To those who did not know him better, Joe Cole might have seemed a bit gruff, a man not given to smiling a lot. But to family members and friends who knew him most of their lives, he was anything but that.
Cole, a Hillsboro native, died Monday afternoon. He was 81.
“He was the best athlete I ever knew,” said Leroy Kittrell, who grew up with Joe and was a grade ahead of him. “He could play any position. He was just a natural in everything. I will remember him as one of the best people I ever knew. Aside from being a great athlete, he was an even better human being. You never left his house hungry.”
Kittrell said that when Joe was in the eighth grade he jumped on the back of a vehicle and ended up getting dragged for about half a block, which cost him a year of playing sports. Kittrell said that during that time he and Joe’s brother, Charlie Cole, played football often with other boys on a vacant lot where Wendy’s now stands in Hillsboro and that Joe was the punter while he recuperated.
But he said that Joe recovered to make Hillsboro’s varsity football team as a freshman and that in the first game that season against the London Boys Industrial School, the first time Joe touched the ball he went 80 yards for a touchdown.
Joe played football, basketball, baseball and ran track, Kittrell said, but he said he only ran track because that was one of the coach’s requirements for playing football.
“When we got to be seniors we told (the coach) to take that track and stick it because we were going to graduate,” Kittrell said with a laugh.
The oldest of Joe’s two sons, Jon, a 1980 Hillsboro High School graduate, was all-state in football and basketball, played American Legion baseball and set the Division II state discus record, along with the University of Toledo discus record in college.
When asked how he would remember his father, Jon said, “That he wasn’t as tough as he came across as being. He never knew how proud of him I was, and how proud I was to be his son.
“He was my hero because I knew that no matter what I did athletically I couldn’t live up to what he did, at least from what I heard. I was always trying to do something close to as good as what he did.”
The younger son, Maurice, a 1990 HHS graduate, said, “Our Dad was such a big-hearted person.” He said that while his father could come off as a bit gruff and grumpy at times, “his laugh could tear you up.”
Maurice said that his dad and brother’s success kind of turned him away from sports because he didn’t think he could live up to their accomplishments. Still, he said that in his freshman year he decided to give football a try, although it didn’t last long. He said that when he came home from practice the first day or so, Joe asked him if he liked it. Maurice said he answered with a mumble. Then Joe asked if Maurice was playing for him or himself. Maurice said he mumbled again and pointed toward his dad.
“He said, ‘You can’t do it for me. You gotta do it for you,’” Maurice said.
So he stuck with band, chorus, musicals and was his class president.
Later, Maurice developed a love for tennis. He said Joe started paying attention to tennis so he could ask Maurice questions and talk to him about it.
“Dad told me how blessed he was to have two different boys involved in two different things,” Maurice said. “He said he had the best of two different worlds.
“… He was a guy that spoke his mind, but loved his family and loved his community, and really, we got our since of right and wrong from dad as much as from mom.”
Ron Gilliland, an All-Ohioan in track, was a year behind Joe in school and played basketball and ran track with Joe in high school. He said Joe ranks among the top two to ever play football at Hillsboro.
“When I was 15 I got a little too cocky because I didn’t think anyone could beat me in the half mile,” Gilliland said. “I smarted off to (Ohio State All-American quarterback) Art Schlichter’s dad (Max) at a track meet and he was a really big, strong guy. He was going to clean my clock and Joe stepped in and took care of that situation.”
Gilliland said he considered Joe a good friend and that in the years after high school they played lots of softball and basketball together.
“We just always remained friends through years. He was always friendly to me,” Gilliland said. “Joe was a good guy.”
In describing how he will remember Joe, Kittrell maybe summed Joe’s life up best.
“As a good husband, father and overall good person, and that’s what he was,” Kittrell said. “If you’re judged on right and wrong, Joe’s in pretty good shape because he certainly did a lot more right than wrong.”
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday.
In addition to his sons, Joe is survived by his wife of 56 years, Arlene (Rockhold) Cole.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.