Clayton Coll remembers the play that ended his 2023 season by heart.
Kentucky quarterback Devin Leary completed a pass to wide receiver Barion Brown on the left sideline, and when Brown cut past Ball State defensive back Tyler ‘Red’ Potts faster than Coll expected, he didn’t have enough time to fully break down for the tackle.
Coll’s cleat stuck in the ground and his ankle twisted under him, but he still made the tackle.
“I went to stand up and it felt like, my leg, somebody put a balloon in it and it just blew up,” Coll said. “I vividly remember one of our trainers getting there to me and saying, ‘What's wrong?’ I told him, ‘I think I just broke my ankle.’”
Coll fractured his fibula and suffered significant damage to two ligaments in his ankle during the second quarter of Ball State’s first game of the season. Coll had gone through multiple injuries to his hamstring, back and more prior to this moment, but he said this was the most intense pain he has ever felt. As he was helped onto the team’s medical cart and had an air cast put on his ankle, he knew things were serious.
“I was in front of 60,000 people but I was all alone,” Coll said.
After the game, head coach Mike Neu addressed the media with tears in his eyes, choking up when talking about what Coll means to Ball State football. He wouldn’t say it at the time, but Neu’s verbiage and tone suggested the writing was on the wall for Coll’s injury being season-ending.
The senior linebacker has gone back and listened to that press conference and said it’s still hard to watch four months later. Coll said his older brother, Casey, texted him after the game and simply said, “Football takes what it wants.”
“It really does,” Clayton said. “It’s a gruesome sport. It happens. And the football team has got to keep going.”
In the months that followed, Coll said he has leaned on his wife, Ali, more than anyone. The two have had conversations about every aspect of the injury; most notably, what does Clayton’s future look like with football or without it?
While he said he spent a lot of time dealing with anger and even at times thinking, ‘Why me?’ Coll knew he had to change his perspective in order to move on mentally from the effects of the injury. He still has a year of eligibility to continue playing at the collegiate level, and announced Dec. 1 via X that he was entering his name in the transfer portal, choosing to step away from Ball State after five years.
A biology major, Coll’s dream for as long as he can remember has been to become a doctor. Even in this aspect, Coll found a way to bring football into the mix.
A True Cardinal, or team captain, for two years, Coll said he has learned the value of mental toughness, physical toughness, discipline, passion, leadership, effort and attitude so much that he referenced these values in his application to medical school.
“Whenever football ends for me, whenever that day comes, that doesn't mean I'm going to drop these values that I've learned and these lifelong life lessons that I've learned from the sport,” Coll said.
Coll said the Cardinals have adopted a team exercise called “Drivers,” where each player and coach outlines the biggest motivators in their lives to help remind them who and what they’re playing for outside of the program. Coll said he has photos of his two best friends from high school, his wife, his family at his wedding, his grandparents at one of his high school games and photos of some of the injuries he has had.
“I came here as an 18-year-old kid that thought he knew everything. I knew exactly what I was gonna do. I was gonna get married, play four years of football, go play in the NFL and have a great life,” Coll said. “I sit here today as a 23-year-old man that knows there’s a lot more to learn, and there’s a lot more to live. There’s a lot more to life than just football.”
From walk-on to scholarship
Cole Pearce, unlike Coll, didn’t come to Ball State on scholarship. He walked onto the team during the first week of the 2018 season.
Pearce knew he wasn’t likely to see much playing time in his first or second season because of his status, but that didn’t matter to him – he just wanted to play. He got his first taste of action on special teams for two games during his sophomore season but played consistently during the 2020 season.
While he was still mainly on special teams, he suited up for every game. During his time on the bench and even on special teams, Pearce said he closely watched those above him on the roster; how they approached games, practices, weight training, film study and being part of the team.
He finally made his first start in the fifth game of his fourth season, a home contest against Army.
“It just doesn’t happen overnight,” Pearce said.
The senior linebacker grew into a consistent starting role and started every game for the past two seasons. In 2022, he started every game alongside Coll, his closest friend at Ball State.
Pearce said the fellow linebacker helped him grow confidence on the field and even said their time playing together in 2022 was the most fun he has ever had playing football. That made things all the more difficult when Coll suffered his season-ending injury.
“We were so excited to play together again for our last year,” Pearce said. “When that happened, it was really tough. I was so sad for him because I know how much work he put in. It was just horrible.”
After Coll’s injury, Pearce still started every game in 2023 and filled the leadership void left by Coll for younger players on Ball State’s defense. With the program moving on without him, he said it was especially important to lead the younger players this season. Pearce experienced the highest of highs during Ball State’s 2020 MAC Championship season and the lowest of lows, missing out on bowl eligibility for the two seasons that followed, but he was adamant that the results on the field aren’t what will define his experience in Muncie.
“I'm going to miss this place,” Pearce said. “I'm gonna have to come back to it year in and year out.”
Pearce made a point to bring up the spiritual journey he has undergone while in the program as well. He said he grew up as a Catholic, but during the end of his high school career, he fell out of his faith.
In 2021, he began to open his ears to religion again through conversations with chaplains in the program and current/former teammates who practice. He said he has since accepted Christianity, which has helped him on the field just as much as off.
“Even if I miss a tackle, I’m always going to bounce back because I know what the greater purpose is,” Pearce said.
Chasing dreams, regardless of the sacrifice
Sidney Houston Jr. had his first daughter, Si’nyka, when he was 18, heading into his first year of college at McKendree University in Lebanon, Illinois. His second daughter, Si’reya, was born two years later.
