CASHION — Chris and Kerry Cochran smiled their way through the week.
It's what you'd expect from the proud parents of a kid playing for a football national championship this weekend.
It's not what you'd expect, though, from a family that just lost its second home in less than two years.
First came a tornado.
Then came a fire.
“It's just stuff,” Chris said as he sat in the office of his — would you believe it — insurance agency. “Nobody's dead. Everybody's alive, so that's kind of kept us motivated.”
So has football.
At a time the Cochrans could've been consumed by their latest tragedy, they instead found solace in a familiar outlet. Football has long framed the portrait of their family, starting with their oldest, Cayden, and remaining the constant for all four of their boys.
Now as Cayden prepares to complete an amazing journey and quarterback Valdosta State in the Division II national championship game Saturday, football is the family's focus, not the fire.
“It's our whole lives,” Chris said. “It's all we've ever done.”
That holds especially true for Cayden.
He started playing as a fifth-grader. By the time he was in high school, college coaches were coming to this no-stoplight town about 15 minutes west of Guthrie.
Then, Cayden tore his ACL.
The visits and calls stopped.
Oklahoma State was one of the big-time schools that remained interested, but the Cowboys wanted Cayden to attend Coffeyville Community College in Kansas. See how things go. Maybe they'd have a scholarship in a couple years.
Cayden went to Coffeyville, where he redshirted a year, then became the starter. He threw for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
But when he was done, there were no Division-I offers.
Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel wanted him to be a preferred walk-on at wide receiver, so Cayden enrolled before the spring semester. He jumped into offseason conditioning. He participated in spring ball. But he soon realized something.
“He wanted the ball in his hands,” his dad said.
Cayden called his coaches at Coffeyville and asked if they could help him find a team that needed a quarterback. Didn't matter where. Didn't matter what division either.
They were starting to sort through options when the tornado hit.
Chris and Kerry were at the office, and because the forecasts were dire and predicting severe weather around 4 p.m., Chris sent everyone home around 2. He finished up a few things and headed home around a few hours later.
By the time he got there, the feeling in the air was weird.
“Dull,” Chris said.
Weirder still, the windows of the house were trembling.
“What in the world?” Kerry asked.
“That's not thunder,” Chris said. “That's got to be a tornado on the ground.”
Kerry and the three younger boys went into the storm shelter under their garage — Cayden was still in Norman at school — and a few minutes later when it began hailing sideways, Chris joined them. They had only been in the shelter a couple minutes when the tornado hit.
It sucked in the walls of the shelter and tried to lift off the door.
Chris and Kerry grabbed each other's arms and covered the boys as best they could.
“It happened for about 15 seconds,” Chris said, “then it was over.”
One of the boys looked up the air vent and could see daylight. They figured maybe the garage was gone.
Only when they opened the shelter door did they see just how bad it was. Almost the entire house was gone, smoothed off the foundation. Four cars were gone. About all that remained was one collapsed wall.
In their neighborhood of 15 homes, nine were destroyed and the rest had major structural damage.
So much needed to be done, but even as Chris and Kerry were helping their insurance policy holders and the family was moving into a rent house in town, Cayden got invited to Valdosta State. The school in extreme southern Georgia — it's only about 20 miles from the Florida border — and it is a Division II powerhouse.
He went on a visit and got an offer.
“And took all of our focus off the tornado,” Chris said.
Cayden committed immediately.
Last season, he became the starter late in the season and threw for nearly a thousand yards. This season, he has thrown for 2,601 yards, 25 touchdowns and only eight interceptions in leading Valdosta to Saturday afternoon's championship game vs. Winston-Salem.
A week ago in the national semifinals, Cayden had arguably the biggest game of his career. On the road against Minnesota State-Mankato, Valdosta fell behind 10-0, but Cayden accounted for four of Valdosta's five touchdowns in a 35-19 come-from-behind win.
Chris, Kerry and the boys were there to see it, of course.
Once they spent some time with Cayden after the game, they headed home, stopping in Des Moines to spend the night.
Chris's phone rang around 2:30 a.m.
It was the Logan County sheriff, and he told Chris that their house was on fire.
The Cochrans had been living in the house that previously belonged to Chris's mom and had been in the family since 1907. They bought it from the rest of Chris's siblings and were fixing it up. Even though they are building a new house nearby, they wanted the old home to be a family gathering spot.
They hoped to have Christmas there this year.
“They responded in seven minutes,” Chris said of the fire department, “and they said the roof was on the ground and the walls were falling in when they pulled up. It was gone quick.
“The good thing is, we weren't there.”
Now all that remains are the charred hulls of appliances and the recently added fireplace and chimney.
The family had yet to build a fire in it.
“They told me when they got out here, flames were shooting five feet out the top of it,” Chris said as he stood near the still-smoldering remains of the house.
He smiled, then laughed at the irony.
He admits it was tough calling Cayden and telling him about the fire. That was his grandma's house.
“Don't worry about a thing,” Chris told his son. “You've got something that you've been working for your whole life. You just go take care of business.”
Cayden has had reminders, though. There have been questions this week as Valdosta prepares for the championship game. There has also been an outpouring of concern via Twitter.
“Thanks to everyone ... for your thoughts and prayers,” Cayden tweeted earlier this week. “There are many people out there going through tougher times than us.”
Cayden and his family know all about tough times and rough roads, but just as football has provided a diversion, it's also provided a lesson.
“He's used to the adversity,” Chris said of Cayden, “and picking himself back up.”
The same could be said of this entire family.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.