He's not a softie, either. At 6-feet, 242 pounds, he's a brute of a man. But the big man in the Commodore backfield had a moment Saturday that would bring a tear to almost any fan's eye.
If Cola's life were a movie, critics would no doubt be touting it as "the feel-good story of the year!" What happened to Cola on Saturday usually only happens in dreams, and on the silver screen. It's a screenplay that would practically write itself.
With five minutes to play, the senior fullback took a handoff from quarterback Jay Cutler and bulled his way through the Furman defensive line for a 3-yard touchdown. In the grand scheme, it was a meaningless touchdown, as it merely stretched the Commodores' commanding lead from 24 points to 30. But to Cola-- and the teammates who pounded him on the back in sheer joy-- it was anything but meaningless.
"It's more than I could ever ask for, coming back and getting the chance to play again-- having a good day, and scoring a touchdown, and us winning the way we did," said Cola. "It all felt so good."
After his score, Cola removed his helmet and chinstrap, but held it to his side rather than casting it aside. Perhaps that's because, one short year ago, Cola was a lowly student equipment manager charged with chasing after stray pieces of equipment.
So how does anyone go from student equipment manager to starting fullback in a single year?
Cola's unusual saga actually began back in 1998, when, as a raw 17-year-old freshman from Pensacola, Cola first stepped onto the Vanderbilt campus. An offensive guard in high school, Cola walked on with Woody Widenhofer's football squad. He was a bit undersized for a college lineman, and like most walk-ons he never came close to seeing the field as a freshman.
In spring practice of 1999 Cola suffered that most debilitating of sports injuries, the anterior cruciate ligament tear.
"I had to sit out the next year rehabbing my ACL," said Cola. "I worked as an assistant on the equipment staff that year to get some extra money and to stay involved with the team."
While assisting the team, Cola worked doggedly not only to bring his knee back into playing condition, but to totally re-shape his body. The coaches had noticed that for a player of his size, he possessed excellent quickness and mobility. They asked him to consider becoming a fullback, and Cola welcomed the move.
Things were going swimmingly for Cola right up until the fall of the 2000 season. "That fall," said Cola, "I re-tore my ACL." The same knee, in the same place. If the first one was discouraging, this one was devastating. Eighteen long months of rehabilitation went up in smoke.
Cola assumed his playing days were behind him. "I pretty much thought I was finished then," he said. "Luke Wyatt [Vanderbilt's head equipment manager] offered me the job as the head student equipment manager. I took the job." With it came additional responsibilities for field set-up and supervision of other student equipment managers.
Cola held the job through the 2001 season, and meanwhile his knee responded positively to a second go-round of physical therapy and rehabilitation. He kept himself in tiptop physical condition. At the end of the season Woody Widenhofer resigned, and in came Bobby Johnson, a strong proponent of an old-fashioned, two-back base offense.
"It suited my style of play," said Cola. "It's less of a finesse kind of offense, and more of a pound-it-in-there style." He saw his opportunity and seized it.
"I'm a guy who likes to hit. I knew I could fill that position. It was really a no-decision."
Johnson's staff, however, extended him no promises. There was no film of him to watch. Cola had no stats, only a strong work ethic and a rare zest for playing football and knocking the bejibbers out of an opponent. He started at the rock bottom of the depth chart. "I had to beg the coaches even to give me a shot," he remembers.
But Cola's fortunes were about to change. The new staff began to search the roster for someone unafraid of plowing down linebackers, and with his stocky, 240-pound frame Cola filled the bill. He moved past veterans Mike Adam and Zeke Brandon on the depth chart, and finished the spring locked in a battle with highly recruited redshirt freshman Matthew Tant for the starter's role.
By now the staff was starting to sound more encouraging. Cola collected his undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering in May. Coach Johnson told him that if he would consider returning for a fifth year as a graduate student, he would be awarded a scholarship, and Cola quickly enrolled in the graduate school for Mechanical Engineering.
Going into the 2002 season, neither Tant nor Cola had ever played in a college game. Tant got the starting nod in the opener at Georgia Tech, but Cola saw his first action and alternated series with Tant. Cola never touched the ball, but graded out well with a couple of devastating blocks.
Then came Furman, another night of firsts for Cola. Before the home crowd, he got his first start. On Vanderbilt's first possession Cola took his first-ever college handoff from Cutler. A giddy Cola bulled over left guard for a two-yard gain. Could it get any better?
It could, and it did. By the fourth quarter the Commodores had rolled up a 42-18 lead. Cola carried a second time, this time for 3 yards. Behind runs by Tant and tailback Norval McKenzie, the offense drove to the Furman 3. Cola was inserted for Tant.