Cole Klubek is just your average 30-year-old white former Air Force meteorologist who, after serving a tour in Iraq, coached college hockey in Mississippi before becoming the punter and placekicker for the football team at a historically black university in Chester County.
He talks about himself in exactly that sort of matter-of-fact tone, with the amiable disposition of a guy who happened to plop down on the stool next to you at the local pub. So you pull up a chair in a conference room here at Lincoln University, and you listen to him tell his story, and you feel like you would buy him a beer or at least crack one open yourself ... if it weren’t 9 in the morning on a Wednesday last month.
Klubek has a full day ahead: classes in the late morning and early afternoon, football practice from 3:30 into the evening, a half-hour ride to his home in Elkton, Md., where he’ll see his wife, Brandi, who will have just finished her workday grooming dogs at PetSmart.
He has had nothing but full days for years, stringing them together into a journey from Buffalo to Biloxi to Baghdad and back again, now playing football and keeping up a 4.0 grade-point average in his major, English, all of which explains why there are flecks of gray in his fuzzy brown beard and why a bald spot is spreading across the top of his head and why he pretty much shrugs at being one of just two white guys on a roster of 76 players and at being, statistically speaking, among the worst punters in Division II.
Klubek chose the full days and the places he has lived them out. He wouldn’t change his choices.
“I’m a very realistic individual,” he says. “No matter what I’m doing, I know my limitations, and I know I can break through certain limitations.”
Start with the easy limitations, the early ones. He was a military brat; his stepfather and mother were in the Air Force Reserves. He attended a Catholic grade school in Biloxi and didn’t have a class with a black kid. Then, he started public school in seventh grade, and suddenly half his classmates didn’t look anything like him.
“Initially, there was some shell shock,” he says. “Then you’re like, ‘Why is there a shell shock?’ And everybody just got along.”
He played hockey throughout middle school. Yes, hockey in Mississippi. Biloxi had a franchise in the East Coast Hockey League, and Klubek’s mother had grown up near Buffalo, where the sport is more popular. He was also the goalkeeper on his soccer team. Goalkeepers punt the ball a lot. He didn’t think much about that at the time.
Once he finished ninth grade, he and his family moved to western New York. Three years of soccer, golf, club hockey, and general aimlessness. He chased a girl. He worked at a pizzeria. He didn’t bother even to get his driver’s license. “I was like, ‘This isn’t my future. I’m better than this,’ ” he says.
He rode his bike five miles to a military recruiting office. He wanted to join the Army, but the Air Force recruiter saw him and said, “Hey, you’re walking through the wrong door.” This guy’s funny, Klubek thought. He decided to join the Air Force instead. That’s all it takes, sometimes, for someone to change his life.
After basic training, he entered the Air Force’s meteorology school, for two reasons. One, it meant he’d return to Biloxi for nine months, working at Kessler Air Force Base. Two, there was a component of his training that would teach him to track hurricanes. He had moved to Buffalo before Katrina had ravaged the Gulf Coast but still had friends galore in Mississippi, and in 2005, he’d been in a clubhouse during golf-team tryouts, safe.
“That guilt is really what pushed me to go back home,” he says. But when it was time, in one of his courses, to rewatch Katrina’s wreckage unfold, he couldn’t handle it. His instructor, a black woman named Shawn Luster, pulled him aside. You know, you don’t have to watch these videos, she told him. You can do the work without them if it bothers you that much.
He completed his courses, then bounced to Shreveport, La., spending more than two years there before he was deployed to Baghdad in October 2010. His 21st birthday was his first day in Iraq.
“We had a mortar attack,” he says. “We had the sirens go off. You hear a loud whistle anytime a rocket is flying. ‘OK, this is different. That’s a sickening sound. I don’t want to hear that again.’ It was the first time in three or four years that the kid with the Catholic upbringing started praying again.”
For his 200-day stint there, he briefed pilots and commanders on forecasts and weather patterns, streaming Buffalo Sabres games on his laptop in his downtime. A hundred shells a day rained on his base and another 18 miles to the north. He became numb to the whistles.
When he returned home, to Buffalo, he took a month off and lived it up, so much so that, at 22, he learned he was going to be a father. He wasn’t married. He freaked out. How could he support a baby? His supervisor, a black staff sergeant named Darnell Gillie, pulled him aside. Here’s what’s about to happen, he told Klubek, and this is what needs to happen. “He turned from a supervisor to an older brother,” Klubek says.
