This is from 12/23, but provides a compelling backstory to Cooks' life. I'm certainly rooting for him.
Oregon State football: Driven by father's death and family's struggles, Brandin Cooks reaches for more
STOCKTON, Calif. — When Mike Riley walked into Brandin Cooks’ bedroom three years ago, he started to understand that this kid was a whole lot more than Oregon State’s next potential playmaker.
Cooks, who fills a room with his smile and laugh even though he stands barely 5-foot-10, didn’t want to talk about crazy catches or touchdown runs, or brag about big high school wins. The day Riley and assistant coach Jay Locey made their recruiting visit, Cooks led them to his room and showed them an article about his father, Worth Cooks Sr., who died of a heart attack when Brandin was 6.
“It was clear early, he was a man on a mission,” Locey says now, on the verge of what could Cooks’ last game with the Beavers. “He had this incredible focus, a deep desire to be his best. He would not back down. Then he starts to talk about his dad ...”
There was no way to know then that Cooks would become arguably the best receiver in Oregon State history. At Andrea Cooks’ home in Stockton today, a shrine of sorts has been constructed on one wall to honor her youngest child, complete with pictures, posters and a jersey. It’s a testament to all Brandin has accomplished, and a reminder that he still craves more.
“The day after daddy died,” Brandin says, “it felt like everything went downhill.”
Each of his older brothers — Fred, Worth Jr. and Andre; now 32, 27 and 23, respectively — struggled with the loss of their father in a different way. Fred, the oldest who was already out of the house, plugged away at work, helping when he could and learning how to provide for himself. Worth Jr. fathered his first child at 15 and barely finished high school. Andre, Brandin’s sidekick growing up, has been in and out of prison the past few years. It’s only Brandin, the baby of the family, who was not permanently scarred by his father’s death.
A tight-knit group brought closer by tragedy, this is a family that roots for the one kid who got it right.
“I used to tell him, ‘Don’t be like me, Don’t be like us,’” says Worth. “‘You can be the one that’s different.’”
Andre Cooks has never seen his little brother play in college -- and maybe he never will.
Brandin, the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s best receiver, doesn’t have much left to prove in college football. If he leaves early for the NFL, no one will be surprised. But he wishes Andre could see him just once in Reser Stadium, where the crowd is continually mesmerized by speedster with a penchant for big plays in big moments. Andre, who originally went to prison for illegal possession of a weapon, is currently locked up in Fort Bragg, Calif., for a parole violation, and not due for release until next fall.
They talk sparingly, but Andre keeps track of Brandin’s progress, asking guards to check the scores and stats, aware of the gaudy numbers Brandin has put up most the season. When he learned of Brandin winning the Biletnikoff, there was a pause on the phone before Andre started muttering, “Beautiful, that’s beautiful man,” elated that his baby brother had followed through.
“He was always the one with the most ambition, there was this Energizer bunny within him,” Andre says by phone. “Sometimes I don’t think he really understood the magnitude of what was going on with our dad’s death; he just kept indulging in his love of sports. He already had his mind made up, that he was going to do it. Me and my other brothers, the three of us didn’t have any definite plans or a path. Brandin did. He was the one who was going to make it. We all recognized that, no matter what else was going on in the family, we recognized that he was the one who could get it right.
“He’s an inspiration to me.”
Andrea says that Brandin, now 20 and known around Corvallis as a playful guy, got his goofy side from Andre, “the comedian in our family."As children, Brandin and Andre were inseparable in good and bad, and Andrea Cooks shakes her head when remembering her little boys. They got into plenty of trouble, she says, but how could you stay mad at cuties with smiles like that? As punishment, they would kneel in the corner, thinking about what they had done. But when mom would slip out of the room Andre would whisper jokes to his brother, who could never hold in his giggles.
“Even when he was out running the streets,” says Brandin, who has not seen Andre in person for two years, “that’s my best friend, that’s the one who looked out for me.”
