Packers' call turns dream into reality for Wisconsin and Bay Port star Cole Van Lanen
GREEN BAY - Nothing drains a phone battery like the NFL draft. Cole Van Lanen’s cell kept buzzing throughout Saturday afternoon, no different than any other NFL draft hopeful. They came from across the league, area codes in different states, each a possibility.
Then his phone flashed that familiar 920. Of all the calls, Van Lanen said, this was unlikely to be the one that made an unfathomable dream come true. Van Lanen, Wisconsin’s left tackle the past two seasons, grew up in Green Bay. He attended Bay Port High School, where he once won state titles in shot put and discus.
Van Lanen was a lifelong Packers fan. After Brett Favre, he learned to adore Aaron Rodgers. He remembers watching the Packers win Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers. As he got into high school, and football became more serious, Van Lanen became an avid David Bakhtiari fan. He watched all Bakhtiari’s film, mimicking the All-Pro left tackle.
The idea he might one day play in the NFL dawned on him, but being drafted for his hometown team was fanciful. Even the dream didn’t dare go that far. So as Van Lanen turned to his phone Saturday afternoon and noticed the flashing “920,” he didn’t have a clue.
“Honestly, the calls I was getting,” Van Lanen said, “this one came up as ‘scam likely’ on my phone. I saw it was a Green Bay number, and I answered it, and I just kind of wasn’t even expecting it to be (Brian) Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur. I just couldn’t believe it.
“They said, ‘How would you like to be a Packer?’ And I was just absolutely stoked.”
The Packers drafted Van Lanen with the 214th overall pick in the sixth round, continuing a trend on adding big men to their roster. Van Lanen was the third offensive lineman the Packers drafted this weekend, joining Ohio State center Josh Myers (second round, pick 62) and Ole Miss guard/tackle Royce Newman (fourth, 142). The Packers also drafted three offensive lineman last year, ensuring there will be an abundance of depth and competition when training camp begins.
There’s no chance Van Lanen will get lost in the crowd. Not when a local Green Bay kid gets a call like that from his hometown team. Van Lanen watched the draft at his Suamico home surrounded by family.
When he realized who was on the other line, and that this was no scam at all, the former Bay Port lineman’s childhood home erupted.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t believe them,” Van Lanen said when asked how he’d respond if someone told him in high school he’d one day be drafted by the NFL team just down the road. “I mean, this is a one-in-a-million chance and opportunity. I am so excited to really work my butt off and help this team win a Super Bowl. But just to have it a few miles from where you grew up, I mean, this is a team I watched my entire life. To be part of such a special program, I’m beyond excited.”
The possibility he might get a draft call from the Packers became more realistic as the draft approached. For one, Van Lanen established himself at Wisconsin. He was the Badgers' starting left tackle the past two seasons, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last year. It’s the second straight year the Packers drafted an All-Big Ten left tackle, with Van Lanen joining former Michigan blindside blocker Jon Runyan Jr.
Like Runyan, Van Lanen profiles more as an interior offensive lineman. He has a tackle’s body at 6-5, 312 pounds with 33⅜-inch arms, but athletic limitations might make him a better fit at guard. Van Lanen said he prides himself on “raw power” coming off the line of scrimmage in the run game, blocking downhill to the second level. He expects to be a comfortable fit in coach Matt LaFleur’s outside zone system.
General manager Brian Gutekunst covets offensive linemen with the versatility to play tackle and guard, and Van Lanen fits that mold. Gutekunst said Van Lanen has the athleticism to stay at tackle, but he’s also “very ideally” suited for guard. Of course, his first title will be Green Bay Packer. As the Packers inched closer to being on the clock in the sixth round, and Van Lanen remained available, Gutekunst recognized how special that opportunity would be before making the call.
“It was pretty cool,” Gutekunst said. “Obviously there's not many times where we're going to be able to select a player in the draft from Bay Port High School. Couldn't have been happier to do so. Unique that it kind of fell the way it did. I think everybody was really excited when we started getting close to that pick that he was still alive on our board, and then a bunch of the guys kind of making jokes about, you know, which bar in town he was at watching the draft.
“Obviously, Wisconsin does such a good job with their football program overall, but specifically with their linemen over the years. He's been trained well, not only at Wisconsin, but at Bay Port High School.”
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Van Lanen said he was in contact with the Packers early in the draft process. Then he lost touch with his hometown team. It’s an almost annual story from players the Packers draft. Once the team zeroes in on a prospect it covets, the phone calls stop. Before Gutekunst, it was a favorite ploy of Ted Thompson, who never wanted to tip his hand.
Those early conversations were encouraging, Van Lanen said. Then he watched the Packers draft Myers on Friday, followed by Newman on Saturday.
“I thought it was a decent fit, but then you know the teams that have talked to me quite a bit recently. So those are the ones you’re thinking are going to take you. When I saw they took the two linemen, I didn’t really think it was an opportunity at that point. Then, out of nowhere, I got the call. It was just so surreal, super excited. Beyond words, really.”
Green Bay has had a spate of local prospects drafted in recent years. Kahlil McKenzie, former Green Bay Southwest star, was a sixth-round pick to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018. He played seven games for the Cincinnati Bengals last season. Max Scharping, a fellow Southwest lineman, was a second-round pick by the Houston Texans in 2019. James Morgan, a former Ashwaubenon quarterback, was a fourth-round pick to the New York Jets in 2020.
Fullback Alec Ingold, who played with Van Lanen at Bay Port and Wisconsin, signed as a free agent with the Oakland Raiders after last year’s draft.
This, however, is something entirely different. Van Lanen’s first Packers game was a preseason matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, back when Michael Vick was quarterback. It feels like forever ago. He has traveled a football road since he was that overgrown kid cheering on his hometown team, positioning himself to get drafted.
Now he’ll carry his football journey into Lambeau Field, not as a fan, but an employee.
“To be able to stay home in all three stages of my football career,” Van Lanen said, “a very, very small amount of people get to live this dream and this opportunity. I’m just overwhelmed, and I’m excited to make the most of it, for sure.”