Dalvin Cook’s bun peeks out from behind the stainless steel refrigerator door. His dreadlocks are piled on top of his head, held in place with a brown rubber band. On this night, Cook is busy stacking boxes of prepared meals so they fit just so inside his fridge. The small TV mounted on the wall plays the Monday Night Football pregame show. The sun is setting a dramatic blue and orange, and three lit candles are placed throughout the small open kitchen and living room.

Cook is at ease here, barefoot in a white tank top and purple Vikings shorts. Aside from a Pop-a-Shot game against the wall in the living room, his one-bedroom apartment in suburban Minneapolis is sparsely decorated. The only sign of his status is a heavy gold chain around his neck with his jersey number, 33, encrusted in diamonds. Most of his neighbors know that the Vikings star lives in their building, but Cook uses his childhood nickname, “Magic,” as an alias on the call box in the front entry to deflect any attention. Now, he sprawls out on his small black leather couch in time for the Monday night kickoff. He likes to watch other offenses for plays the Vikings run, taking note of how they put their spin on it.

This is the man who once terrified general managers across the NFL. Despite his immense talent, twenty-seven teams passed on Cook in the first round of the 2017 draft, scared off by a list of legal run-ins during his teen years, red flags that obscured any clear view of him. Now, this is his life, a self-described homebody living some 2,000 miles from where he grew up. He is becoming everything the Vikings knew he could be on the field while so far being everything they hoped he would be off of it. As Cook has always insisted, throughout his 2 1/2-year NFL journey: This is who he is.

* * *

dalvin-cook-portrait

On the first night of the 2017 NFL draft, Cook and a group of 25 family and friends gathered in a conference room and attached guest room at a Courtyard Marriott on Miami’s north side to celebrate the start of his NFL career. He had surpassed 1,000 rushing yards in each of his three seasons at Florida State, scoring 20 touchdowns in each of the last two, and was one of a handful of expected first-round picks in a stacked running back class. Jacksonville selected Leonard Fournette with the fourth overall pick and Carolina picked Christian McCaffrey eighth. Cook sat on a bed, one eye on the telecast and the other on his phone, dining on chicken wings and rice as the picks ticked by.

Cook is an introvert, slow to trust people and cautious when asked to open up to strangers. The pre-draft process, a months-long slog of team personnel poking and prodding—physically and psychologically—was never going to sit well with him. Because of his past it was particularly grueling for Cook, requiring him to repeatedly recount the most regrettable moments of his life. When asked to reflect back on that time, he hesitantly launches into an answer before quickly trailing off, shaking his head and exhaling in frustration. “It’s like being a robot, going in there doing the same thing, saying the same answers,” Cook says. He tried to fight his impulse to put up a wall, but ultimately it was no use.

It was understandable that NFL teams wanted to know more about his history. He had six run-ins with law enforcement during his teenage years. He was arrested and charged with robbery in 2009, at age 14; charges were dropped. He was arrested and charged with firing and possessing a weapon on school property when he was 15; charges were dropped. During his freshman year at FSU, he was charged with criminal mischief after a June BB gun incident that resulted in broken car windows; he completed pretrial intervention. Also that summer, he was cited by Tallahassee Animal Services for keeping three puppies on a large metal chain leash. That July, according to an ESPN report, Cook was named as an “associate” in an assault case against two men Tallahassee police investigated for allegedly brandishing a firearm at a neighbor—that incident took place at Cook’s apartment (he was not considered a suspect). And the summer before his sophomore year, Cook was accused of punching a woman outside of a Tallahassee bar and was charged with misdemeanor battery; he was suspended from the team while he awaited trial. A jury found him not guilty after less than 25 minutes of deliberation. (Cook declined to address any of the specific allegations.)

He was ripe for draft-season rumor mill drama, and Cook’s camp couldn’t stem the tide of negative reports. At one point, a “runner” (an unaffiliated middleman and recruiter in the world of agents) began spreading rumors that Cook was arriving to predraft workouts late, often with alcohol on his breath. (Tony Villani, who runs XPE Sports in Boca Raton, Fla., where Cook worked out, told SI that spring the accusations were entirely unfounded.)

Eventually, Cook shut down. “I didn’t care what anyone said [about me], to be real,” he says now. “I always felt like I was a misunderstood person. Nobody got the chance to know me in the whole process.”

Cook is especially close to his paternal grandmother, with whom he lived during his middle school and high school years. Betty Cook says she spoke with several NFL teams during the pre-draft process. “At one point, I was tired of hearing it because I knew him as a person, I wasn’t guessing who he might be,” she says. “A kid may have made some bad choices, but they grow up. They were so busy worrying about his past they couldn’t see what was ahead.”

Surrounded by family and friends on draft night, Cook watched all 32 picks. His phone never rang.

