“Everyone keeps telling me congratulations,” Connor Cook said over the phone last weekend, “but usually when someone says congratulations, you feel happy.”
He sighed. “I feel sad.”
A few hours earlier, Cook, who turns 23 next month, had walked across the graduation stage at Michigan State. His image had appeared on a giant screen (something that often happens as a starting quarterback for the Spartans). But this time he held a two thumbs-up pose so his parents could get a picture.
Now the December light was fading, and he was driving home to Hinckley, Ohio. College was literally disappearing in his rearview mirror.
“I want to stay,” he said, wistfully.
Looking to feel good about college football? Here is the antithesis of the super-skilled high school athlete using a university like a running board to NFL riches. Connor Cook has played out the string. He has savored college life like a chef wafting aroma into his nostrils.
He has stretched the experience from a redshirted freshman year in 2011 to the extra-time rounds of a senior season. The Spartans are in the College Football Playoff, and should they beat Alabama on Thursday night in the Cotton Bowl to make the national championship game, Cook will literally have pulled the rubber band as far as any college football player can pull it.
He’s already graduated. He’s got no classes left. It’s been five seasons between his arrival from Hinckley to this long drive back home.
As he shared his memories, I felt compelled to ask if he were behind the wheel.
“No, my father’s driving,” he said.
Good, I said.
“But I could drive and talk,” he shot back. “I can focus on two things at once.”
A rise to stardom
Well, that has been proven, hasn’t it? Like focusing on shifting defenses as he calls out signals? Like focusing on a receiver when a lineman is charging like a rhino? Like focusing on making a perfect throw when his injured shoulder is screaming in pain? Like focusing on achieving his dream of being a major college quarterback when it looked like it would never happen?
Connor Cook, out of Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, was not some five-star, can’t-miss prep legend who walked into college, put his hands under center and heard crowds go crazy.
“If you would have told me this is what my career would be like, I would have given you the craziest look ever,” he said. “I was a skinny kid when I got here, didn’t have any muscle, didn’t throw with a lot of zip, wasn’t very accurate.
“I didn’t know what a Cover Zero or Cover Two was. We didn’t watch film in high school so I didn’t know how to break it down. The speed with which the college game was played, and how guys like Kirk Cousins were so accurate on every ball he threw. I was in awe. In practice, the ball wouldn’t touch the ground!
“I looked at Kirk and said, ‘Man, I have a lot to do if I ever want to start one game here.’“
It took time. Cook was redshirted as a freshman. And he rode the bench the next season, playing a few downs here or there behind starter Andrew Maxwell before getting some time in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and helping the Spartans to a narrow win over TCU.
Cook began the 2013 season as a backup as well. But he took over the starting duties in the second game of that year. And like a car that shifts smoothly into a higher gear, the Spartans have done an awful lot of winning ever since.
Quite a fun run
In fact, Cook is officially the winningest quarterback in Michigan State history, with more touchdown passes and more total offense than anyone who has ever played the position at that school.
He may have started as an unranked and scrawny recruit, but he is full sized now (6 feet 4), a strong thrower, highly accurate, quick release and unflappable under pressure. His record as a starter is a blink-worthy 34-4, and he distinctly remembers every one of the four losses. In fact, he can rattle off what went wrong in each of them.
“Notre Dame game (in 2013) I was a young quarterback and I missed throws that I can make now with my eyes closed. …
“Oregon (2014, second game of the season) same thing, I didn’t finish, didn’t put the team in a position to win. …
“Ohio State (later that year, a 49-37 loss) they just made more plays than us, offensively they had the best game they ever had. …
“And Nebraska (this year, a one-point controversial loss when a receiver went out of bounds and came back in for a last-minute touchdown catch) well, I don’t know what I should say about the Nebraska loss. We were unlucky, I guess.”
It’s not a feeling he has often endured. In fact, Cook can recall the pit-in-the-stomach sensation at each final whistle as if remembering the symptoms of a severe flu that strikes once a winter.
The rest of the time? Well. Consider this. In Cook’s entire career as a Spartans starting quarterback, he has only once (the 2014 Ohio State loss) not been in a party mood as he left Spartan Stadium.
“I was just saying to my dad how amazing it is that virtually every time he and my mother came up for a game, every time my friends came up for a game, we were celebrating a win. Always such a good, positive feeling, always having a great time afterward. Not many people can say they did that.”
No wonder he doesn’t want to leave.
Even when he could have.
His time to shine
Let’s face it. Quarterbacks are a precious commodity in professional football, and if Cook had jumped to the NFL last year, he would have been drafted, and he would have been making big money at this point, instead of driving with his dad back to his childhood home, memories of a cap and gown graduation day still flashing in his brain.
