Football Feature Story: Cole Toner

Photo courtesy of Gil Talbot
Photo courtesy of Gil Talbot

By Jon Lemons

When you are 6-foot-7 and weigh 300 pounds, yet move like a man half your size, football coaches tend to have an interest in you.

When you are a member of the National Honor Society and a National Merit Scholar, Harvard University tends to have an interest in you.

When you are both of those things, you may even play football at Harvard.

When you are all of these things, yet the first words people use to describe you are your focus, your smile, your kindness and your generosity, your name is Cole Toner.

Toner grew up outside Indianapolis, in Greenwood, Indiana and never considered going to college too far outside of the Midwest. That is, until his junior year of high school, when he started getting letters from Harvard and other Ivy League schools. With his size, athleticism and grades, Toner had no shortage of options for where to play. He chose Harvard for some of the obvious reasons: a world-class institution and an Ivy-League powerhouse on the gridiron. But what really sealed the deal for Toner was something else entirely.

The summer before his senior year of high school, Toner and his family took a trip to visit the schools that were recruiting him. Their trip to Cambridge happened to coincide with summer workouts for the Harvard football players, and as his family wandered around the facilities, Toner fondly recalls a gesture by one of the players that seemed to represent the spirit of the Harvard community.

Noticing that Toner and his family were by themselves, running back Treavor Scales '13 made sure they received a more fitting welcome, giving them an impromptu hour-long guided tour. 

"He just dropped what he was doing, walked up and greeted us and took us around to all the facilities, just to make sure we felt welcome. I couldn't believe he spent an hour with us and he didn't have to. That was pretty special for me and my parents," Toner says.

A few months later, during his official recruiting visit in the winter of his senior year, Toner says he realized Harvard was where he belonged.

"I wanted to go to a program where the guys were like me. They liked to have fun. They were clever," Toner says. "On my official visit, there was a night where one of the guys that was hosting me played some song on the guitar, it was around Christmas time, and he played this impromptu song, this 'sexy Christmas song' is what it was called," Toner recalls. "He just made up the words on the spot and it was absolutely hysterical, and I just remember thinking, these are guys that like to work hard and have a lot of fun and they are the type of people I want to hang out with. So that kind of sealed the deal, honestly."

When he arrived in Cambridge for his freshman year, however, Toner was initially unsure it was where he belonged after all.

"I was told I was one of the top freshmen coming in," he says, "and before getting here, I thought I could compete for a starting spot. Then when I got here and we started off camp, I realized, 'oh my gosh, there are a ton of really good football players.' I was doubting if I'd ever play."

Those doubts were put to rest just four games into the season, when a starting lineman went down with an injury and Toner was called on to step in. He went on to start all seven remaining games that season, and, save for a brief two-game recovery from a high ankle sprain sophomore year, he's been the team's starting right tackle ever since.

"I was a freshman that got to play a lot, which was pretty cool," Toner adds. "The older guys tried to get to know me more, because I was playing so much and they welcomed me in."

After missing the first two games of his sophomore year with a high ankle sprain, Toner returned to anchor the right side of, in Coach Tim Murphy's opinion, one of the best offensive lines in Harvard's history.

During the 2014 season, Toner started all 10 games and was named to the All-Ivy League first team, solidifying him as one the league's premier talents. So impressive was his performance that, in a year's time, he may well be suiting up to play on Sundays.

"Coach Murphy said it his freshman year, Cole might be the most athletic lineman ever to play for Harvard. It's a pleasure just to watch him in practice," says teammate Chris Evans.

 "Cole has improved every year he has been at Harvard to the point where he is a legitimate NFL prospect," adds Tim Murphy, The Thomas Stephenson Family Head Coach for Harvard Football. "More importantly he is a great kid and model student-athlete."

The Crimson has sent a number of players to the NFL over the last few seasons and Toner says he's spoken to many of them about their experiences playing on Sunday. 

"It's cool that there are those resources," Toner says. "I'm lucky with timing as far as guys from Harvard who have been able to get to the league.  There is exposure now. There was always exposure, but there's even more now.  I've talked to a lot of these guys. I've talked to Kyle Juszczyk and Nick Easton. I've talked to Zack (Hodges) a lot about this stuff."

That he would speak to Hodges, who signed with the Indianapolis Colts after graduation last year, should come as no surprise. Toner attributes his development, in no small part, to having to block the ultra-athletic defensive end every day in practice.

"Those practices made us both better," Toner says. "Playing against a player (of Hodges' caliber) that I would not see against any other team in the Ivy League is why I've been able to have so much success. My best film might be me going against Zack in practice."

Evans agrees, "If you have to block Zack Hodges every day in practice, you're going to be one of the best tackles in the league, as Cole is."

This season, the goals are clear. Just like every other year.

"The main goal is always to win an Ivy League championship," Toner explains. "That's the goal we set for ourselves. That's another reason I came here - that's the only goal every year. If we don't win the Ivy League championship, we have essentially failed."

"It happened my freshman year, says Toner. "We had a great season, we went 8-2, but we didn't win the Ivy League championship. We had a punishment workout in the offseason, which was brutal. But it made you hungrier next year and that really set the tone for the rest of my time here knowing that was the expectation."

On a personal level, Toner says his goals as a senior include being named first team All-Ivy (again), and an All-American, as well continuing to be a leader on the team. Once described by his coaches as "very laid back," and "not terribly demonstrative," Toner has grown into more of a leadership role this year.  

"The coaches have been talking to me since after my sophomore year that I needed to become a leader," he says. "I think I did a good job of that last year. It's crazy that three years have already gone by and I'm already a senior. It snuck up on me, but I'm one of the team leaders for sure now."

While they may have flown by, those three short years have seen Toner go from a freshman unsure whether he even belonged on the team to a four-year starter with real prospects of playing in the NFL. Senior year may have snuck up on him, but rest assured he won't be escaping anyone's attention come game time.