If you don’t believe in things like Football Gods or karma, you might have some difficulty explaining the timing of Dalvin Cook making his NFL debut on the same night that Randy Moss is inducted into the Minnesota Vikings’ Ring of Honor.
The rookie is beginning his first chapter of a potentially great career in the very building on the very day and at the very time that the legend will close his incredible odyssey in purple. It’s just too cosmically perfect to be coincidence. And that’s not even to mention that Adrian Peterson will be in the house.
Cook and Moss are bonded by a shared experience: Their other-worldly college careers were immediately followed by draft-day anguish. Cook was rated by some as the best running back in a historically good class, but slipped down the board to the second round over “character concerns,” just like Moss had 19 years earlier.
Back in June, Moss visited the Vikings’ facility for the first time since his ugly release in 2010. He casually strolled out of the Winter Park compound onto the sidelines wearing long jeans and a Vikings hoodie, embraced Sid Hartman and shouted hellos to Everson Griffen and D-line coach Andre Patterson. After practice Moss fielded questions about his most recent accolade. He could have simply said he was happy to be included, but instead, as Moss has a tendency to do, he spoke from a deep place.
“I really don’t know why I was treated the way I was treated on draft day,” the superstar said with a shaky voice, amid a soliloquy about his appreciation for former Vikings head coach Dennis Green.
That day, it became as clear as the glass windows on US Bank Stadium that Moss will never let go of the 1998 NFL draft.
All the things and all the people who ever hurt Moss fester in the fact that he fell to 21st overall. Growing up in poverty, enduring racism as a teenager, losing a scholarship to Florida State and spending time in an orange jump suit over a silly marijuana test – there’s a thousand wrongs housed in that draft.
As you might recall, Moss used his rage as rocket fuel and became a gravity-twisting force, dominating like the NFL had never seen before. But those same emotions also turned him into a one-man franchise wrecking ball, leaving ruins in Minnesota, Oakland, New England and Minnesota again.
Moss’s tale makes you wonder if Cook will follow the same path of frustrating excellence. But when you hold Cook up to Moss’s light, there are some similarities and some stark differences.
The biggest is that Dalvin Cook is not angry about the draft.
If you watched 30 seconds of second-round draft coverage on April 28, you know all about Cook’s “character concerns.” Nobody was counting, but those words probably reached a triple-digit count on the NFL Network broadcast.
Sports Illustrated went into more detail, publishing a piece that outlined Cook’s background, his run-ins with the law and some of the people around him that might concern NFL teams.
Take, for example, Cook’s close friend and former teammate Da’Vante Phillips, who was raised by Cook’s grandmother after his own mother was murdered in a 2013 drive-by shooting. The name might sound familiar because he played a role in the altercation that ultimately landed Cook in front of a judge and jury, accused of assaulting a woman outside a bar. In early August, Phillips was suspended by Florida State’s football team because he’s facing felony charges for, among other things, grand theft.
People are complicated, so there’s no point in trying to judge whether Phillips is a good friend based on a rap sheet or headline, but their relationship is an example of one that might cause teams to look for answers. And they didn’t get those answers from Cook. At the NFL Combine, the 22-year-old running back had a chance to set the record straight, but did not tell teams what they wanted to hear. One person close to Cook said when teams asked about his inner circle, “He might have responded a little different than everyone thought he would.”
So the reality is: There was nothing untrue when you heard TV draft analysts discuss off-field worries about Cook. Just as there wasn’t anything untrue about Moss’s background back in ‘98.
But their reactions to the scrutiny were quite different. While Moss was deeply hurt, those close to Cook say that he doesn’t feel victimized by watching team after team pass on him.
They say you shouldn’t hold your breath on a tell-all Players’ Tribune piece about his draft-day drop. He won’t copycat Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas, who spent his first season watching a VHS tape of the draft before every game. (Thomas can still name all the running backs drafted before him, by the way.) He won’t be shrugging his shoulders like Jordan against the Blazers or saying things like Moss did a decade-plus later:
“Am I still mad at the Cowboys?” Moss said during a 2010 conference call with reporters. “Man, I always carry a certain chip on my shoulder for the Cowboys. Not as much [now], but I’m still ready to play some football. In a certain sense, yes, but you let bygones be bygones. But at the same time, I’ve still got that chip.”
Cook has simply moved on.
“I don’t think he lets that bother him,” said Telly Lockette, Cook’s high school coach at Miami Central High School. “He’s not that kid.”
Lockette, who is now the running back’s coach at Oregon State, remained in contact with Cook throughout his record-setting career at Florida State and talked to the Vikings’ running back during the draft process.
“I called him and told him that he has to understand, you’re an excellent player and right now your character is being crucified right here, but you’re doing everything the right way,” Lockette said.