“But Coach (Mark) Dantonio always says ‘Complete your circles.’ Obviously, I couldn’t do that if I had left early and not gotten my college degree. By coming back, I could complete my circle.
“And I could complete my football circle as well. After we lost to Ohio State last year (costing MSU a shot at the Big Ten title) I felt sick. I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that bad. I wanted to come back and play for another conference championship. I set that as a goal. One of three. I wanted to compete for a conference championship, earn my degree and compete for a national championship.”
Thursday to go.
Cook will be the more polished quarterback in the matchup against No. 2 Alabama. The Crimson Tide is riding senior Jake Coker, a transfer from Florida State who is in his first and only year as the starting quarterback. Coach Nick Saban will rely more on the legs of his Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who has amassed nearly 2,000 rushing yards this season, averaging nearly six yards a carry and around two touchdowns per game.
Cook will be the Spartans’ key to matching Henry offensively. His will be the most important MSU performance in Texas. Others may be critical, but let’s be blunt. If Cook has a bad game, it is highly unlikely the Spartans will advance. Not against Alabama. The Spartans rely on Cook’s skill, his decision making, and his ability to rise to the occasion — no matter what the setback. As Dantonio told the media last month, “He could have a poor first quarter and play lights out three quarters in a row. It’s not going to bother him.”
All on the line
And if this comes from a certain confidence that some find prickly, so be it. There are a few detractors out there who grumble about Cook having an edge. Some cite a perceived snub of Ohio State legend Archie Griffin on the podium after MSU won the Big Ten championship, when Cook quickly took a trophy from him en route to an interview (even though Cook apologized and Griffin was not offended).
Others point to the fact that despite his experience, Cook was not voted to one of three captains’ positions by his teammates this year.
“It hurt my feelings a little bit,” Cook admitted, “but you can’t let it get to you. It was very close between me and Darien (Harris, a linebacker) and I voted for Darien myself. If we chose four captains instead of three like a lot of teams do, I might have been a captain.
“But it didn’t affect the way I went about leading. Being quarterback is an assumed leadership position, and I look at myself as the leader of the offense.”
If that sounds edgy, what do you expect from an experienced senior who is older than almost everyone he’s playing with? He should sound that way. He’ll need to sound that way. Like most college graduates, he is on the verge of becoming a professional, and I am yet to see a really great professional quarterback who you’d describe as “shy and reserved.” Moxie is part of the job. So is an unfailing belief that you can get it done.
“It’s safe to say (Thursday) is the biggest game of my career,” Cook declared. “Anyone who’s playing with us it’s the biggest game of their career. Nothing personal to Oregon or Ohio State. But this is it. …
“I’m gonna go out there and literally lay my life out on the line. I will play courageously. It’ll be the most courage that Spartan Nation will ever see me play with. Doesn’t matter if my shoulder is hurt or whatever — everything is riding on this game, I will do everything I possibly can to make sure it’s not my last game.”
Fired up yet?
Circles nearly complete
College football can be an oxymoron. With practices starting in August, with bowl games that come over Christmas break, with practices and road trips that pluck players out of classes and exams, and with crowds approaching 100,000 cheering or booing on every play, it is hard to mesh the words “student” and “athlete” together. Especially for star players.
But now and then, you get a Connor Cook, who seems so proud of being a Michigan Stater, you could picture him in an “Archie” comic wearing his letter sweater.
“I want to do everything I can for this great university. This game, the Cotton Bowl, trying for a national championship, I’m not only doing it for myself and my teammates and my coaches, but for the beautiful and wonderful Michigan State University.”
Who talks like that? Someone who’s had a pretty awesome college experience. From the skinny kid with no muscle to the work and the focus and the ascension to starter, to the 34 wins and the two conference titles and the countless personal awards and records, all the way to the drive back home in the fading December light.
He’s done with classes. He’s earned his degree. He has no reason to return to East Lansing. But he plans to come back anyhow. He has his apartment until August, and he’ll spend the coming months “walking around campus, grabbing some lunches, visiting the coaches, going to the football building …
“Hopefully we’ll be looking back on a national championship and celebrating it.”
The circle — all the circles — are nearly complete. But Connor Cook, on the verge of his biggest moment, doesn’t want the experience to end.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.
Matchup: No. 3 Michigan State (12-1, 8-1 Big Ten) vs. No. 2 Alabama (12-1, 8-1 SEC).
Kickoff: 8 p.m. Thursday, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas.
Line: Crimson Tide by 10.