For much of the 2018 season, the Vanderbilt Commodores football team was an afterthought in the national spotlight of an otherwise powerhouse Southeastern Conference. The Commodores did, however, win three of their final four games to become bowl eligible, and they will look to secure Vandy's first winning season since 2013.
Motivating this team all year was the off-field battle of tight end Turner Cockrell. After noticing lumps on the right side of his neck last fall, Cockrell was diagnosed with advanced stage melanoma, which required surgery to remove the cancerous lymph nodes. In July, a full-body scan showed the cancer had unfortunately spread to Cockrell's lungs as well. After a year-long battle, he died on November 29, 2018. Cockrell was 21 years old.
The Cockrell family was by Turner's side back in his hometown of Acworth, Georgia. He is survived by his parents, Randy and Noelle, and a brother and sister. Cockrell did manage to see Vanderbilt's season-opening win over Middle Tennessee from the coach's suite this year while receiving treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Vanderbilt spokesman Larry Leathers said Turner's teammates were informed during a team meeting on Thursday afternoon of Cockrell's death. The team had been wearing No. 82 helmet decals in honor of Cockrell throughout the season and will surely honor him when they take the field for their bowl game.
The 6-foot-5 tight end was described by Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason as having "a wonderful spirit and fought an incredible fight. He was a Vanderbilt Man through and through, and he will always be remembered here."
Cockrell was an integral piece playing for Allatoona High School in Georgia. He was a starter on two teams that both went 14-1 and made the 5-A Georgia State Championship in back-to-back years, winning when Cockrell was a senior as he averaged 25.3 yards per catch that season.
Turner Cockrell's former high school teammate and childhood friend is Citadel quarterback Brandon Rainey, and he honored his friend's life in the most incredible way.
The night Cockrell died, The Citadel faced Charleston Southern on senior night. Rainey decided to leave his normal No. 16 jersey in the locker room and wear No. 82 in honor of his friend, and Cockrell's life was honored with a two touchdown performance by Rainey, and a 43-14 win to end the Bulldogs' season.
"It meant the world to me really. I got pretty emotional there, we found out like [wide receiver Raleigh Webb, also from Acworth] said about 15 minutes before pregame, but just to get to honor him and play for him was a great thing.
"I just went down on a knee and told him this was for him. I knew he was looking over us this game. I just wanted to make sure he knew I was playing for him, and I love him." -- Brandon Rainey, via Daren Stoltzfus
The Vanderbilt football will await their bowl game fate when they're announced after Championship Weekend, but you can be sure emotions will be running high as they honor one of the strongest Commodores to ever come through Nashville, Tennessee.
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