Cook’s old ball coach is frustrated by the idea that his former player could be tagged with the “character concerns” label because it lacks empathy for Cook’s circumstances growing up (Which the SI article outlined). He didn’t have parents around and was raised in West Little River, Florida – a place where the average household income is under $30,000 and a crime rate nearly 70% above the national average.
“Everybody said the same thing about the kid, ‘His friends, his friends his friends,’ but you have to understand, sometimes they are growing up in a household… grandma was there but grandma isn’t going to watch and make sure who your friends are and things like that,” Lockette said. “So he got into some stuff early on, but those guys are still his friends. I can’t tell that kid, you need to stop, because those are your friends.”
Lockette’s biggest bugaboo is that Cook’s “character concerns” overshadowed the parts of his character that determine whether a football player is successful. From talking to nearly a dozen sources about Cook’s time in Minnesota, one persistent theme is that Cook’s character is actually the driving force behind his emergence as the Vikings’ No. 1 running back.
Terence Newman doesn’t give any answers without close consideration, so as he stood by the Vikings’ giant video machine near the practice field end zone, he repeated the question a few times before answering.
“What part of his game do I like most? What part of his game do I like most?”
“He’s a studier,” Newman said.
When Cook arrived at Winter Park, the Vikings placed his locker next to Newman’s. Not by accident, of course. And it didn’t take long for the rookie and 14-year veteran to build a relationship. Cook said in his first press conference that Newman was one of the players guiding him most and Newman quickly grew fond of Cook’s demeanor.
As a football mastercraftsman, Newman respects players who treat the NFL the same way a pianist treats classical music – as an art form that can never truly be perfected.
“You don’t see a lot of guys having that commitment, [studying] their playbooks and doing all that stuff,” Newman said. “You can just tell he’s a hungry kid.”
From the 39-year-old’s viewpoint, the idea of Cook having “character concerns” doesn’t compute. Players don’t think too much about each other’s past. It’s a mind-your-own-business league. Opinions of teammates are based far more on whether they help the team win than what they did back in Florida.
“I don’t know anything about his character issues,” Newman said. “But if you ask me who I think Cook is, I’ll tell you he’s a kid that comes to work every day, minds his business and does his job. Got his [headphones] on, sits at his locker, minds his own business, [when he] talks, he asks questions. You can’t get any better than that.”
On the practice field, the two players have faced off in camp for six straight weeks during first-team offense vs. defense sessions, so Newman’s had plenty of opportunities to scout his understudy. What he’s seen is that being a studier is paying off for Cook.
“I know some people in the offense that, you come from other teams or you’re a rookie and the offense can be a little hectic,” Newman said. “I don’t ever see him in the huddle asking questions, he just lines up and does his job like everybody else. He’s out there pass protecting on some plays and that’s one of the hardest things for a rookie to do.”
Newman takes pride in his ability to read other players and figure out how to motivate them. He will often remind budding linebacker Eric Kendricks that people called him small at draft time and occasionally will wander up to star receiver Stefon Diggs before games and say, “Remember, you were a fifth-round pick.”
He isn’t taking that angle with Cook. Newman agreed with Lockette that Cook isn’t still fuming over the draft, so tweaking him about it wouldn’t do much good. Instead Newman is focused on giving the dynamic runner encouragement.
“I told Cook, I said, ‘Boy, you heavy.’ And he’s like, ‘What you mean? Like fat?’ And I was like ‘No, you run behind your pads, you know?’” Newman said proudly. “It’s me giving him a compliment, letting him know he’s doing well. I know it’s hard as a rookie. You have a coach who’s a bit stern at times, so it’s not a bad thing for a veteran guy to give a compliment. That means he’s been working his ass off, so for me it’s easy, he’s been a consummate professional…especially when you hear some of these stories about these kids who come in and they’re out partying all night, spending all their money. He doesn’t do that. That’s what I like.”
Vikings running backs’ coach Kennedy Polamalu, a welcoming, conversational man who has made a career out of molding young runners, has observed many of the same things about Cook’s presence. Polamalu says the upbringing that put Cook in bad situations may have also shaped his disposition.
“There’s a quietness to all of them, a humility,” Polamalu said of running backs he’s come across from tough parts of South Florida. “They don’t say much. When they’re around their friends, they let loose a little more, but when they’re around adults, they kind of keep to themselves. Maybe it’s a trust issue.”
In the SI piece, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher had a haunting quote about players who emerge from places like West Little River.
“For the majority of these guys, coming from a poverty-stricken area,” Fisher told author Robert Klemko, “it’s survival of the fittest. If you make a mistake, you end up dead or hurt.”
