FSU’s Dalvin Cook is fast moving, soft-spoken—and arguably the most talented running back in the nation
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Jake Pfeil still winces as he tells the story. It was Oct. 10, 2015, and No. 12 Florida State was playing Miami at home. Near the end of the second quarter, star running back Dalvin Cook took a handoff from quarterback Everett Golson and slipped through the middle of the Hurricanes' defense. He was going to break a long run, and the crowd clamored. Pfeil, the Seminoles associate director of sports medicine, cringed.
The previous Saturday Cook had exited in the first quarter of Florida State's 24–16 win over Wake Forest with a left hamstring injury. After a week of rehab, Pfeil had cleared him to play. Still, the trainer's unease lingered. "That's the problem with the hamstring: The last thing you want him to do is go on some long sprint," Pfeil says. "I'm standing there crossing everything I got. I'm loving seeing the 10- and 12-yard carries, when he's pounding away. It's when he's out the gate that you've got to hold your breath."
Against Miami, Cook certainly got out the gate. Ten yards, 20, 30. Pfeil didn't dare inhale, and when Cook hit 35 yards, he pulled up. The stadium quieted as he grabbed for that same leg and walked to the sideline. He climbed onto the trainers' table, stretched—and returned the next series to fire off a 17-yard run. Breathe.
Sitting in his office just off Florida State's training room in mid-December, Pfeil rolls his eyes. "Sometimes it's hard being the guy who knows more than anyone else does about what's wrong with him," he says of Cook, who emerged as the linchpin of the Seminoles' post-Jameis Winston offense last season. Cook was constantly hurt, first injuring his hamstring and then his ankle, but missed just one full game (against Syracuse on Oct. 31). Recounting it now, Pfeil is incredulous. This broken human battering ram completed his sophomore campaign with 1,691 rushing yards (sixth among FBS tailbacks) and averaged 140.9 yards per game (fifth). His 7.4 yards-per-carry average was highest among Power Five backs, and his 4.5 average yards after contact bested Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry (3.8), who stands four inches taller than Cook (6' 3" to 5' 11") and outweighs him by 45 pounds (247 to 202).
This spring could be Cook's last at Florida State, and as the Seminoles begin their march toward the 2016 season, the running back is already projected as a potential first-round pick the in '17 NFL draft. But for a player who has always found sanctuary on the field, who would rather express himself through cuts and broken tackles than words, this push into the spotlight hasn't been seamless. If Cook has learned one thing over his college career, it's to never take the sport he loves for granted.
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Growing up, Cook's favorite game was chase, a variant of hide-and-go-seek in which the seeker must tag the child he has found after discovering his spot. Cook was the fastest kid in his Miami Gardens neighborhood, and though he loved the game, he grew bored after a few rounds. No one could catch him. "He would make the kids at the park look like they were standing still," his grandmother, Betty Cook, recalls.
Dalvin started playing football at 4, lining up at linebacker because of his size. By the time he was 12, he had moved into the backfield for the Pee Wee Carol City Chiefs, taking handoffs from his brother, DeAndre Burnett. "I was straight-line, run-past-everybody fast," Cook says. By then, he knew football was his future, and Burnett already suspected his little brother might become a star. But the family's local school, Carol City (Fla.) High, featured only a mediocre program, so instead of following Burnett, a basketball guard a year older, Cook decided to relocate so he could attend regional power Miami Central High. As a seventh-grader he arrived at his grandmother's home in Opa-locka and asked for permission to stay. The woman he calls Ma never asked why or for how long. She simply said yes.
When Cook arrived in his new neighborhood, 10 miles south of where he grew up, he knew no one except his family. He visited his mother, Varondria Burnett, often, and his older brother would sometimes spend the night, yet the new school seemed farther away than the 40-minute bus ride. When football started, though, the transition eased. It didn't take long for teammates to notice the quiet kid who turned into an electric playmaker on the field.
At the time, Betty already had one preteen in the house: her son, Anthony Jones, who is 18 months younger than Cook and is now a tailback at Florida International University. Soon, more boys began to congregate after school and football practices, and over the years Betty became something of a team mom for the Miami Central program. When Dalvin was in ninth grade, she took over sandwich-making duties for the roster. Monday through Thursday, she would leave her job at Gordon Food Service on her lunch break, purchase the supplies for 65 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, make the feast after work and deliver it to the school. As the years passed, she opened her door even wider: another Miami Central player, receiver Tavius Brown, moved in, and Da'Vante Phillips, now a wideout at Florida State, spent so much time at the Cook house that Betty recalls feeling as if he lived there. After Cook left for college, Phillips packed his bags and moved in full-time.
