Given Cole Kmet’s family background, many people assumed he’d be in the position he is now as a highly-regarded tight end prospect in the 2017 recruiting class, but for those closest to him – those responsible for some of the outside expectations – it was never a foregone conclusion.
“A lot of people think it’s automatic because I played football and his uncle played football,” Kmet’s father, Frank Kmet said.
To be clear, the elder Kmet and his brother-in-law, Jeff Zgonina, didn’t just play football, they played high-level college football at Purdue before playing in the NFL.
Still, as Frank Kmet said, “In my mind, it was never that way. You’ve got to fight for things, you never know what’s going to happen and you just have to go with it.”
A defensive lineman, Kmet was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 NFL Draft after his career with the Boilermakers.
“I had the (Joe) Theismann injury my senior year,” Frank Kmet said. “I kind of went from a first-rounder down to a fourth-rounder, which was still great, but I just couldn’t recover. I kind of went from defensive end to offensive line and kind of bounced around a little bit. I went from Buffalo to Green Bay to Chicago. My career was kind of said and done after that.”
Zgonina’s career was lengthier and he played 17 years as a defensive tackle for the Steelers, Panthers, Falcons, Rams, Colts, Dolphins and Texans.
Cole Kmet started making a name for himself as a pass-catcher for Saint Viator High School this past season and quickly shot from 6-foot-1 to 6-foot-5 in a matter of months.
“I saw him slam dunking a basketball, so I knew it was time I got him out there to everybody,” Frank Kmet explained.
So they hit the camp circuit and earned offers from Notre Dame and Ohio State to go with offers from schools like Baylor, Kentucky, Iowa and Northwestern. It didn’t take long for Kmet to begin trying to find ways to share the spotlight.
“When he first got the attention, he was excited, but he’s not really a big attention kid,” his father said. “They have a school of 1,000 kids and he’s happy with where he’s at.
“He knows the attention that comes along with this recruiting and he knows about the other kids putting in all of the other hard work. Not everybody is 6-5 and 230, but there are a lot of good football players. He felt, ‘Hey, if they’re coming to see me, they’re going to see you on tape too.’ He told everybody, ‘Play your best, you never know who’s watching.’”
That approach didn’t come as a surprise to those who know Kmet.
“We always knew he was a really good athlete,” Frank Kmet said. “He was on the higher end of things growing up. We always tell him that team comes first and we’ve stressed that with all of our kids. He’s got two other brothers and a sister and they’re all very competitive. We always told them team comes first. They understand that and they know that. He knows he’ll succeed if he has everybody else’s back and they’ve got his back.”
Athletics may be a central fraction of the Kmet family, but it isn’t the most important one.
“Our number one thing in our house is academics,” Frank Kmet said. “They know how long a football career is. My brother-in-law played 17 years, but that’s out of control. Nobody plays that long. Most people if you even get a shot, you’re playing one or two years. There’s just not a lot of longevity to it. It’s exciting; you meet a lot of people. A lot of opportunities happen because of it in that short period of time. But you have so much more to your life than the sport.
“You want to use the sport to your advantage. We really stress academics and what you want to do for the rest of your life. This is great. They know it’s fun and they want to make it last as long as possible, but they also know going into this, ‘I’m more than just a football player or an athlete. I have a lot more to me.’
“That’s why we really stress academics and doing things that are not just sports, whether it’s extra time helping people out or doing things at school that are extracurricular that have nothing to do with sports. We really want them to understand, ‘This is just an avenue you’re taking because you have the ability and you’re going to do your best, but it’s going to open so many more doors. You just want to be prepared for it.’”
Kmet and his family are appreciative of the options that have come his way already.
“We’re looking at the colleges and so far everybody who has approached Cole, there’s not a bad choice,” his father said. “They’re all great. Right now, he’s trying to look into studying business, that may change, but that’s what he’s looking at right now
“We told him, ‘You focus on your grades and work hard on the field and it’ll all come together. Your future is so bright.’ But again, it all does start in the classroom. If you don’t do what you need to in the classroom, you’re not getting on the field nowadays.”
ColeKmetND1Notre Dame is certainly one school that is appealing.
“When you look at the Notre Dames, the Northwesterns, the Ohio States, all of these schools, you’re looking at the academic side of things knowing there’s a future beyond football,” Frank Kmet said. “It’s exciting to our family. It’s exciting to Cole.
“All of the coaches have been stressing that it’s not a four-year deal, it’s a 40-year deal. Obviously Notre Dame stresses that. They kind of bring the whole package together for everybody when it comes to academics, football and life after. Notre Dame is a special place in that regard.”
Kmet and his father were in South Bend for Irish Invasion last month and will return on Thursday.
“We’re all going back as a family,” Frank Kmet said. “The Irish Invasion was great. We had a chance to really visit the campus and see it. My wife and my other children weren’t able to come, so they want to get down there and really visit it. What we want to try to do is get some relationships going. This has been happening really quickly for Cole.
“A lot of things have been coming at him. I just want to make sure he puts some roots together with some schools. I don’t want to say narrow his list right away, but at least build some relationships pretty quickly to know what he feels comfortable with. The wintertime will probably be the next shot he has to get down to places and see things, so he’ll at least have something established with these coaches.”
The family is also planning to make stops at Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa this week before Kmet gets into his high school preseason next week. There’s no firm timetable for a decision, but one could come soon.
“It’s not a rush,” his father said. “If something felt right, he’s going to go with it. If it’s not and he’s not ready, he’s going to wait. It’s as easy as that.”
Frank Kmet wants his son to enjoy the process.
“Everybody has their opinions on everybody,” he said. “It can be a little rough at times, but for the most part everybody is looking out for your best interests to help you along. I told him to go with his gut, his heart and what he wants. They’re all great schools. They all have great academics. They all have great coaches. Nobody is throwing anything bad out there. To decipher what you want to do, you really have to go by your heart.”
Having gone through the process himself, Frank Kmet is enjoying it from a different perspective this time.
“I’m excited,” he said. “When I did this with my dad, I never really understood it until now that I’m in my dad’s shoes. I look at it and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s really unbelievable to have your son go through this.’
“Now that it’s happening, I’m very proud of him, not only for accomplishing what he’s accomplished with the football, but just how he’s acted throughout it and handling the responsibility that goes along with it. I’m really proud of him as a dad and obviously his mother is too.”