Randy Moss was not as quiet with the media as Cook has been, but he admitted to lacking trust in people and admitted during his June press conference that he wished he’d been more involved with the team rather than keeping to himself. In 2004, Vikings former head coach Mike Tice said of Moss:
“He doesn’t trust authority and he doesn’t trust adults because he thinks they all want something from him. And you know what? He’s not far off.”
What you’d give to overhear the pregame conversation between Moss and Cook…
Telly Lockette couldn’t wait to tell his favorite Dalvin Cook story.
“We got back to State [Championship] his sophomore year, we lost, and he made a statement that sticks with me today. He said, ‘We won’t lose again,’” Lockette said. “He led the team and he took the bull by the horns. In workouts that January and February, he was the leader and we never looked back.”
Cook’s three years of high school football would put your Madden ‘18 stats to shame. He rushed for 4,267 yards with 64 touchdowns and Miami Central went 52-5. As a senior he gained nearly 2,000 yards and averaged 11.0 yards per carry. He was a five-star recruit and one of Florida’s top sprinters, to boot.
It’s amazing how much we change in adulthood but carry the same personalities we had at a very young age. The attitude that has impressed NFL coaches and veterans was present in Cook as an adolescent.
“He was real spongy,” Lockette said. “He wanted to learn. He had all the tools and he just needed to tweak certain things and once he started understanding football.”
Lockette has another Dalvin Cook tale he likes to share. Cook’s numbers in high school would have been even more absurd if he hadn’t shared the backfield with Joe Yearby, who went on to start at Miami. The former Miami Central coach loves telling folks about the time Cook refused a chance to take his turn in the backfield one game because Yearby was on fire and, in his estimation, gave the team a better chance to win.
It’s amazing how many things from your childhood come back around as an adult. Cook may have to now be unselfish as an NFL’er as he was in high school.
After the Vikings’ third preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers, Cook and Pro Bowl running back Latavius Murray jeered each other during post-game comments.
“Follow Latavius on Instagram, y’all, he needs some followers,” Cook called out.
“Oh no, follow Dalvin Cook,” Murray said back.
You know, millennial jokes.
The situation between Cook and Murray had the potential to be pretty awkward. When the Vikings decided it was time to move on from Adrian Peterson, they signed a more capable all-around back in Murray, who is known for his smarts, pass-catching skill and proficiency in pass protection.
But the Vikings couldn’t pass up an opportunity to pick Cook when he slid to the second round. According to Pro Football Focus’s draft data, Cook picked up more yards than any other running back after contact and was No. 2 in the nation in PFF’s “Elusive Rating,” which combines a player’s yards with broken tackles and yards after contact. Not to mention that Florida State occasionally lined him up as a wide receiver.
It was assumed that Murray would be the starter and Cook would have to carve out a role in the offense. But when the former Oakland Raider, who signed a three-year, $15 million dollar contract with the Vikings, didn’t return from ankle surgery as quickly as expected, Cook took all the first-team reps and practice and won the No. 1 job before Murray even stepped on the field.
Just like at Miami Central, the running backs have become close.
“We all need each other,” Cook said. “It’s going to be a great season for us, a fun season, we are building a relationship that’s going to last forever. The relationship that we’re building in that room is transferring to the field. Having fun on the field and enjoying the moment.”
How the situation plays out when actual playing time is on the line is yet to be seen. There’s a chance that Cook could start out sharing the backfield, but end up owning it.
Quarterback Sam Bradford called it “more uncommon than common” to see a rookie pick up an NFL offense as fast as Cook has, which may leave no gaps that would require Murray to fill in.
“When you’re young, you’re thinking a lot, there’s a lot going on, sometimes the speed gets to you, but for him, it’s been really seamless,” Bradford said. “We put a play in, we put a protection in, we put a scheme in, and it’s like he’s got it.”
Even Murray admitted having the same observation about Cook’s understanding of the Vikings’ system.
“He’s grasped the offense very well, and fast,” Murray said. “He’s able to go out there and play fast. That’s really hard to do for anybody that’s transitioning to the NFL.”
In Cook’s first preseason game, he ran five times for 13 yards and caught four passes for 30. A few days later against Seattle, his burst was on display, gaining 40 yards on just seven carries, including two 9-yard rushes and a 15-yard explosion on the same drive.
The preseason hype has been slowly growing. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper picked Cook as his Rookie of the Year and anyone who covers the team has been asked umpteen times whether to pick No. 33 on their fantasy team.
Polamalu wants to pump the brakes a bit.
“He still has a lot of work to do,” the running back’s coach said. “The preseason doesn’t say anything. It gets more exotic, as I tell him, it happens a lot faster. When the regular season comes, it’s a whole other speed. When it gets to the playoffs, it goes to a hyper speed. I think he’s ready for it because he wants to improve every day and he wants to do the right things every day.”
