Before Caden Cooper and Cole Ford became close friends and senior leaders for the Flowery Branch football team, the pair opened their high school careers at Mill Creek High in Hoschton.
Their friendship grew after different circumstances led each of them to Flowery Branch, and that bond will continue on another football field in Illinois later this year.
Cooper and Ford, who have known each other since middle school football, signed their National Letters of Intent on Wednesday morning as a part of National Signing Day and will enroll at Division II McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill this fall.
“We’re definitely best friends,” said Cooper. “It’s pretty special. Transferring and moving to Flowery Branch from Mill Creek wasn’t something that we had planned to do, but we definitely hit it off.”
Following their sophomore years, the pair had to leave Mill Creek due to separate family situations. Ford left the school to care for his 78-year-old grandfather Carl, who lived alone in Flowery Branch. Meanwhile, Cooper and his family had decided to sell their Buford home after three of his older siblings left home after graduation.
Flowery Branch coach Chris Griffin and Ford had to appeal to the Georgia High School Association with a Hardship Application which would allow Ford to continue playing football while being under the custody of his grandfather.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at first, because sometimes the state can be tricky with that,” said Griffin. “But it was a legitimate situation and was the best for the family, so it worked out.”
Entering a new program wasn’t a problem for Ford or Cooper, who quickly became leaders among a welcoming team.
The pair helped lead Flowery Branch to a postseason appearance in their first year and a .500 record in 2014. After a year bouncing around wide receiver and outside linebacker, the lanky 6-3 Cooper put on some extra muscle and ended up moving to defensive end, where he’ll play for the Bearcats. Ford, (6-1, 205 pounds) has been a mainstay at linebacker since his Mill Creek days.
If Cooper and Ford aren’t playing football, the two are usually discussing the latest news of the day.
“We’ll work out every day after school, but then we’ll hang out, talk about politics or economics,” said Ford, who hopes to major in business, with a minor in political science.
Cooper wants to one day work in the field of finance after getting an economics-related degree while, Ford is hoping to secure an internship in nearby St. Louis.
When the Bearcats came calling, Cooper and Ford didn’t hesitate. Cooper’s older brother Conner, currently a sophomore offensive lineman at McKendree, gave the two a tour of the college on Jan. 30, along with a glowing recommendation from the Bearcats’ coach Mike Babcock.
Babcock offered scholarships to the two that day, and Cooper and Ford verbally committed on the spot.
“When I had first visited my brother in my sophomore year, I liked the campus, but I hadn’t looked at it from a recruit standpoint,” said Cooper. “But then I started training really harder and the recruiting got serious toward the end. My dad happened to reach out to Coach Babcock and he liked what he saw of our film.”
Falcons teammates Zack Smith and Cooper Harrison will also be starting college together at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tenn. Griffin said his players often have aspirations of reaching the collegiate level, and have the best shot if they put together a graduation plan ahead of time.
“It was a process they had started when they got to Flowery Branch, they had a plan in place, they were great students, and that’s the first step in the recruiting process,” said Griffin. “They went to camps, stayed in contact with schools, and were active on their end. It was a collective effort.”
Wednesday’s signing, in front of several friends in Flowery Branch High, ended the long journey Ford and Cooper’s dreams of playing football in college. Their journey as best friends will live on in Illinois.
“It’s definitely not something easy,” said Cooper of his relocation to Lebanon, Ill., an 8 1/2 hour drive from Flowery Branch. “But with my brother already there and my best friend coming up with me, it’s definitely easier than going it along. It’s a rare thing, most people can’t say that they’ve been playing college football with your brother and your best friend.”