The bond is such that when Andre was sent back to prison last fall -- right before the Beavers played at UCLA -- his family elected not to tell Brandin until after the game, worried the news would weigh too heavily on his mind.
Andrea Cooks admits that always, her boys belonged to their daddy.
Brandin would rush home from school and go looking for Worth Sr., a former Marine-turned-bounty hunter who liked to race the boys — socks only, please, no shoes — from the opposite side of the street to the top of the driveway. He regaled them with stories from his youth, claiming that back in the day he had been invited to the Dallas Cowboys’ training camp, where he “caught a long bomb, something like 70-yards, and tore his knee up on the way down,” recalls Worth Jr., rolling his eyes. “We’re still not sure if it’s true.”
Days after agreeing to surgery for heart problems — “He said he wanted to watch his babies grow up,” Andrea says softly — Worth Sr. dropped dead of a heart attack at their home in Stockton. He died in Andrea’s arms on the living room floor, just 48 years old.
In the months and years that followed, Andrea ached for her husband. She missed Saturday mornings when the boys would crawl into bed with their parents, clamoring for attention and affection. But grief doesn’t pay the bills, so Andrea, who already worked at a shipping and receiving warehouse, took a second job at an after-school program, hoping to keep her boys on a straight path.
Brandin isn’t sure if it’s accurate to say the Cooks grew up poor — he certainly doesn’t like the word — but knows they were definitely below the poverty line, something he failed to understand for many years.
“I would get jealous of other kids with dads: ‘What would it be like if I had a dad? How good could I be? Would our family be better?’ I used to get mad that we couldn’t do stuff — go shopping, go out to restaurants, go on vacations. I needed rides to school, but I was embarrassed for people to see how small our house was,” Brandin says. “One day, Fred sat me down and said the reasons we ate beans and bread so much, it’s because it’s all we could pay for. And that’s when it hit me.”
Since that talking-to, Brandin has heaped praise on his mom for rising above their struggle to raise four boys. In turn, Andrea gushes about the love and pride she has for all her children, two emotions that were on display when Brandin won the Biletnikoff two weeks ago.
“When he walked up there I was thinking, ‘My baby, he did it,’” Andrea Cooks says, her voice rich with emotion. “He did what he set out to do. I was just so overwhelmed.”
Brandin is used to seeing his mom cry, but her tears are still a powerful reminder of what they’re both trying to achieve.
“To see her that emotional, it touched my heart,” he says. “The pain, the crying, I know where that hurt is from. That award was more special for her than me.”
When Brandin’s running mate and All-American receiver Markus Wheaton graduated last season, the natural assumption was that Brandin’s production would drop. Instead he flourished in 2013, racking up 120 receptions and 1,670 yards, both single-season school records. But perhaps the biggest surprise of his collegiate career came four years earlier. Because Cooks wasn’t even supposed to wind up at Oregon State.
Initially committed to UCLA and then-coach Rick Neuheisel, Cooks started to get anxious about the Bruins’ pistol offense, worried it wouldn’t play to his strengths. On a whim he took a visit to Corvallis, intrigued by Oregon State’s James Rodgers, a small receiver who burst onto the college scene with a play called the fly sweep, which OSU ran to perfection in 2007. Could I do the same thing?
“He told me he was committed to UCLA and I was like, ‘OK, there’s nothing wrong with that,’ but I just kept talking to him about what it was like at Oregon State,” says Rodgers, now a practice player with the Atlanta Falcons. “When he left, he kept calling me and asking me questions, saying he was thinking of coming back. We maintained a relationship, and everyone treated him like a teammate already. He liked that.”
When Riley and Locey showed up in Stockton for an in-home visit, Cooks remembers he felt “something different, something right,” when Riley sat on his couch. Andrea Cooks marveled at a Division-I head coach, the biggest man on campus, getting up at the dinner table and offering to serve seconds, dishing out ravioli for everyone else. This guy wanted to take care of her child for the next few years? She was sold.