By his sophomore year at Central, Cook had morphed into a headliner. He was drawing plenty of recruiting attention, and when he tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder early in that season, he delayed surgery. The joint kept popping, and his doctor told him he should call it a year. Cook refused but struck a deal: If he didn't further injure the shoulder, he would wait and have the procedure the minute the season ended. With that in mind, he did his best to play it safe—until the Class 6A state championship game against Armwood High on Dec. 16, 2011. (Central lost that game 40–31, although later both schools forfeited all of their victories from the '11 season after they were found to have used ineligible players.)
"I was thinking in my head, why not give it all my last game, and then go get surgery?" Cook says. "The third play of the game, I broke like an 80-yard run. Then the kickoff after the half, I ran it back [99 yards]."
In that moment, shoulder screaming, surgery looming, Cook knew: He was going to be great.
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Cook's voice is a low rumble, monotone. He is reticent around strangers, Burnett says, and prefers listening to talking. When he does talk—which is not often, but more frequent than ever these days—the words bleed together. I love being out onthefield. It is not so much fast as it is flowing, the speech of someone who is thinking so hard he sometimes forgets he is talking, who would rather not say a thing.
It was this quiet gravity that struck Jimbo Fisher when he first met Cook in October 2013. Florida State's coach didn't have the slightest grasp on how to read the prized recruit. The kid was clearly listening to his pitch, Fisher thought, but gauging any reaction was impossible. As he turned to Betty and tried to sell his program to the woman whose approval he needed most, he realized he wanted to know just one thing from her grandson. Cook, then a high school senior, had already decommitted from Clemson in favor of Florida, and he was still taking visits. Was his interest real? Did Florida State have a shot? Yes, Cook told him, and Fisher couldn't help but believe. Two months later, on Dec. 31, the running back flipped his commitment from the Gators to the Seminoles—for good.
That visit set a precedent. Fisher was struck by Cook's seriousness, his apparent inability to deceive. Which is why, 21 months later, the coach wanted so badly to believe. He was face-to-face with Cook once more, again with a simple question: Did you do it?
It was early July 2015, and Cook stood accused of punching a woman outside of Clyde's & Costello's, a Tallahassee bar. On July 10, state attorney Willie Meggs charged him with misdemeanor battery, and Fisher suspended Cook indefinitely. Florida State, not a year removed from its months-long scrutiny over Winston's alleged sexual assault (Meggs announced on Dec. 5, 2013, that there was insufficient evidence to press criminal charges against Winston, but Winston is involved in a civil lawsuit that is set to go to trial in spring '17), had just days earlier dismissed freshman quarterback De'Andre Johnson from the team after he was caught on video punching a woman outside another bar. The school could not afford to be anything but rigid in Cook's case, and Fisher explained this to his tailback. "He told me the story," Fisher says. "The kid's never lied to me. And what he said was what ended up [having happened]."
In a July 1 interview with a Tallahassee police investigator, Cook denied being involved in any kind of incident on the evening in question. By the time the case went to trial on Aug. 25, however, the three teammates who had accompanied him that night—Phillips, quarterback Deondre Francois and receiver Travis Rudolph—testified that Cook was involved, diffusing an argument, but did not throw a punch.
Madison Geohegan, the alleged victim, testified that Phillips had called her names and yelled obscenities at her outside of the bar. Cook, she said, intervened, causing Phillips to retreat from the altercation, and then she asked Cook to walk her to her car. But before he could do so, Geoghan said in her testimony, she got into an argument with Rudolph after criticizing his clothing. Geoghan testified she pushed Rudolph away, attempted to leave the scene and was then punched by Cook.
Cook's attorneys called just one witness: Grant Jenkins, a Florida State student who testified that he watched the altercation with friends from about 10 feet away. Jenkins testified, as did Cook's teammates, that the running back hit no one. After spending a day in the courtroom, a six-person jury deliberated for less than 30 minutes before delivering a not-guilty verdict. Within hours, Cook was reinstated to the FSU roster.
Florida State's opening game loomed in less than two weeks, and when Cook arrived at practice the next day teammates wondered what to expect. Most had seen him only in passing since his suspension. They knew he had been working out, but not how hard or how often. He had been cut off from his sport and his friends, so he'd thrown himself into solo workouts, speed training and weights for hours each day. Burnett, who plays basketball at Ole Miss, visited his younger brother for a week during the suspension. The two would wake up, run sprints and lift weights before lunchtime. If they took a midday break at home, they would do some pushups before heading back to a practice field or basketball court. Occasionally, Cook would let Burnett play pickup hoops, but more often the former quarterback would throw passes and let his younger brother run routes. In Cook's free time, he studied the playbook.
"It's something you'd never wish on nobody," Cook says of those weeks. "I love ball. I love being around my teammates and going to work with them every day. I had to go and practice by myself. It's something you've got to want to do. I wanted to do it."
When he returned, he was noticeably more muscular, fresh—and ready to light the world on fire. After that first practice back, Cook caught the eye of Fisher, whose expression told him everything he need to know. "I just seen his look," Cook says. "I just seen his look on his face."