His next duty station was in Columbus, Miss., where he met and married Brandi. A base operator there happened to be a student at Mississippi State and a founder of the school’s club ice hockey program. Knowing Klubek was a hockey fan, the operator asked him if he’d be interested in overseeing the program and coaching the team. Klubek said sure.
What the guy didn’t tell him was that the club had just eight members and was about to get booted from the South Eastern Collegiate Hockey Conference. While driving to Little Rock for a game, Klubek called the conference commissioner and begged him to keep Mississippi State in the SECHC. The commissioner relented, and whenever one of the team’s players suffered an injury, Klubek himself suited up as a defenseman, even though he wasn’t eligible to play.
Six months later, he was transferred again. Ramstein Air Base. Germany. He was there three years. Coached a women’s hockey team. Played rec soccer. He had a wife. He had a son, Lucas, who still lived near Buffalo.
He started thinking about retiring from the Air Force. If he did, what then? He could go to school for free on the G.I. Bill, but where? One day, he was watching a Pittsburgh Steelers game and saw their kicker, Josh Scobee, miss two field goals. “I was like, ‘I’ll bet I can do that,’ ” Klubek says. “I knew I could still kick a soccer ball pretty far.”
He shot videos of himself practicing punts and field goals and posted them on social media. He got pointers from kickers around the country, including an Instagram message from NFL veteran Shayne Graham. He had a crazy thought: Maybe I could punt or kick in college.
He thought more: about his childhood in Biloxi, about his teacher Shawn Luster, about his supervisor Darnell Gillie. He decided to apply to three historically black colleges and universities, all of which had Division II football programs: Lincoln, Cheyney, and Central State in Ohio.
“Anytime I started to fall behind somewhere,” Klubek says, “there was an African American person who was there to help me or really push me toward where I needed to be. I felt like it would be a way for me to give back in the same way that I received. It’s kind of a homage to all of them.”
Lincoln had just one kicker/punter on its roster at the time, and it also had Samuel London, an Air Force veteran, as its recruiting coordinator. London and Klubek connected immediately. The kicker/punter transferred to another school. For Klubek, the choice made itself.
At his first football meeting, in the spring of 2018, one of his new teammates walked in and said, “Oh, you must be one of the new coaches.”
“No, sir,” Klubek replied. “I’m the kicker.”
He’s older than Tim Smith, Lincoln’s offensive coordinator. He’s the team’s oldest player by at least seven years, and just one of those other players, linebacker Mike Johnson, is white. Last year, he averaged 31.0 yards per punt, the lowest gross average in Division II, and missed both of his field-goal attempts. Over the spring and summer, he ate healthier, lost 25 pounds, worked on his punting technique.
His modest statistics don’t bother him. This is a man who knows his limitations, after all. They don’t bother his head coach, Josh Dean, either. Dean made him a team captain.
“There’s probably a better kicker. There’s probably a better punter. But can you honestly say that you’d get the kind of leader and individual in the locker room that Cole is? Absolutely not,” says Dean, who’s in his second season as the Lions’ head coach. “He’s very smart. He’s very caring. He’s very intelligent. He has a lot to offer. He wants to be a part of this. He’s still a sponge. He’s probably experienced more than I have, but when I speak to him, he’s looking in my eyes, and he’s grasping things.
“He comes from a military background, so being here has given him an opportunity to diversify his thoughts and beliefs. You go into the military, you don’t see color. You just see who your partner is or who’s with you. He takes that same mindset here. He detaches the stereotype or perception and is just part of the group.”
Most of the time, yes, he’s just part of the group. Not all the time. He took a sociology course last year, and anytime a topic related to race came up in a discussion, he says, without fail his professor looked right at him and said, Well, Cole, what do you think? And his classmates looked at him, too. And everyone waited. And he started to talk.
“And they get this realization, ‘Wow, he’s here because he wants to be here, not because it was the only place for him,’ ” says Klubek, who wants to pursue his master’s degree and a career as an academic adviser. “Especially my first semester, that opened up a lot of conversations and a lot of friendships, whereas if I came here because it was my only place to play football, it would be a different story.
“I mean, you have conversations at an HBCU that you can’t get at another institution, in-depth race conversations that wouldn’t be at the forefront of conversations at other institutions. When I was at Mississippi State, I don’t think we talked about race once.
“Of course, we were a bunch of white guys playing hockey.”