* * *

Cook got up early the next morning feeling so sure he’d be drafted on Day 2 that he headed down the road to the Aventura Mall to buy a new outfit to wear that night. (He’d only planned one outfit, for the first night of the draft—a grey suit with a black button down shirt—and he couldn’t wear that again.) He was walking through the mall with his agent when his phone rang with an unknown number. He picked up after the first ring and walked off, leaving his agent behind.

On the other end was Rick Spielman. The Vikings general manager had shut his office door for the call to Miami. Without a first-round pick, Spielman assumed he wouldn’t have a shot at drafting Cook, so the team never scheduled a formal interview with the running back. “He was still on the board, and it wasn’t because of his talent,” Spielman says. “So, did we miss something?”

The Vikings were searching for the heir to Adrian Peterson, and they knew Cook fit the bill on the field. Spielman and his staff looked back over the notes they had compiled on him. The team had closely investigated each incident. (“Sometimes it was just being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Spielman says.) He talked to ownership about the possibility of drafting Cook. The Vikings had already done intelligence and psychological testing on him, a regimen they put around 300 prospects through each year before the draft. Spielman had all the analytics and background research, but he needed to be sure. “I just wanted to hear it for myself,” he says.

Though Cook didn’t know it, the next 45 minutes, spent wandering the mall with his phone pressed to his ear, determined his NFL future. Over the course of their conversation, Spielman remembers feeling a sense of maturity and sincerity coming from the other end of the line. “That phone call was very important to put my mind at ease,” the GM says.

One question was particularly important. Many teams felt Cook needed distance from Miami, that influence from the company he kept was a potential issue. Cook grew up in his grandmother’s house in a small northwest Miami-Dade city with a reputation. Opa-Locka was founded in 1926 as a project of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who hired an architect to design the town’s buildings in a unique Moorish style. But the “Great Miami Hurricane” leveled southern Florida five months later, halting the land rush and flattening the town. What was left behind was one of the poorest communities in the nation, further isolated during Jim Crow years of aggressive racial segregation in Miami-Dade. Opa-Locka had the 10th highest violent crime rate in the nation in 2017.

Cook disagrees—still—that he needed distance from home. He’s proud of his city and his family and friends there, and returns every offseason. “That’s just a typical upbringing in Miami, what comes with it,” he says. “I still don’t get [his hometown being a problem]. How can you involve me with Miami when I [went to college] in Tallahassee? It’s seven hours away.”

Still, Spielman felt the most important moment in their conversation came when he asked Cook, Who is coming with you?

“Just me,” Cook told him. “I’m coming to play football.”

Spielman made two more calls that morning, to players he was interested in but who also had potential character concerns. Neither player impressed him the way Cook did. “It was a night and day difference in talking to Dalvin,” Spielman says. “[My choice] was very clear. . . . This is my 29th year of doing this stuff. I’ve talked to a lot of players, and it’s not always going to be perfect, but you can, I think through experience, get a sense of reading a person’s character, even though it’s not 100 percent.”

Cook never told his family about the call. “I didn’t want to get anybody’s hopes up high,” he says. The Vikings traded up seven spots to draft Cook with the 41st overall pick.

* * *

One month ago, Teddy Bridgewater had just wrapped up his fifth straight victory filling in for an injured Drew Brees, this time leading the Saints to an upset of the Bears. He was still in his cleats and football pants in the Soldier Field concourse after a press conference and NFL Network interview when he was pulled aside for an off-topic conversation on a subject near to his heart. “If you know Dalvin personally, and you know everyone back home in Miami, this is what we expect,” he says with a wide grin. “This isn’t new to us—we’re just all so proud of him.”

Bridgewater was the Vikings’ starting quarterback when Cook was drafted, and he remembers that weekend well. He made his demand immediately after the draft: The rookie’s locker had to be right next to his own. The two have known each other since they were kids; Bridgewater grew up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, near Opa-Locka. He played peewee football with Cook’s older brother, and Cook’s mom was a parent volunteer for the cheerleaders.

“I had heard about all the red flags and things like that, so I just wanted to prepare him for what was in store,” Bridgewater says. “Having that home field, that guy next to you from the same neighborhood,—we continue to motivate each other. So I said, I need him right next to me.”

On the other side of Cook was then-39-year-old cornerback Terence Newman, who was surprised to learn of any controversy surrounding Cook (“I was impressed with his maturity from Day One, he was one of the model rookies”). The Vikings PR staff was prepared to undertake a reputation reclamation project, but soon found that Cook, introspective and serious, didn’t require any extra maintenance. He was called into radio shows and FaceTimed with network broadcasts on his own time, away from the team facility, something many veteran players can’t always be counted on to do. When the ESPN Monday Night Football crew requested Cook for the production meeting ahead of his NFL debut against the Saints, Cook won them over. “I have no concerns,” Jon Gruden said on the broadcast. “I think this man is in the right place, with the right leadership around him.”