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As an early enrollee at Florida State in the spring of 2014, Cook was one of 16 four- or five-star recruits in the Seminoles' class. He started practices running with the second-team offense, but he quickly gained the admiration of one upperclassman: Winston. Cook repeatedly burned the FSU starting defense, and the quarterback noticed, telling him he was the best running back in America and advocating for him to get first-team reps. "We connected instantly," Winston says. "It's hard to reach someone who's as young and highly touted as him. … It's tough for people to make that transition [from high school star to college], but Dalvin didn't care. Dalvin just wanted to play football. He wanted to be great at playing football."
Fisher had the same reaction in those early days. "I said whoa whoa whoa ho ho, this guy's a little different," the coach recalls. As a freshman in 2014, Cook was Florida State's leading rusher, carrying 170 times for 1,008 yards with eight touchdowns. That set the stage for the '15 season, when the team figured to lean more heavily on Cook after Winston's departure—until the suspension called that plan into question. Still, despite his time away, Cook was the team's top back in its opener against Texas State on Sept. 5, when he rushed for 156 yards with two scores in a 59–16 win.
While the rest of the country set to salivating first over LSU's Leonard Fournette and then Alabama's Derrick Henry, anyone who cast even a casual eye to the ACC last fall couldn't help but focus on Cook. He played with a more physical style than he had in 2014 while maintaining the same speed. As a freshman, Fisher says, Cook made his moves too far from defenders in the open field, but in '15 he began to press and make them miss. "A lot of guys, fast guys who I used to coach, they get the ball, and as soon as you give it to them, they run real fast, and they run [without thinking]," Fisher says. "Dalvin, he gets it, and [he's just] looking, looking, looking, boom."
That was never more evident than in Florida State's 34-14 dismantling of South Florida on Sept. 12. With 4:45 remaining in the first quarter, Cook broke for a 74-yard score that displayed his full repertoire of skills: a keen eye, precise balance, breakaway speed. Almost immediately after getting the ball, Cook broke through a hole that collapsed nearly as soon as he was through it. He cut left and accelerated, and as defensive back Jamie Byrd swung to tackle him, he hurtled and kept veering left, straightening his path at the 40-yard line and sprinting down the left hash. With receiver Ermon Lane out front blocking, Cook slipped past Lane's man and outran three defenders on his way to the end zone.
Former Seminoles defensive back Jalen Ramsey, a surefire first-round pick in this spring's NFL draft, says Cook was the hardest player to tackle in college football last season. Defensive end DeMarcus Walker, meanwhile, has developed a playbook for handling Cook over the years: You can't stop your feet. You have to tackle through him. "He's like a snake," Walker says. "He'll slide through everything."
Once, Walker was so struck by Cook's vision after practice that he pulled the back aside. He wanted to know if it was God-given, or if Cook felt like he had developed it over time. Cook didn't hesitate in his response: God-given, without question. But he has never taken it for granted.
"Dalvin would play if he were a very average guy, because he would work so hard to make himself a great player," Fisher says. "He's taken the work ethic of guys who have to get the coach's attention by doing everything right and put it with great ability. Now you've got a superstar."
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Nearly every morning last fall, Cook crawled out of bed at 7 a.m. That's when Pfeil and Florida State's trainers opened shop, and he would arrive a half hour later, after the morning rush, for his hours-long sessions. By a trick of scheduling, Cook didn't have class until lunchtime, and so the mornings he'd once envisioned sleeping in were instead spent working his hamstring and then his ankle into shape. By mid-semester, he didn't even need to set an alarm.
Pfeil was amazed at Cook's dedication to rehab. Every day was the same: heat the muscles up, work on range of motion, do strengthening exercises. It was the epitome of monotony, but Cook knew it was a means to an end—and it didn't hurt, Pfeil says, that the running back was a "freaky healer." "There's no scientific thing to call it," Pfeil says. "He's just got different genes than the rest of us. If I ever need stem cell replacement for an injury one day, I hope I can get his."
Fisher agrees, but with a caveat. He believes healing is at least some part mental, that it isn't so different from bouncing back from bad game, and Cook has it down. There's a quiet toughness to him, Pfeil says, which is key. "I've always had this kind of weird analogy with football players," Pfeil says, "that on every play there's got to be a hammer and there's got to be a nail. Maybe sometimes there [are] two hammers. But as long as you're trying to be that hammer, you won't be that nail."
Cook has always been the hammer on the field. The runs come easy: the cuts, the balance, the acceleration, the angles. Defenses shift, plays unfold, the clock ticks, and he is in his element. But as he readies for a season that could elevate him to new heights, he has realized he needs to be something more than fast, just as he has learned that, sometimes, running the way he wants is impossible. There are aches and pulls. He runs slow. He runs gimpy. He runs alone. But he never stands still.