The Valdosta Daily Times
FLORENCE, Ala. —
When Cayden Cochran takes the field Saturday at Braly Municipal Stadium for the Division II national championship, he will have his entire family in the stands watching and cheering the Blazers towards victory.
It’s the biggest game of Cochran’s football life. A solid performance from the left-handed quarterback could be enough to lead the Blazers to their third national championship since 2004.
But, after the things the 22-year-old Oklahoma native has been through the past 18 months, dissecting the undefeated Winston-Salem State secondary seems like a small, minor task.
Just hours after throwing two touchdown passes and running for two more scores to lead the Blazers (11-2) past previously-undefeated Minnesota State-Mankato in the national semifinals last week, Cochran received text messages telling him to call his father, Chris Cochran.
The news wasn’t good. Chris informed his eldest son that the family had lost their home, again.
“It was right when I got off the bus Sunday morning,” Cochran said. “My mom, my dad and my aunt, they were all together and made the trip to Minnesota, they had all texted me and said, ‘Hey, give us a call when you can.’ When that happens, so early in the morning, it was kind of weird. I gave my Dad a call and he said, ‘I have some bad news. The farm house burned down.’”
While the entire family — Dad, Mom, trio of younger brothers, aunts and cousins — was on the way home to Cashion, Okla., their 100-year-old family home suffered a fire and burned down. Nobody was injured but the family lost everything.
It was the family’s second lost home due to tragedy in 18 months. In May 2011, the Cochran’s family home in Cashion was destroyed by a massive tornado that rampaged its way through the region, eventually destroying the town of Joplin, Mo.
Then a walk-on at Oklahoma University, Cochran decided to look for an athletic scholarship to help take the financial burden off his family. A few weeks later, he was headed to Valdosta State to join the Blazer family.
Since Sunday’s fire, Cochran’s Blazer family has been the most supportive, while they work towards preparing for the championship game.
“I have the best family in the world and the best football team family,” Cochran said. “Just to be with them through this is exactly what I think someone going through a tough time would need. This is a great environment to be in, with the coaches, assistant coaches and the FCA back in Valdosta. It is unbelievable.
“You think of football team, you think of weight training and practices, and you don’t really think of it as a shoulder to lean on, at least I didn’t. But that’s what it has been. The team is the biggest part of me still being able to play football.”
Sunday’s fire destroyed the Cochran’s temporary home, where Chris was raised and where Cayden spent most of his childhood. The family’s new home, which they began building several months ago, will be ready in a few months.
“I immediately started to think of all the work done to the house and all the memories that were made,” Cochran said. “That house, my grandmother put a lot of pride into it. That is where I spent most everyday of my childhood, running around the farm. It was tough to deal with it at the time, just because of the pride that went into it.”
With Cayden set to play in the biggest game of his life Saturday, against the undefeated Winston-Salem State Rams, his family hasn’t let him worry about them and where they are sleeping at night or what they’re doing for clothing.
Instead, the Cochran’s want Cayden to be completely focused on his game and the opportunity to win a national championship. The family will be there, like all season, rooting him on towards one of his greatest athletic accomplishments.
“I’m overwhelmingly blessed,” Cochran said. “I just got on Twitter Sunday and saw a tweet from my Dad that said, “We’re focused on getting to Florence.’ The fact that they can put themselves aside and push forward someone else, it shows a lot about the people they are and what great parents they are.”
Since receiving the news of the family’s fire, Cochran has tried his best at staying focused, but says he has caught himself worrying about his family, especially when he is not on the practice field.
But, knowing what the people of his hometown are like — Cashion has a population of around 800 — has made dealing with the tragedy a little easier. The small town community is a close-knit group and has history of supporting families, including when the tornado hit in 2011.
“That community is unbelievable,” Cochran said. “When the tornado hit, I drove up from Norman and when I got there, people were already cleaning up. They ranged from 70 years old to little kinds from eight to nine years old. That is the kind of community I came from.”
Regardless of the distractions, head coach David Dean has been pleased with his quarterback’s approach this week.
“Tremendous kid that he puts all that behind him,” Dean said. “He keeps working; he has a great family and he is a great leader for us. But imagine going through that in 18-month period and still being successful on the field. That says a lot about who he is.”
Cochran has thrown for 2,601 yards with 25 touchdowns this season. He has also rushed for nine touchdowns this year, earning First Team All-Region honors as he has the Blazers in the midst of a nine-game winning streak, entering the championship game.
Cochran burst onto the scene in 2011 when he threw for 424 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Ouachita Baptist. He started the final four games of the season, breaking his collarbone in the season-finale against North Alabama.
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is set for 1 p.m. Eastern from Florence, Ala. The game will be televised on ESPN 2.