Bridgewater was a big part of that leadership. “We come from the same upbringing, and when you think about all the things we had to escape to get to this point, it gets overshadowed and it gets overlooked,” he says. “He’s a guy who is passionate about this game because he knows it is an escape route for him.”

Head coach Mike Zimmer calls Cook a “model citizen.” Adds offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski: “I just can’t even fathom a time where there has been a question about this kid’s dedication to what we are trying to do. There’s been no prodding with Dalvin Cook.”

* * *

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Three games into his rookie season, Cook was averaging 96.0 rushing yards per game and “living the dream of balling out.” In Week 4 against the Lions, he was heading toward another 100-yard game early in the third quarter when he made a cut and felt a pop, fumbling the ball as he grabbed for his left knee. It was soon determined that he had torn his ACL.

Betty Cook called her grandson as soon as he was taken back to the locker room. “He wasn’t crying,” she says. “He told me what he says all the time: ‘I’m good, Ma. I’m gonna be all right.’ ”

Cook held on to that optimism as he traveled to Pensacola for surgery with Dr. James Andrews. While beginning his post-surgery rehab, Cook had his mom, Varondria Burnett, take a picture of him smiling and standing with his crutches, his left knee wrapped up in bandages. He sent the photo to Vikings communications director Jon Ekstrom, and asked him to print it out and sign it with a message for his teammates: I’ll be back soon. I appreciate y’all. —Dalvin.

While players were at practice, Ekstrom taped the photo up in the locker cubbies of Cook’s closest teammates, per his instructions: Bridgewater and cornerbacks Newman and Xavier Rhodes, a fellow Miami native and FSU alum who had taken on a mentorship role with Cook. “I never took it down,” Newman says.

Cook yearned to feel like he was still part of the team, so he made sure he flew back to Minnesota in time for the annual Vikings team photo shoot (even if he had to be helped up to stand in it because he was still dependent on crutches). While he was gone, Bridgewater FaceTimed him before every game to remind him, You’re still here. Don’t be down on yourself.

Cook stayed in Minneapolis that offseason to work with the Vikings’ training staff, which running backs coach Kennedy Polamalu saw as a silver lining to the season-ending injury: “[It] placed him here to rehab and learn to live an NFL life,” says Polamalu (who is former Steelers All-Pro Troy’s uncle). “Getting paychecks in Miami, there’s a lot going on there; I didn’t want him to be injured but it helped him mature.”

Then, three days before the start of the 2018 season, Betty Cook’s son, Anthony Jones, whom she raised alongside Dalvin, was shot in a drive-by shooting in Opa-Locka. Jones plays football at Florida International and made a full recovery to return last season, but the shock of the shooting was hard on Cook. He wanted to fly back to Miami to be at Jones’ side in the hospital, but Betty pleaded with him to stay in Minnesota and get ready for his return to the field.

Polamalu is among the small circle of people Cook trusts. “Some days I can come in and just not be in the mood,” Cook says. “[Polamalu] will already know what’s going on, and he’ll probably limit my reps or just do something like that. I think that’s key, talking to somebody to get something off your chest. He is one of the people that I can just talk to.”

Polamalu texts Cook little bits of wisdom every day. Remember a sweet potato doesn’t have to say that he’s sweet, he already knows he’s sweet. The advice he sends most frequently is a reminder of what’s at stake, beyond football: Make good deci$ion$.

* * *

Cook was eased back into action last year; he carried the ball 16 times against the Niners (for just 40 yards) then picked up a hamstring injury in Week 2. He missed five games and ended the year with just 133 rushing attempts.

In the offseason, the Vikings moved to refocus their offense around the run game. In December, Zimmer had fired offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in large part because he was unhappy with the lack of a ground attack. Former Texans and Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, who has a history of building offenses with successful zone-blocking run schemes and play-action passing games, was hired as an assistant head coach and offensive advisor. Longtime Kubiak staffmate, Rick Dennison, is the new offensive line coach/run game coordinator. Stefanski, who took over for DeFilippo in the final three games of the 2018 season, was retained as offensive coordinator. Spielman used a first-round pick on athletic, zone-blocking center Garrett Bradbury of N.C. State, and signed veteran right guard Josh Kline from the Titans to solidify the line. The idea was to construct an offense that better suits quarterback Kirk Cousins, taking some of the burden off the QB. It also meant Cook would take on a role as prominent as any running back in football.

