Playing for her: CMU wide receiver plays in honor of late mother
Cam Cole ran all the way to Lawrence, Kansas.
Not as a physical trek, rather a college decision based on emotions – anger and confusion.
Two days prior to 2015 National Signing Day, University of Kansas first-year coach David Beaty extended Cole a preferred walk-on offer.
Cole’s final choice came down to walk-on options from Kansas and Central Michigan. His Saline High School football coach, Joe Palka, didn’t know Cole’s decision until the late hours of Feb. 3.
“It was last minute,” Palka said on the day Cole committed. “Recruiting is a crazy business; a lot has changed here in the last week and a half.”
On Feb. 4, the wide receiver accepted the offer from Kansas. He finished his senior year, packed his bags and left to play for the Jayhawks.
Cole took the opportunity to join his friend, defensive back Tyrone Miller Jr., at Kansas and ditch the uncertainty of CMU following the departure of head coach Dan Enos.
The anger and confusion in his choice to get away from his home state stemmed his mother's sickness. Kim Millard, Cole's mother, died on Feb. 27, 2015.
“I wanted to run away from my problems,” Cole said. “When I got out there, I realized it was going to follow me everywhere I go.”
Even though Cole committed to Kansas prior to his mother’s death, losing her made him eager leave as soon as possible. As a walk-on, he could have turned back to CMU without repercussions, but the wide receiver stuck with his choice.
“I just wanted to have a new environment to focus on that could take my mind away from that initial thought,” Cole explained.
Millard was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer, a rare form, in late November 2014. She stopped working as an assistance payments supervisor at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services around Christmas time and eventually ended up in the hospital on Feb. 21, 2015.
Cole moved with his father, Marcel Cole, to Ann Arbor at the start of his eighth-grade year following his parents’ divorce. His brother, Chris Cole, stayed in Lansing and spent countless hours with his mother.
Chris, 28, took his mother to the hospital the day she was diagnosed, just prior to Cam’s MHSAA Division I state championship game for Saline High School on Nov. 29 at Ford Field.
“We made it to the game, but I didn’t tell (Cam) because I didn’t want to mess with his head before the game,” Chris explained.
Quickly following the 33-25 loss to Clarkston in the state title, Cam was informed of his mother’s illness.
At first, Cam didn’t understand the severity.
Three months after the state championship, the entire family, including members from Alaska and Cam’s grandmother from Texas, all met at the hospital. Upon hearing his mother was back in the hospital, Cam left school early and picked up Chris in Lansing.
Time felt as if it was slowed down.
Cam began reminiscing on the memories of his mother, who was with him for the entirety of his childhood because Marcel played basketball overseas. She raised two children on her own, the foundation for Cam’s current work ethic. Millard was at every practice and game. Her schedule revolved around Cam’s schedule.
“If anything happens to me, you’ll be fine,” Cam remembers his mother telling him as a boy.
Chris said his brother matured quickly at just 13 years old without his mother around on a day-to-day basis. Throughout the week his mother spent in the hospital, Cam acted as normal as possible before reality eventually hit him square in the face.
“She fought that whole week,” Cam said. “I didn’t want her to hold on for my comfort. I knew she was in pain, so it was best for her. It was a sad relief.”
Cam’s mother lost her battle to cancer on Feb. 27, 2015.
Throughout his mother’s death, Cam’s father, brother and close friends were there for him, but he was never pitied. Of those standing nearby during his mother’s death was Saline football teammate Christian Mercer.
“Cam, and a lot of other players, deal with tons of stuff on and off the field that people don’t realize,” Mercer, a linebacker, said. “It just goes to show we have personal battles.”
The summer following Millard’s death was the toughest for her youngest son. Cam was unable to halt thoughts of his mother but was preparing for life as a Kansas football player at the same time.
He was eager to get on campus, start fresh, forget about the past and suppress his emotional struggles surrounding his mother’s death. He attempted to put all his focus on football, an impossible task.
Kansas tried to move Cam to the safety position when he was a freshman. Dealing with constant changes, he was unable to rely on the new environment to get his mind off past struggles. He couldn’t stop thinking of his mother, father, brother and support system back in Michigan.
So, he returned.
Cam made Mount Pleasant his new home prior to the 2016 season, just 70 miles to Lansing and 129 miles to Ann Arbor. Both cities are under a two-hour drive from CMU.
“The initial reaction is to run. I realized I wasn’t supposed to be away from my people who were going to help me get through this,” Cam said. “The situation out there wasn’t for me.”
Due to Cam’s transfer to join the Chippewas, Mercer did the same – departing from Valparaiso after his freshman season. The two spent countless hours on the gridiron at Saline and continue to do so in Mount Pleasant.
“I wanted to play with my brother. So, I came here because he was here. He came in, put his head down and made plays. He worked his way up from the scout team, and I wanted to do the same.”
After one season of hard work and minimal playing time, Cam caught his first collegiate touchdown – a 56-yard score from quarterback Shane Morris to give CMU a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter against Syracuse on Sept. 17, 2017.
Whenever Cam steps on the football field, he thinks of his mother.
“It fueled his fire,” Mercer said of Millard’s death. “Mentally, it might have taken a toll on him, but he started working harder. That’s his why. Everyone has it, and she’s definitely his why.”
To take Millard with him wherever he goes, Cam purchased a necklace with a football locket. Inside are his mother’s ashes.
“She was a big football fan, and my biggest fan,” Cam said. “It’s a simple reminder. It goes far beyond football.”
Growing up, Cam always heard his mother cheering for him the loudest, and he goes by Cam instead of Cameron because of her. He has become closest to his aunt, Beth Rini-Sanchez, who resembles Millard’s kindness, sweetness and selflessness.
Walking into Kelly/Shorts Stadium for every home game, Cam looks at the mothers cheering for their sons. He notices the mothers of Shakir Carr, Jamil Sabbagh, Sean Bunting, Tommy Lazzaro and others.
Those moments hurt the most.
“That would be her out there,” Cam said of his late mother. “I think about that all the time.”
Cam, 21, often wakes up in the morning and misses his mother, but he is thankful for how she raised him to be a strong and honest man.
Now, she’s his motivation.
“I want to make her proud,” Cam said. “It’s different because she’s not around. You don’t realize things until something is gone.”