But Vikings fans have seen this movie before and it’s got a pretty great intro. Moss caught 69 passes for 1,313 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first year and Adrian Peterson gained 1,341 yards rushing at 5.6 yards per carry in his debut season. Both players won Rookie of the Year.
Three words will haunt GM Rick Spielman if Dalvin Cook ever gets in trouble again.
“He told me.”
On the morning of the second round, Spielman called Cook and talked for 45 minutes, going through all the details of his past, addressing all the concerns about his character. Spielman walked away from the conversation convinced that, in the right situation, Cook could avoid any further personal problems.
At the lectern, the Vikings’ GM was asked how he could be sure that only sunny days were ahead.
“He told me, and I believed him,” Spielman answered. “I think he has probably woken up a little bit about how important football is, and I truly believe that he is on a mission coming up here and is going to be a great football player for us. And I do believe, honestly, that we do trust him and that he will do all the right things.”
Cook is lucky that he’s valuable because the team is doing everything they can to insure against further incidents by building a support system. Putting him next to Newman was Part 1. They moved Teddy Bridgewater’s locker near Cook’s, too. Bridgewater also grew up in similar surroundings in South Florida. Running back Jerick McKinnon said he spent time with Cook outside of the facility during OTAs.
“I know on our team, he knows Xavier (Rhodes), he knows Teddy (Bridgewater), so he knows some very quality people up here, and I think [he’s in a good situation] with our locker room, with the support staff we have in place here,” Spielman said.
People outside the Vikings also understand that it takes a village.
“All I can do is try to preach and instill in his head, you’re being watched, you have a microscope on you, make sure you do the right thing,” Lockett said. “And then pray he does the right thing.”
Cook’s agent Zac Hiller said that one of his goals is to help the young runner use his platform to give back to people who come from difficult situations. In order to do that, he has to avoid creating any unrest in his own life.
“All he wants to do is give back, he loves working with kids,” Hiller said. “ So it’s putting him in situations to remind him that there’s a bigger purpose for what he’s doing. He has a platform that we’re constantly talking about how he can utilize to better society. Every day we talk about that.”
Hiller said he sees Newman’s presence as key to Cook’s adjustment into NFL life.
“If you show Dalvin that something works, he buys in and he trusts the process,” Hiller said. “Terence Newman is a walking success. He’s survived in this league that you’re not supposed to survive in for this many years. ‘I gotta keep my eyes on this guy because it’s no different.’ Whatever process Terence followed, clearly it’s worked. That’s Dalvin’s mindset.”
Here’s where Moss and Cook have something in common.
For every success story from West Little River, Florida or Rand, West Virginia, there are thousands who didn’t make it. For every player with “character issues” who turned into Moss, there were a thousand who turned into Karlos Williams.
Moss and Cook had/have support. Many of the ones who fail either don’t have it or don’t accept it. For Cook, there’s a group that believes in him led by Newman. For Moss, it was Dennis Green – who might have been the only person on earth he was willing to follow.
On that day in June, Moss fought back tears when he was asked what he would say about his latest honor to Green, who passed away in July 2016.
“Coach Green gave me an opportunity, man. I told him, ‘Coach, you’re not going to regret this.’ So, you ask me what I would say to him? Man, I’d probably just fall in his arms and give him a hug,” Moss said. “Man, it’s no words that I could tell him. The man passed away without me really, really giving him my love and thanks for what he was able to do for me and my family, man.”
Mike Zimmer can tell you so much with only a few words.
That was all Zimmer wanted to say about the rarity of Dalvin Cook’s speedy adaptation to the NFL game.
It appeared to be the intention of the Vikings’ head coach to avoid any type of hyperbole or added pressure, but Zimmer’s response carried so much more truth than that.
You can compare him to Le’Veon Bell because of his patience or his all-around skill set to Jamaal Charles or his elusiveness to LeSean McCoy or his character concerns to Randy Moss, but Dalvin Cook will only be Dalvin Cook.
The only one that controls whether he translates a good offseason into stardom is Cook. And the only one who dictates whether he avoids further trouble off the field is Cook.
The road doesn’t get easier from here, it gets harder. More fame also means more people looking to latch on. It means more people in public with cell phone videos. It means you’re no longer a regional star, you’re a national star and the whole world is looking for clicks and views. Success makes it harder to stay hungry.
But Cook has the talent to someday end up with his number in the Ring of Honor.
And even if he isn’t out to prove the world wrong, there isn’t better motivation in the world than witnessing Moss’s ceremony before taking the field on opening night.