When he was in high school, Dalvin Cook had a vivid dream about his football future.
“I was in college and I’m running downfield,” he recalls. “I hear the crowd screaming my name. I’m wearing number 4. I can’t see who I’m playing for in the dream, but I’m running, running. Running all the way to the NFL.”
Cook has always been a runner: his favourite childhood game was chase. The fastest kid in his Miami Gardens neighbourhood, he quickly grew bored because nobody could catch him despite loving the game. It would become – literally – a running theme of his life to this point: always on the move, always moving, always one step ahead. It has come to define him, for Cook is a complex character, with a confused background. Never more than a breath away from the life shared by many of his closest friends, that of gangs, prison and even death, his pursuit of yards often seems the only thing keeping him from going under. From the outside, much in Cook’s day-to-day world seems a struggle. But running has always come easy to him. Stop, start, cut left, cut right, accelerate, gone.
It’s late September 2016 and we’re deep in the belly of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, squeezed into a narrow corridor that wraps around the interior of the building. The heat is oppressive, almost incapacitating. TV camera men in shorts and sweat-soaked t-shirts are furiously setting up their equipment, waiting for the locker-room door to open and for Cook to walk to the gnarled wooden stool in front of the advertising backboard. He’s just rushed for a career-high 267 yards and two touchdowns in a 55-35 win against South Florida.
Camera shutters fire off like machine-guns as he walks over and sits down. Even in this temperature he wears a tight roll neck under his grey suit jacket. There isn’t a bead of moisture on his forehead. His short dreadlocks are tied back by a white band and, although the stool puts him at a height disadvantage, there’s still an aura about him: he’s the biggest man in the room. He speaks quietly, so quietly in fact that you have to lean in close to try to capture what he’s saying. And he doesn’t waste words. Not even on this day, the finest of his career. He’s all business, rarely smiling and often looking past you to somewhere much further away than North West Tampa. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be here or that he’s being impolite. Far from it. It’s just that Cook would rather still be running.
In high school, Cook ran all the way to Florida’s prestigious Mr Football award, a title previously held by, among others, Anquan Boldin, Tim Tebow and Daunte Culpepper. Sharing carries with Joseph Yearby, a likely day-three draft prospect this year, the pair – known as Thunder and Lighting – fired Miami Central High to two state championship games in three years.
The battle for Cook’s signature became a four-way race between early frontrunners Clemson, where he initially committed, Florida, Florida State and Miami. But a change of heart in his senior season had him heading from South Carolina to Gainesville with the Seminoles on the outside looking in. They had a house visit to come, but Cook – who was photographed on the sideline of the Under Armour All-Star Game doing the Gator chomp – seemed destined for Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Where in the past Bobby Bowden would sweep in with his down-home southern charm and the guarantee of an NFL career, Jimbo Fisher had to rely on the offer of something more: a sense of belonging.
“I was looking for a brotherhood,” adds Cook. “That’s what Coach Jimbo gave me.” When Cook declared for the draft, he sent an open letter to Fisher, thanking him for his support. “We have a father-son relationship,” he wrote. “A brother relationship, a friend relationship.” That bond was forged the night Fisher showed up at the house Cook had long since lived in, that of his maternal grandmother Betty, where he conveyed everything the young back was looking for. After years of running, perhaps he’d finally found a place to stop.
A few weeks later, Fisher received confirmation: Cook had flipped again. He was coming to Tallahassee. “I had to make a business decision,” he tells Gridiron. “My family was always going to have an opinion and I always listen to them. They all grew up ‘Canes fans and I grew up a ‘Canes fan. So that part of the recruiting process was hard. But it was something I had to do. I wanted to see something different, go to a different environment, and meet new people. So that’s what I did.”
“He doesn’t lie to you,” says Fisher. “I knew when I sat down in his house and he told me that we had a chance, that he meant it. I didn’t doubt him then and I’ve never doubted him since.”
There has been more than enough reason to doubt Cook. A string of off-field misdemeanours stretched the school’s patience. He’d already been arrested twice before showing up on campus: first in 2009 for robbery, then a year later for firing and possessing a weapon at an event on school property. After enrolling, Cook was arrested on a further three occasions: charged with criminal mischief after a shootout involving BB guns, then issued a citation for violation of animal care after he left three pitbull puppies chained up by the neck, allowing two of them to choke. Plenty of people were wondering what he was doing with the dogs, and rumours began to swirl that he’d been involved with dog fighting, although nothing was ever proved. But one scout told Gridiron at the Senior Bowl that there were “plenty of skeletons in his closet”. Another said: “Listen, this is the time of year when we’re digging hard and his past scares the sh*t out of us.”
The most serious case involving Cook came in July 2015, when he was charged with misdemeanour battery after being accused of punching a woman outside of a local bar. Fisher suspended him indefinitely but, by the time the case came to trial, the three teammates who’d accompanied him that night testified that Cook’s role had been as mediator rather than abuser. An independent witness verified those claims and a jury took less than 25 minutes to find him not guilty. “All the time I try to set a good example,” he says. “I know what I was doing that night and that was making peace.” Within hours, he was reinstated to the Seminoles roster. “I think everything he said about the truth is exactly what happened,” Fisher would say after the court case. “He’s been tremendous. The kids love him. I love him.”
