May 24, 2017
Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Upon first review, Kevin Cone’s job as assistant director of football operations at Georgia Tech might seem an odd match, but jumping to quick conclusions about the former Yellow Jacket would count as investigative failure.
And Cone doesn’t do failure. He makes the most of everything.
Before returning to his alma mater in January after a stopover as a mechanical engineer, the 6-2, 218-pound native of Stone Mountain and graduate of St. Pius X Catholic High school spent much of the past seven years as a well-traveled professional football player. A gypsy, perhaps. But also an engineer. Still — and always — an engineer.
There was a three-year run with the Atlanta Falcons, followed by time spent with the Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals and Cleveland Browns — all in 2014 — and another turn in Miami. Then Cone spent parts of the ’15 and ’16 seasons with the Winnipeg Bombers of the Canadian Football League before dropping anchor as an engineer in the Atlanta office of Morrison Herschfield.
Finally — wait, finality does not stick to Cone — Georgia Tech director of football operations Mike Huff called in January, almost out of the blue. Guess who pulled anchor quickly to make another move, this time without moving?
“Coach Huff reached out and told me they had an opening. I didn’t even know there was an opening. He asked me if I was interested,” Cone recalled, his almost-ever-present grin perhaps wider than ever.
“My wife [Amber] and I talked about it … she knows I’m passionate about football and it was just a dream come true to come back to Tech . . . I have a lot of history with Tech. Both my parents graduated from Tech. I have uncles who went to Tech. I grew up loving Tech.”
Cone knows special paths.
After graduating from Tech (ME) in December 2010 and working out with other aspiring NFL players in Pittsburgh for three months, he auditioned before dozens of NFL scouts, forged through more individual tryouts and latched on with his hometown Falcons. A dream come true.
First, there was a lot of time spent on the practice squad. Then he played in a regular-season game late in 2011. In 2012, he dressed out for a dozen games with the team and in ’13 he played in all 16.
His NFL statistics: 29 games, 10 special teams tackles, one reception, 12 yards, lots of air miles.
“Once I left the Falcons, I went to Miami [in the winter of `14]. I was there for offseason workouts and preseason,” he said. “After preseason, I went to Arizona for a week. Then I went to Tampa for two weeks and finished the year in Cleveland.”
All that time logged did not include any games played.
“The next year [`15], offseason workouts and training camp with Cleveland,” he continued. “Got released in camp, went back to Miami, was there through the end of camp. Got released and went to Canada [for the latter part of the season].”
Cone moved into the Bombers’ starting lineup one week after joining the team and returned to Atlanta in the fall after the CFL season ended.
Following his release from Winnipeg in training camp last June, Cone, 29, made a life decision. He wasn’t letting go of a dream; he’d lived one. It simply came time to chase others.
“It just got to a point where . . . my wife and I had been married for about four months. We have a house, and it was just — the whole playing professional was a dream I never thought would last that long. It was very special to me. I had my time. I felt like it was over.
“I didn’t want to continue working out and playing the waiting game. `Am I going to get a workout here? Or be with a team for a week?’ I was ready to end it how I wanted to end it. I was ready to move onto the next phase of my life, be able to be home every day, sleep in my own bed.”
So, he does, in the same city where he engineered so dream drives before.
The eldest son of Tech graduates Ronny and Janet Cone was quite the athlete at St. Pius, lettering three times each in track and field and basketball. His name is still featured prominently at the school, where he was part of a record-setting relay team on a state championship track and field team.
Football, where he lettered twice as a receiver and defensive back, came third. Come college, though, he made it No. 1.
Cone caught 12 passes for Shorter College in 2007, then transferred to Tech as a walk-on. After spending ’08 on the sidelines, he carved out a significant role. Sure, he caught a modest four passes in two seasons with the Jackets, but he played a alongside future NFL starters Demaryius Thomas and Darren Waller at the same position.
But, undrafted out of college, he forged his way into the NFL.
With history as a guide, Cone’s path should no longer look like a surprise. Instead, his travels might be considered predictive.
While working out in Pittsburgh with the goal of going pro, he was stoking another kind of professional fire in an internship with Westinghouse.
Look back once again and his comments at the time foretold of possibilities that he’s come to live.
“My main task was designing and modeling on a computer — calibration blocks, a primary component in nuclear power plants,” Cone said in 2011. “I had to review drawing sheets and mark-up drawings and revise them, too. I’m definitely planning on using my degree at some point.
“Westinghouse is at the top of my list [as] a company I would like to work for. Or maybe I’d like to work for Nike and design sports equipment, stay in the sports industry. I’m not picky. The engineering degree is great. I never saw myself doing nuclear engineering and now I can.”
Soon after hanging up his cleats for good, Cone tapped that experience and Tech degree and went to work as a mechanical engineer with Morrison Hershfield.
Four months in, the phone rang. It was from The Flats.
Where for a time he was a front-of-house Yellow Jacket, now he’s working behind the scenes.
“I’m in charge of getting guys situated with housing for fall, summer and spring, and keeping track of who’s on campus, who’s off campus, where the guys are at,” Cone explained. “During the season, I’ll be the point man to go to the hotel a day early, make sure everything is set for arrival, everything is smooth.
“I’ll make sure the buses are ready to pick us up. I’m in charge of postgame meals. During camp, it’s making sure hotel rooms are right, lining up snacks and drinks for the guys when they’re in camp.”
If Cone’s position leads into the coaching profession, it won’t be the first time that’s happened in this business. Craig Candeto held the same role last year and is now Georgia Tech’s quarterbacks/B-backs coach. Another former Jacket in another sport, Mario West, is back at Tech with the basketball program, working in a role similar to Cone’s, with an eye toward possibly going into coaching.
That’s not necessarily Cone’s goal at this point but it must be considered a possibility.
“Really, I’m just kind of riding the wave. Three months ago, I didn’t even think I would be doing football ops,” he reminded, with that big grin. “If I get an opportunity to coach or do something else . . . if I can do something within sports, I’ll definitely stay, but it’s not like I’m trying to be a coach.”
Familiarity certainly isn’t an issue. Cone’s head coach, Paul Johnson, and position coach, Buzz Preston, are still in the house. So is former teammate/quarterback Tevin Washington, a graduate assistant with the Jackets.
“If any sports team called me it would have been exciting but just having it be Tech and how familiar I am with the staff . . . To come back after going to school here was special.”
This is a family love affair. Cone’s parents are tickled and he harbors no regrets about the decision to end football — as a player.
“They’re loving it . . . any excuse for them to come to Tech and watch games,” Cone said of his parents’ thoughts. “I tell my wife every day I’m living the dream. It feels good to be able to come home, see her every day and not just talk on the phone or Facetime.
“And it’s just nice knowing I did all that [football]. It was a crazy ride, a lot of fun. It was exciting. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”