Cook did want to play. He had spent his season of recovery on the sidelines, signaling in the defensive calls for new U.Va. coach Bronco Mendenhall, studying and learning the ins and outs of the 3-4 defense. So in the fall, he strapped the pads back on.
Only he wasn’t the same player.
It took about two weeks of spring practice before Mendenhall and outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga had seen enough. Cook’s play was tentative, he was holding back. They had a blunt conversation with him, one that didn’t center on everything he’d overcome, but rather on the moment he was living in now.
“I told him, ‘If you’re going to play like that, you’re never going to play for me,’” Poppinga said. “If you’re going to be tentative, if you’re not going to play physical, if you’re always gonna be worried about getting hurt, then this game’s probably not for you anymore.”
At college, Cook had reached a safe space where the daily specter of death that hung over his old neighborhood seemed far away. Now, the fear crept back inside.
This time, it wasn’t the fear of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or the fear of losing everything as a bystander to a dispute.
Now, the threat came from within. It was Cook’s own body that had betrayed him.
“In a way, Mosby prepared me for that,” he said. “It’s any given day you can go out there and die. When the heart thing hit, it was scary, but I started going through in my head, ‘You could’ve died this time, this time, that time or this time.’”
Now, that haunting feeling was back and Cook’s coaches had challenged him to fight it.
Mendenhall and Poppinga have had similar conversations with players before, and some of them chose to walk away from football. They didn’t know how Cook would react.
“The next day he showed up and he’s really not turned back since then,” Poppinga said. “Ever since that conversation, he’s been a totally different player. He’s the guy that we need, athletically and physically, at that linebacker position.”
This season, the 6-foot1, 230-pound Cook starts at outside linebacker. In the Cavaliers’ season-opening win over the College of William & Mary he recorded a team-high 13 tackles and his first career sack. He followed that up with five tackles in
Virginia’s loss to Indiana University.