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Offensive lineman Cole Madison discusses his decision to return to the Packers after taking a season away from football to work on his mental health. Olivia Reiner, PackersNews

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GREEN BAY – Without expounding in detail, Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Cole Madison for the first time Tuesday explained why he decided to take a year off from football in 2018.

Madison, a fifth-round pick last spring, said his absence was necessary so he could focus on “mental health” without the distraction of his rookie season in the NFL.

“I love football,” he said, “but at that point it was my health, and my life was on the line. 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.”

It wasn’t an easy decision, Madison said. A year ago, he was embarking on a professional football career. The Packers drafted Madison with the 138th overall pick, believing the athleticism he showed as an offensive tackle in Washington State’s pass-reliant offense would make him a good guard.

Madison had to know he was walking away from a big opportunity. In his absence, the Packers struggled at right guard last season.

Walking away from his dream was only half the struggle. The other half, Madison admitted, was what he walked toward.

He was initially reluctant to seek help, but now knows it was the only way he could heal.

“That decision to really go out and seek help,” Madison said, “especially for men our age, going out and starting that process is real tough. Real tough. If I had to make it again, I’d do it again. Because it was the greatest decision I think I ever made.”

Madison said his mental health concerns predated former Washington State quarterback and teammate Tyler Hilinski’s suicide in January 2018. Hilinski’s death did not trigger his absence from the game, Madison said. If anything, he said, it was a reminder he wasn’t the only one struggling with mental health.

Madison said the fog remained until late last year. For much of 2018, he didn’t think about football. He didn’t even watch the game.

Around Christmas, his diligence and introspection started to make a difference.

“This last year was just really for me day by day, taking everything day by day,” Madison said. “It wasn’t really looking into the future. Then that day came where I was like, ‘Hey, you know, I’m coming back. I want to play some ball.’ So that brought us here.”

The Packers weren’t holding out hope for Madison’s return. On Monday, general manager Brian Gutekunst said it was a “really, really pleasant surprise” for Madison to report to offseason workouts this spring. A month earlier, Gutekunst signed free agent Billy Turner to potentially play right guard, though he stopped short of handing Turner an official position or job.

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Madison will have to shake the rust that accumulated from his year away, but he could have an opportunity if he returns to play at a high level. At the very least, his return gives the Packers a versatile and athletic lineman. Madison said he took reps at center and left guard in his first practice Tuesday since last year’s minicamp.

“However they want me to play,” Madison said, “I’ll play for them. They had my back, I’ll have their back now.”

Gutekunst said Madison might fit better in new coach Matt LaFleur’s outside zone blocking scheme than he did in former coach Mike McCarthy’s system. He’s a mobile offensive lineman, with the athleticism to block in space. Madison also has plenty of familiarity with the new coaching staff.

Before last year’s draft, Madison had a workout at his high school with new Packers offensive line coach Adam Stenavich. Madison said they “hit it off” both in football and off the field, and apparently the feeling was mutual.

“We were really high on Cole when he was coming out,” LaFleur said, “and I’ll tell you what, we’re certainly glad that he’s back in this building. So he’s been great. And I know Adam Stenavich … shoot, he told me that the Niners were planning on drafting him, but he got picked a couple picks before they were going to pick him.

“So certainly we feel like he adds a lot of value to what we can do with him in our system.”

Nothing is guaranteed in Madison’s return to football. If the transition from college to the NFL is hard for any rookie, that will only be amplified after a year’s absence. Madison will also be away from family that served as his support system in the past year. Maintaining sound mental health takes constant attention, and that’s without the pressures of playing in the NFL.

But, now that he’s back, Madison said he’s excited to see what his future might hold.

“This last year,” Madison said, “I really got my mind in a good spot. Best it’s been in a long time, and more excited to leave and see how I could handle this and be on my own for awhile. Right now, I’m doing great, feel great, and I’m just happy to be back playing some ball right now.

“I’m ready to roll. Took a year off, twiddling my thumbs, now I’m back and letting it loose."

 

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Jim Owczarski and Olivia Reiner share their top suggestions that the Packers should heed in the 2019 NFL draft. Olivia Reiner, PackersNews

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