Just 40 minutes away from his hometown of Cahokia, Illinois, Houston and his former partner were in close proximity to help raise their daughters despite their bond’s severance. However, it had been Houston’s dream since he was 5 years old to play in the NFL.
He has made it his aspiration to do so because of those depending on him, mainly his two daughters.
“We’re doing this for a bigger purpose,” Houston said.
While he is thankful for his time at McKendree, he knew he needed to make the jump to Division I. Coming to Ball State helped him realize it was possible, thanks in no small part to his fellow teammates who have the same dream. Since the season’s conclusion, he has officially declared for the NFL Draft.
Moving two states away from his daughters, who live in St. Louis, was a wake-up call for Houston. While the move was a difficult adjustment, Houston said the decision itself wasn’t a tough one.
“You got to go all in. You can't be one foot in and one foot out in this situation,” Houston said he told himself.
Houston said the biggest thing he’s learned from his time at Ball State was the importance of accountability and attention to detail. Coming to Ball State, a university with an enrollment of nearly 20,000 compared to McKendree’s enrollment of less than 2,000, was a major adjustment; he said he even had to schedule help sessions with those in the football program to help him adjust to a far stricter schedule and larger campus.
Even more important than that, Houston said, is that his college graduation will be the first in his family. Houston said he is proud to graduate in May 2024 with a major in general studies and two minors in marketing and psychology.
Houston said he tried to soak in the little things during his final season – like practice, walkthroughs, weight room sessions and film study. He said he’s going to miss waking up at 6 a.m. every day for practice; he’ll miss the life of being a student-athlete.
The outside linebacker said he approached his second season at Ball State trying to be more of a leader than ever, working to inspire fellow linebackers like Keionté Newson, Danny Royster and DeJuan Echoles Jr. Houston said he tried to preach to them not to take the little things for granted, just like he hasn’t.
“At the end of the day, when it’s time for you to get up out of here, you want to leave a good legacy,” Houston said.
Tyler ‘Red’ Potts remembers walking through his front door in Columbus, Ohio, on a cold February evening in 2017 after a high school basketball practice to see Neu sitting at his kitchen table with Potts’ family for a recruitment visit. Neu spoke with Potts and his parents about life outside of football. That’s when he felt Ball State was a program based on family.
“He promised my parents that I will leave this place as a man and with a degree,” Potts said. “I would like to say after five years he accomplished that.”
Despite the positive first impression, the redshirt senior admitted his relationship with Neu has gone through its challenges. He said they have had tough conversations throughout his five seasons at Ball State, even discussing entering the transfer portal following the 2021 season.
Potts took a redshirt his first season at Ball State, played much of his second and third, but missed the entire fourth season due to developing myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), which Potts said was from his COVID-19 vaccine.
He met with Neu to discuss his future at Ball State and asked the head coach who sat at his kitchen table three years prior, “Is it attainable for me to ever be a starter here?” Neu told him it wouldn’t be easy, but if he met the expectations laid out in front of him when healthy, he could. Potts said that was all he needed to hear to stay in Muncie.
“I will never ever run away from competition a day in my life; that’s not me,” Potts said. “I know as long as I’m good and I’m healthy, I can play with anybody.”
Two years later, Potts, like Coll, Houston and Pearce, is one of Ball State’s nine “Tough Cardinals,” selected by the coaching staff at the beginning of each season. With his journey in mind, Potts said when he was told of his standing at the beginning of the season, he was at a loss for words.
He approaches this position as one to inspire the younger generation of Ball State football players and show them the hard work it takes to play at the highest level.
“We’ve grown to be brothers,” Potts said. “There’s not nothing anybody in here can’t call on me for.”
Potts said his relationship with Neu has grown into one he’ll always cherish because of these conversations – Neu has always made it known that Potts can come to him for things outside of the sport.
“Having somebody like that, being so young in your career, is essential,” Potts said. “Your parents aren’t with you anymore. It’s easy for a head coach to just wave an 18-year-old off, but he gives everybody a chance.”
Potts said although his journey at Ball State has been bittersweet – one that included a redshirt, a COVID season, a season missed due to a heart condition, two bowl appearances, a conference championship and two losing seasons at the end – he feels like he has set himself up for a positive future better than he could have anywhere else.
“The game of football is going to end eventually, but the game of life never ends until your calling,” Potts said.
Potts, like Houston and four other Cardinals, has a child. He calls his young son, Braylen, his “ultimate motivation.” Although Braylen lives in Columbus, Potts was able to see him at the Kentucky, Indiana State and Central Michigan games throughout the season.
Potts is majoring in psychology, and when he moves on from football, he wants to work his way up to becoming a Chief Executive Officer (CEO). He said his ethnicity is the biggest motivating factor for this career path; he wants to help bring more Black people to executive roles.
“I just want to find a space where I can help my people be better,” Potts said. “If I got to do it on my own to take that next step and that initiative to make things right for my people, then that’s what I’m gonna do.”
But before that, Potts has declared for the NFL Draft.
“I'm ready to take that next step, take the next shot and give myself a chance to chase a dream I've been chasing since I first put a helmet on,” Potts said.
Potts said seeing former Ball State players like Nic Jones and Bryce Cosby get drafted gave him the motivation to do the same. He had a good relationship with the two of them and continues to draw on what they taught him at Ball State.
“Ball State will always hold a special place in my heart because they took a chance on an 18-year-old kid from Columbus, Ohio,” Potts said.