On Sept. 28 of last year, Blount County, Tenn. was in the midst of a civil war. That was the date that William Blount High School hosted county rival Maryville High School and its 49-game win streak in an atmosphere that was as intense as any you will find nationwide. In a heart-breaking 20-19 loss, Maryville took the last second victory and marched on to yet another Tennessee State Championship and an undefeated season.
Months later Blount County would be the setting of another battle, only this time the entire county was on the same side and only one person could do the fighting.
Cole Lail, a linebacker and the heart and soul of that William Blount defense that stretched Maryville to the wire and drove the Governors into the 5A state playoffs, fell ill in February and was hospitalized. Before attending the Football University Camp located on the University of North Carolina campus, Lail had been suffering from flu-like symptoms. His symptoms worsened while at camp and he packed up and headed home – and then to the hospital.
As it turned out, Lail had been ignoring symptoms of pneumonia and soon saw flu-like symptoms transform into a fight for his life. And just when the burden was solely on him, Lail fought back.
"It was so serious that he was actually in intensive care on life support," said Lail's former defensive coordinator and current head coach Richie Wilhite. "He had some bacterial pneumonia and the infection had run through his body. It got to the point where the doctors had said that 'it's between him and God now.' It was right after that that he just started getting better."
Lail's sudden recovery came to the relief of an entire county that had seen bitter rivals unite together in prayers for a quick and full recovery.
"There was an outpouring of support," said Coach Wilhite. "A lot of the times you have the rivalries and the Maryvilles and the Blount County but everything was put aside for one young man's fight."
While family, friends and supporters from around the area were affected by the scary situation, to hear Lail – a 6-2 220 pound middle linebacker – tell it, it was as if he was just recovering from a bout with a bad cold.
It was so serious that he was actually in intensive care on life support…It got to the point where the doctors had said that 'it's between him and God now.' It was right after that that he just started getting better.
- William Blount coach Richie Wilhite
"I was sick and throwing up for a while and then it got to the point where they had to put me on a ventilator for a couple of days," Lail said. "As soon as I left the hospital they said it was like it never happened. I took a week off because we had spring break and then I got back to work and working out."
The quick recovery and the quick return to normalcy aside, Lail did take a new perspective into the offseason and into the spring.
"It was totally a change of perspective," he said. "It taught me that you can't take anything for granted. Football is not the number one thing but when I'm out there I want to play as hard as I can like every down is my last."
Though his perspective may be slightly different, Lail's 'every down' mentality is not much different than the way he played before his bout with pneumonia. As a junior, Lail piled up 117 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and had drawn the interest of several major programs such as Duke, Vanderbilt and Stanford.
"Cole is a 100-percent, go-hard-all-the-time kind of guy," said Coach Wilhite. "He's a throwback style of football player and he would just as much knock the snot out of you than talk to you. He was the heart of our defense and he played mike linebacker so he's right in the middle making our calls, reading the keys and making the checks."
Following his hospitalization and even during it, recruiters never cooled on Lail and have even extended an outpouring of support themselves.
"It's been great," Lail said of his recruitment. "I had a bunch of coaches call up and send me letters while I was in the hospital and get-well cards and everything. Even after I've gotten better they've checked in on me to see how I was doing and stayed in touch."
His approach to recruiting reflects Lail's newly refined perspective.
"I enjoy schools that I've talked to like Vanderbilt and Stanford because I like the education values," he said. "You gotta have something to do in life. You can't play football forever."
Though he can't play football forever, Lail is certainly cherishing every play and every opportunity to hit the field while he still can.
"It's pretty much the same old Cole," said Coach Wilhite. "He seems a little bit more carefree at times. He just enjoys life and he enjoys playing football and he seems like he's the happiest when he's playing football and he's sweating out there on the field."