There is much to love when Cook’s on a football field. In the summer of his freshman year, he made the coaches sit up and take notice. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, ho ho, this guy’s a little different, even for a superstar recruit,” was Fisher’s initial reaction after his first practice. But he lived up to expectations, running for 1,008 yards and eight scores in his first season. He followed that up a year later by producing another 1,691 yards, breaking Warrick Dunn’s single-season rushing record and then, in 2016, he went 74 yards further, adding 19 touchdowns to his tally to make 44 in just three seasons.
The NFL surely beckoned. “You can only control what you can control man,” Cook told Gridiron just a few weeks before declaring. “This, right now, is the best time of my life. Be where your feet are and seize the moment. I love this group of guys at FSU. We’ll see what happens.” What happened was the inevitable: after the Orange Bowl victory over Michigan, Cook announced his decision to come out, immediately putting him in the first-round conversation and at the top of Gridiron’s list of running backs in a very deep class. Though he never seemed to have the national pull of Leonard Fournette or the West Coast adoration of Christian McCaffery, it’s Cook who has the talent to become the best of a very good bunch.
However, he still has questions to answer between now and draft day. About his past, his indifferent NFL Scouting Combine performance and, notably, injuries, specifically to his right shoulder; he’s torn the rotator cuff and twice damaged the labrum. There’s also a mystery to him that nobody has quite worked out. And perhaps he likes it that way. His ying is his talent: pure as a runner in the style of a Shady McCoy, with great hands and the ability to pass protect. His yang is his past, and his truth – in whatever form that takes.
“I think that the ‘two Dalvin Cooks’ assessment is probably fair, though most of those skeletons are pretty old and dusty at this point, so there’s reason to wonder whether it’s ‘old Dalvin’ versus ‘new Dalvin’ or if there’s still two Dalvins,” says FSU broadcasting legend Jason ‘Doc’ Staples to Gridiron. “Keep in mind that getting charged for allegedly punching a woman is a big piece of that perception, even among NFL folks who know it wasn’t legit. That said, he was by no means a model citizen in high school, but he matured a lot during his time at FSU, thanks in part to the commitment of working on his craft and partly due to being around different people. I’d have had some significant concerns about drafting freshman Dalvin Cook, but those concerns have diminished as he’s gotten older.”
Cook is an enigma who the NFL loves and fears him in equal measure. But those who know him well will do anything for him. “He’s a hell of a player and a hell of a guy,” FSU left tackle Roderick Johnson tells Gridiron. “It’s always good to see the No. 4 shirt running down the field and away from me. And I see it a lot.”
Cook’s back-up, Jacques Patrick, echoed that sentiment in the locker room after the South Florida win, a broad smile on his face as he talked to Gridiron about a man he regards as his mentor: “He just makes it easy for me, playing with him. He’s a serious guy but he’s always giving back. Always helping me become better.” But perhaps the greatest eulogy comes from the man who brought him to Tallahassee in the first place, Fisher: “I’m gonna miss him. I’ll miss him in practice talking to the young kids, in the weight room in the summer when he’s outworking everyone, when he goes over and straightens someone out because I’ve asked him to. He’s always done everything I ever asked him to do. That’s what I’m going to miss”.
“Dalvin clearly became one of “Jimbo’s guys,” says Staples. “He gets really protective of kids who come from rougher backgrounds but buy in to his way of doing things, and Dalvin is definitely one of those. He wanted to be coached hard and be held accountable, and Jimbo loves that kind of player, especially among his best players, who he’s especially notorious for riding hard in practice. I mean he’s told me in the past that he believes in coaching his elite kids, his leaders, even harder than the rest because, if the other players on the team see that they don’t catch breaks, everyone else falls into line too. It’s why Jameis [Winston] and Jalen Ramsey each got booted from practice periodically. These types of guys become like extended family for Fisher.”
The chant started late in the fourth quarter. It was close to three in the afternoon in the heat in Tampa and Cook was still in the game. The Seminoles had been sloppy throughout and, despite his performance, it was almost as if he was sending a message to his teammates. Upstairs, the press box had long since emptied out.
Miami Dolphins GM Chris Grier left early in the second half, as had most of the dozen or so NFL scouts. But still Dalvin pounded the South Florida defense. “Cook for Heisman”. Clap. Clap. Clap, clap, clap, clap, echoed around the stadium. He’d had runs of 75, 45, 17, 15 and two of 13 yards, and catches of 27, 16 and 11, but was still looking for more. Half an hour or so later, as he sat motionless outside that locker room, he was as serious as he was on that summer’s day in 2015 on the steps of the Leon County Courthouse after his acquittal for battery.
He summed up his performance in a few words, but you got the impression he was talking about more than just that game. A requiem for a life of running? Only he knows. “I just let the game come to me,” he says. “I know my body, I know my mind. I’m just Dalvin. I love ball, man. I go out and play the game every day, every week. I can only control what I can control. Be where your feet are and seize the moment. Like I said, I’m just Dalvin.” With that, he nodded and then hopped from the stool and walked back to the locker room. There was no hint of the 32 touches he’d had on that day or of the weight on his shoulders that come with carrying a team, carrying a life.
For the man who is always running, perhaps his best run will be the one that sets him free.