Centre football, courage and a life-saving spring break: Students discuss how instinct led the way in heroic experience

by Matt Overing

Centre College News
Seniors Cole Littleton and Zack Mason

For four years, seniors Cole Littleton and Zack Mason have absorbed what Centre College football coaches drill each day in practice: a team-first approach that puts the greater good ahead of individual accolades. 

“The absence of self,” Littleton said. “In a moment you’re looking to each other, not doing it for anyone else but for one another — that’s just the way ‘it’ happened.”

“It” was a life-changing event during their spring break trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama. On their final day at the beach, Littleton, Mason and teammates Greer Stone, Jacob McCarthy and Nick Grant all rushed into red-flag conditions to save two teenage girls caught in the current.

“There were five of us in the water, and someone came up to us yelling — we couldn’t hear what they were saying, but we heard a ‘HELP!’ and we saw them pointing into the water,” Mason said. “We looked and saw two girls getting caught in the current. Cole and I, we were the first two there.

Stone, McCarthy and Grant helped Littleton and Mason bring the girls to shore. In the moment, there was no question, no second-guessing from the Centre students.

“We had to,” Mason said. “We didn't have any choice — I keep saying it relates back to football, especially as an offensive lineman. You always put other people before yourself. That was the initial reaction.” 

Littleton reached a girl, who he said was unresponsive. His high school lifeguard experience kicked in and he worked to get her into position where he could keep her head above water. But it wasn’t until Stone grabbed his arm that they were able to break the current and get to shore.

“I had her, and I was trying to swim with one arm, and I was still being pulled out,” Littleton said. “I turned around, and Greer grabbed my arm. He helped just as much — there's a lot to be thankful for the way it all happened.”

When they got to shore, Mason said onlookers were clapping. A man shook Mason’s hand.

Medics flew past the group and were flagged down, at which point the Centre students made way for the professionals. As Littleton and Mason rejoined their group, the gravity of the situation began to set in.

Now, after media interviews and internet buzz, Mason still can’t believe what happened.

“Since that day, I never thought publicity would come out of it,” he said. “It leaves a lot of thoughts, like why me? I feel like anyone would have done it if they were in that situation.”

But Littleton and Mason each recited the mantras that Centre football has instilled, and there was no doubt in them.

“We weren't worried about ourselves, that was just our instinct: Go help,” Littleton said. “It takes courage. Our coaches always tell us that courage is…”

“Our greatest virtue,” Mason added.

“All of the other virtues hang on courage at the point of adversity,” Littleton said. “It means a lot and it is cool to see it all translate into a real-life situation — those instincts that are developed in football across four years.”

At top: Senior football players Cole Littleton (left) and Zack Mason (right) shared their experience during a spring break trip to Gulf Shores, Alabama.