Brandin, the first in his family to go to college, knew Riley’s system would allow him to produce the type of numbers needed to get to the NFL, and take the next step in his journey.
Surprised that Brandin wanted to give up the glamorous L.A. lifestyle to play in a small town — his sister-in-law joked that upon first visiting Corvallis she wondered if “Little House on the Prairie” had been filmed in one of the fields — his family saw how seamlessly he fit with the Beavers.
“Other schools, they show you cool stuff, but how much of it is real?” Brandin says. “OK, let’s go drive around this neighborhood in Bel Air … but when am I going to be back here? What does this have to do with me breaking records? In Corvallis, you’re here to take care of business. That’s what I wanted.”
He played as a true freshman, getting extra snaps while Rodgers dealt with an injury. He proved to be a valuable sidekick to Wheaton in 2012, as the Beavers recorded a surprising 9-4 season. And then he took over this year, dominating defenses as he became the Pac-12’s best and most explosive receiver, speeding by defensive backs for big gains and big-time touchdowns, the favorite target of quarterback Sean Mannion. Stanford coach David Shaw summed up Cooks’ play in one word: “Wow.”
Receivers coach Brent Brennan, whose first season in Corvallis was Cooks’ freshman year, has come to expect greatness from the pupil he calls “the golden standard.”
“He has an uncommon maturity,” Brennan said. “As a freshman, we’d watch practice tape, and he was blowing everybody away because he was winning his one-on-one so much. And he was controlling the matchup, always always positioning himself to go against Jordan Poyer, one of the best defensive backs in the country. I knew then he was different. Most true freshmen aren’t looking to line up and possibly get their (butt) kicked every time. But he loved that challenge.”
Brennan has coached his share of NFL receivers and has no doubt that Cooks will be next. It’s just a matter of when.
As the Beavers prepare to play Boise State in Tuesday’s Hawaii Bowl, the NFL decision looms for Cooks. He has pushed aside all talk about turning pro, insisting that he’s focused on getting one more win this season. He'll make a decision after the bowl game, he says. But he acknowledges that he’s at least thought about it.
Before the 2013 season, Cooks set two big personal goals: He wanted at least 92 receptions (one more than Wheaton nabbed in 2012) and 1,300 receiving yards. He has easily surpassed those. But long before 2013 rolled around, he set another goal.
“The second I learned what college football was, what the NFL was, I said, ‘I want to do that.’ I came in here, and I wanted to break records, I wanted to be better than anyone else who had come here,” he says, adding that if he returned for his senior season it would be to try to push this program to a BCS bowl. “I wanted to set myself up so that within three years, I would have the option to leave.”
He doesn’t fret about potential injuries, should he return; he watched Rodgers’ blow out his knee after coming back, but isn’t haunted by the same prospect. He has a deep faith and says simply, “God wouldn’t take me this far just to rip me down.”
He is motivated not by money, but instead by wanting to do right for his family. He dreams of coming into his mother’s home and telling her she can quit her job because he just received an NFL paycheck that will change her life. He wants to someday have kids just like his niece Brooklyn, who thinks the the most important thing to know about her uncle is that while he’s very good at football, she always beats him at hide’n’seek. But more than that, he wants to give the next generation of Cooks what he didn’t have: Too many toys to count, vacations and cars to drive themselves to school. He wants to send a message to other kids in Stockton, distracted by gangs and drugs, that you can make a different choice.
And he wants Andre to get out of prison and come watch him play.
“Even though I was the youngest, I was the only one who made it a positive” Brandin says. “I can’t forget it, but I can let it fuel me … I realized it young, and they realized it late. But they can still do it. I really believe I can be the one to change Andre’s life.”
If he can get Andre to watch him play, Brandin figures, to see the atmosphere and feel the crowd, to understand that all these thousands of people are pushing him and believing in him, maybe Andre will understand there’s more.
Maybe Brandin won’t be the only one who gets it right.
— Lindsay Schnel