole and I both started screaming and hugging and acting crazy. Probably saying a bunch of inappropriate stuff. We were so excited. To his credit, you’ve gotta love the guy, Belichick is sitting there and when we got through, the first break he had, he said, ‘Hey Cole, you’ve gotta act like you’ve been there, man.’ It was classic to us. We absolutely loved it.”
Minutes later Roger Goodell announced the pick on ESPN. Father and son embraced. Cole’s lifelong dream had come true.
Though Cole is heading to the NFL, not much has changed for the Strange family over the past month (beyond Dylan trying to buy every piece of Patriots gear ever made). When Greg was landscaping and needed a tarp, Cole brought it to him. He noticed his father struggling to remove a stump, so he decided to try his hand at it. Actually, hands a better way to put it.
“Cole getting unbelievably strong and bigger has made life as far as landscaping so much easier,” Dylan said. “Why dig a plant out when you can have somebody rip it out of the ground?”
So that’s what Cole did.
Through all of the growing he’s done, Cole’s run-in-the-Tennessee-sun work ethic has remained a constant. It was forged in Farragut, and if it ever does leave him, Greg Strange will be sure to catch the first flight to Foxborough.
“He’s not going to get outworked,” Greg said. “If he does get outworked, I want Belichick to call me and I’ll come up there. I promise you.”