Cook’s breakout season has given the Vikings offense a new identity. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark in Week 11, and ranks second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage (1,472). “I’m in the driver’s seat and I’m going like 110 miles per hour,” Cook says. “Forget the speed limit.” He regularly makes linebackers miss at the second level, after which his speed takes over. At Green Bay in Week 2, Cook burst into the secondary and left Packers safety Darnell Savage flat-footed in the open field, accelerating for a 75-yard touchdown run.

It’s the kind of play that Stefanski told the offense they needed to expect. After Cook ran for 110 yards on 16 carries against the Raiders in Week 3, he gathered the unit and told them not to give up on their blocks when Cook has the ball. “The clock in your head is saying this play might be over, but it probably isn’t,” Stafanski says. “Go to the next level, get that last violent shove in there and give this kid a crease, because you just never know with him.”

When Thielen missed a Week 10 Sunday night game in Dallas, the Vikings’ passing game was left looking for answers. They found one in Cook, utilizing him heavily in the screen game. He ended up with a team-leading seven catches for 86 receiving yards (to go with 97 rushing yards), carrying Minnesota to a tough road win.

During the Week 3 victory over Oakland, after Cook broke multiple tackles to convert an unlikely first down on a second-and-15, Rhodes sought him out on the sideline, grabbed him by the facemask and looked him directly in the eyes, almost overwhelmed by emotion. “I know how hard you work, and I know what you had to go through to get to where you are now,” the veteran told him. “I am so proud of you. You’ve earned it.”

* * *

At U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Vikings, pre-game introductions feature players running through a Viking ship and a gauntlet of faux-stone pillars. Each week, either the offense or the defense is introduced, the units alternating throughout the season. Every week, the last player introduced is a fan favorite. In Week 3 this season, for the first time, the last spot was reserved for Cook.

Before the Vikings drafted him, Cook had never been to Minnesota, or even watched a full Vikings game. “I never even thought of Minnesota,” Cook says. “I watched Adrian [Peterson] play but it was just highlights, so I didn’t know anything.” Cook has learned a lot since then. “It reminds me of college, the way they love football,” he says.

He likes fishing, and has come to enjoy the slower pace of life. His only complaint is the snow. “You can go downtown and have the fun city vibe, but for me, I am a chill person,” Cook says. “When it snows, I don’t like being outside; I am usually already in the house.”

Cook has shown a dedication to his new home. He held his first community charity event this August, a cookout that raised money for Second Harvest Heartland, a food bank serving the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Cook plays up his nickname—“The Chef”—and he also partnered with the food bank to sell sweatshirts with his own chef logo on it, for $33.33, a price that reflects his jersey number and will provide 100 meals to a family in need. Cook also regularly volunteers with the team’s initiative, Vikings Table, a custom-built food truck that gives out healthy meals to children in the Twin Cities who are dealing with food insecurity, something he experienced as a kid.

Betty regularly texts her grandson to let him know she’s proud of him. She’ll send him a string of purple heart emojis. Purple for the Vikings, of course. “Dalvin doesn’t do the red hearts anymore,” she says

Cook at home.

Cook at home.

On an autumn Tuesday, he absentmindedly bounces up and down on a stability ball. He and teammate Harrison Smith wear their purple Vikings jerseys and field questions from a dozen tween boys held at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center, a correctional facility where the youths stay temporarily until their hearing date. Each boy is dressed in the same dull blue shirt and pants, a uniform that resembles medical scrubs. Before Cook and Smith arrived that afternoon as part of the Vikings community outreach program, the boys had been in P.E. class, exercising with the stability balls that now double as chairs.

At the detention center, there are no weekday TV watching privileges. As a reward for good behavior, they are allowed to watch the Vikings game every week, and one movie. The boys aren’t shy around the Vikings players that they’ve watched play during those prized TV hours, and they pepper Cook and Smith with questions.

Do you get nervous playing in front of that many people?

How much money do you make?

When you guys are sitting here with us, do you feel rich or do you feel like normal guys?

The angular glass exterior of U.S. Bank Stadium dominates the view from the windows. When Cook drove to the detention center that afternoon, he was surprised to find it was so close to the stadium, two blocks away. He’s driven past it many times and never noticed it.

One boy tells the players that he wants to start his rap career when he gets out. Cook encourages him to pursue that goal and tells the story of his own friends who had spent time in juvenile detention centers and still made something of their lives. I know it can be lonely in here, but it’s not too late. You still have a chance at life.

“They all have dreams,” Cook says after he’s left the center. “I had a dream when I was younger, I wanted to be in the NFL. Just being around them inside and hearing them talk, they are more intelligent than a lot of people think, they are just trapped in the walls.”

Cook is intimately familiar with that frustration of feeling trapped, in his case by his past. He’s 24; his career is in ascent, but 24-year-olds can make mistakes. Still, Cook believes that his past his just that. After all, he says, “I still got dreams.”

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.