Playing with the Best: Local Cornhole Player Rising to the Challenge
Updated: May 23, 2019
By Stephen Thomas
Photos By Morgan Adcock
MTSU/Seigenthaler News Service
Cole Whitehead eyes the hole in the slanted box 27 feet in front of him. With an easy motion, the graduating senior at William Blount High School swings his right arm in an arc. About halfway through the motion he releases the grip on a square pad weighing 14 to 16 ounces, filled with feed corn.
The bag goes into the hole and Cole scores once again in the game of cornhole. This particular match is just for fun with friends who have come to his house to celebrate his graduation from high school.
For the young man, however, cornhole is not just a backyard pastime, but a serious sport. Whitehead is now playing in the elite level of competition, ranked first in Tennessee and 47th in the nation in standings compiled by the American Cornhole League, one of two sanctioning organizations of the game which sponsors tournaments across the county, as well a national championship.
He came to be a cornhole player because of two reasons. About two years ago, cousins visiting from Ohio brought a set of cornhole boards. “They sort of introduced us to the game,” Cole said.
According to cornholeworldwide.com, the game’s origin is a mystery. There’s a story often told of an ancient cabinet maker who invented a tossing game for his children to play, but the corroboration is unclear. In more modern times, the game became popular in Cincinnati about 15 years ago. Since then, pubs and bars have spread the game’s popularity. Today, perhaps millions play the game at weekend family gatherings and neighborhood barbecues.
To negate the opinion that cornhole is not a sport, consider that ESPN televises some of the regional and national tournaments, attracting up to 300,000 viewers on television.
It’s a simple game. Six-inch square bags are tossed toward a slanted board with a six-inch wide hole. Points are earned for landing on the board, one point, or putting one in the hole, three points.
Cole found that he liked the simplicity of the game’s rules, but found it to be challenging. He began playing local tournaments and began climbing the rankings.
But there’s a serious reason why he’s taken to cornhole. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome a connective tissue disorder that affects several major systems in the body, including respiratory, skeletal, ocular and, most notably, the cardiovascular systems. Due to the risk of potentially fatal heart complications associated with Marfan Syndrome, Cole was forced to stop playing basketball and baseball, his two favorite sports.
“It's one of those things you know we don’t dwell on,” said Linda Whitehead, Cole’s mother. “It is the disease that a lot of athletes die out on the field because they don’t realize they have it.”
Telling an active boy that he couldn’t play sports like his peers was tough to take. He wanted to be a competitor, so he began racing radio-controlled cars. After his cousins’ visit, cornhole became a large part of his life. After doing well at local tournaments he moved up in rankings. His father, Larry, also a cornhole competitor, turned empty space in a steel building into a cornhole training center, of sorts, where father and son can practice and where many in the community come to practice.
“I guess I’ve been playing for about three years now, and started off at local tournaments, and then started moving up to more of the national level tournaments and started doing pretty good at some of them,” Cole said.
As his pitching skills improved he began bringing home cash.
“It was something cheaper to do and make a little bit of money on the weekends,” said Cole.
Cole now competes in events organized by the American Cornhole League and the American Cornhole Organization. His past performances puts him up against players in the elite echelon.
Larry said Cole “gets up for competition.”
“He’s just real calm all the time, he don’t tend to rattled or anything like that...every now and then he gets aggravated at himself, but basically that’s it,” Larry said.
Linda, who does not play, said she enjoys the family atmosphere at the tournaments. “We have a cornhole family we travel with,” Linda said, adding the family has made friends across the country because of the game.
That will continue this summer as Cole competes in the ACL’s end of season championship in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.
But at his graduation celebration on May 19, he was only concerned about playing a friendly game with friends and family. As bags were sent airborne by players at all three cornhole boards, all that could be heard was the thudding of the one-pound bags and the banter of conversation from the players. The atmosphere was competitive, but cordial, with smiles and handshakes at the end of the games.
Whether he wins the finals or rises in the ranks at the August championship tournament, Cole said he will continue to compete in cornhole, even as he attends the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Knoxville where he will study heating ventilation and air cooling.
“I hope to continue and try to get my national ranking better every year and hopefully end up in the top level one of these days.”
Stephen Thomas is a Middle Tennessee State University journalism student. He is in Blount County as part of a feature writing class called the Road Trip Class.