The Hard Road to the VSU Hall of Fame
When Valdosta State University Quarterback Cayden Cochran entered the Blazers’ Hall of Fame this spring, he couldn’t help but remember the many hardships he had to overcome to achieve such an honor.
He was rejected, disrespected, tossed aside, faced family tragedy, disappointment and dealt with a dreadful injury. Each of these hurdles had to be cleared before leading the Blazers to the 2012 Division II National Championship.
Yet here he was.
Cochran’s long journey to the hall began early as his dad was the first to introduce him to his eventual love of football.
“My first experience ever playing football was with the little-league Cashion Wildcats, where my dad coached me,” Cochran said. “At the time, I played running back. In little league, there’s not much throwing; it’s just a lot of ‘give the ball to the best players type thing,’ and I rolled with that.”
Cochran played at Cashion High School in tiny Cashion, Oklahoma, that, on a good day, has barely 900 residents.
The dream: Become the starting quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners.
Cochran stared above at the custom crimson-and-cream Sooners’ jersey hanging from his ceiling every night.
“I was a big OU fan,” Cochran said. “I just knew you had to be an extremely talented player to go there.”
During the second game of his freshman season for the Cashion High Wildcats, Head Coach Lynn Shackelford was – oddly – speechless.
“There was a game where the starting quarterback got a concussion at the start of the second half,” Shackelford said. “We put Cayden in and he carried himself like he had done it before. It was an eye-opening experience, especially for a coach, to see a kid that young to be so good.”
The stocky, six-foot-two-inch signal caller caught the attention from scouts for three straight seasons at Cashion.
Then, four games into his senior year, he felt a pop in his leg that he’d never felt before.
“I scrambled out to the pocket for about 13-yards and just fell down,” Cochran said after tearing his ACL.
Visits, gone. Calls, none. Season, dead.
“We would’ve gone 12-0 if he was healthy that entire year,” Shackelford said. “The tide definitely changed for us when he was out.”
The Wildcats finished the season 8-3.
He ended up at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas, the only way he could secure a promised scholarship from Oklahoma State, the lone Division I school that was still showing interest. He passed for 2,393 yards and 20 touchdowns for the Ravens.
Nevertheless, OSU’s phone was dead.
Cochran decided to walk-on at Oklahoma in 2011 before spring semester.
He finally lived out his dream of playing quarterback at OU, participating in spring football and conditioning.
But it was a bait-and-switch.
“Two weeks after I arrived at OU, I was no longer a quarterback,” Cochran said. “I was switched to a wide receiver. I was devastated. It was worse than tearing my ACL.”
To twist the knife even more, Cochran had to settle for a No. 7 jersey. Everything short of No. 11, the one he dreamt of countless times.
Around that time, Cochran spotted former Sooner star Sam Bradford, who had visited him in high school while he was rehabbing from the ACL injury. Bradford was on campus because of the NFL lockout.
“We played catch together,” Cochran said. “When I threw the ball back to him one time he said ‘You still got it, you can still throw the ball.’ I was like ‘yeah right,’ but then I started thinking about it. If I found a place to go, and had a chance to play quarterback, I could do it.”
The division nor the place mattered.
Cochran began calling his coaches at Coffeyville to help him find a school that needed a quarterback, when disaster struck.
A devastating tornado ripped through Cashion, destroying an entire neighborhood, including Cochran’s family’s home. His parents and three brothers were safe, but all that remained of the house was a single wall.
“I wish I could explain the feelings I had when my parents told me,” Cochran said.
As Cochran sat in his OU dorm, far from the destruction, VSU called to invite him for a visit.
Cochran learned from recruiters that Head Coach David Dean was out of town. Dean returned once he heard of Cochran’s arrival.
“A man left precious time with his family just to come recruit me,” Cochran said. How could I not play for that guy?”
The players had to do their homework on Cochran.
“The first time I heard of [Cochran], was when we saw a YouTube video of him running on a treadmill going about 22 miles per hour,” Cochran’s teammate Cam Short said. “This was when he had a torn ACL.”
In his first year, however, Cochran sat the bench. Short was impressed with his friend’s lack of ego.
“Coming from a big program like OU, he could’ve been a selfish player,” Short said. “He could’ve demanded the starting spot or even transferred somewhere else, but no, he kept his composure. He knew he came here for a reason.”
Once they got rolling, Cochran threw for 2,601 yards, 25 touchdowns and led the Blazers to the brink of a national championship. The week before the big game, he learned the home his family had moved into burned to the ground.
No one was injured, but Cochran felt numb, and not because of the freezing temperatures as he led his troops into battle in Florence, Alabama. Compared to what he’d already conquered, the game was simple.
The Blazers won going away versus Winston-Salem State, 35-7.
“I laid a finger on the trophy before actually grabbing it,” Cochran said. “It all hit me at once that I had accomplished my dream of leading a group of guys to, possibly, their highest achievement in the sport.”
The VSU Hall of Fame awaited him in 2019.
“My story had a beautiful ending,” Cochran said. “The rough times helped me get to where I am today.”