Mental health concerns kept Cole Madison away from the NFL last season, but the 2018 fifth-round draft pick said the speculation that it was because of former Washington State teammate Tyler Hilinski's suicide was untrue.
Madison left the Green Bay Packers last summer after he went through offseason workouts. He was placed on the did not report list when training camp opened in July, and his return to the Packers on April 8 for the start of this year's offseason program came as a surprise.
"This last year was really just focused on myself," Madison said Tuesday in his first interview in nearly a year. "Not even football or nothing, just myself and my mental health and everything like that. I was dealing with a lot of things off the field for a long time that I was putting off, and it finally caught up to me, and I had to take care of that, make a grown man decision. I did that, and then after that I decided I wanted to come back and play some football. So that's why I'm here.
"At that point, football -- I love football -- 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."
Madison said his mental health concerns came before Hilinski's death in January 2018.
"I was going through some stuff for a long time that I was putting off, and they caught up to me with the decisions off the field I was doing," he told reporters. "I wasn't making good decisions, and it led to bad thoughts.
"This was before Tyler. Tyler, if anything, helped me with knowing that other people go through things, too. It was a little light at the end of the tunnel -- light in a dark area. This stuff originated a long time before Tyler."
Hilinski had just finished his redshirt sophomore season at Washington State when he was found dead in an apartment in January 2018. He was expected to take over as starting quarterback the next season.
"If anything, when that happened, it was a first beginning step of a wake-up call for me, how I needed to handle my mental health was after that entire situation," Madison said. "Me and him were great friends. I would have never known any of that was going on or vice versa. I had my demons going on, and no one had any idea what was going on. It's just one of those things of taking that step when you've got those things and not to just bat them down and talk to someone and opening up."
When the Packers picked Madison at No. 138 overall last season, they viewed him as a possible starting right guard, but his future was in question until he reported back to the team earlier this month.
"They really had my back through this process of last year," Madison said. "They told me to take my time and get my head right, and that's what I did. ... real happy for them and grateful for them and grateful to be back."
Madison said he started to feel like himself again late last year, "about three months into meeting with somebody, talking to somebody."
"After that, it was getting over the hump, that period of, 'I feel like me again.' I haven't felt like me in God knows how long, and I finally started to feel positive, feel like, 'Hey, I can do this' and no second-guessing myself. That was my whole thing: A lot of things in the past caught up to me and was second-guessing a lot of things."
General manager Brian Gutekunst said this week that Madison's return was "a pleasant surprise."
"He came back in great shape," Gutekunst said. "He's been working, and there's no limitations on him from that sense. It looks like the 6-[foot]-5, 300-pounder that we drafted. I'm very optimistic to see him progress this year.
"I think he actually probably fits this scheme as much if not more than what he was last year. I know that Matt with Tennessee, those guys thought he was very much a fit for them. Those guys in San Francisco, where [Packers O-line coach] Adam Stenavich was, those guys thought he was very much a fit for them. Yeah, he's an absolute fit for what we're trying to do."
The Packers signed veteran offensive lineman Billy Turner in free agency as a likely starter at right guard, but Madison could compete at guard or center.
"We were really high on Cole when he was coming out, and I'll tell you what, we're certainly glad that he's back in this building," first-year coach Matt LaFleur said. "So he's been great. And I know Adam Stenavich, when he was with the Niners, he worked him out ... 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."
Said quarterback Aaron Rodgers: "Yeah, it's great to see Cole back. He's happy to be here, it seems like. We're happy to have him back. He's a talented guy. I actually didn't quite recognize him the first time I saw him because he cut his hair off because he had some nice locks when he got here last year. But we're happy to have him here. He's a Packer, and it's important that he feels like this is home, and we're definitely doing everything we can to make him feel comfortable."