By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The moment for which Malcolm Cook had worked so hard and waited so long was almost reality. In his fourth year in the University of Virginia football program, he was about to make his first start.
Then came another setback, one that floored him.
In late August, about a week before the Cavaliers’ opener, Cook was hospitalized with a medical condition whose nature he prefers not to discuss publicly. The prognosis for a full recovery was excellent, his medical team told Cook, but he would have to sit out the season while recovering.
Cook, a redshirt junior, wept as the implications of the doctors’ words sunk in. Two knee operations and a shoulder surgery had marred his first three years at UVA, but he’d overcome those obstacles to earn a starting job at outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense installed by new head coach Bronco Mendenhall. And now this.
“It hurts,” Cook said this week. “It was like you finally get that chance and it gets snatched away from you.”
Cook’s support system stepped up. When he left the hospital after a four-day stay, his roommates — cornerback Tim Harris, tailback Taquan Mizzell and nose tackle Donte Wilkins — were there to console and comfort him.
“That’s a brotherhood,” Cook said. “That’s four years in the making. They were hurt for me, texting me, calling me every day to make sure I was all right.”
The Cavaliers’ coaches, too, refused to let Cook, an anthropology major from inner-city Richmond, face his challenge alone.
“Malcolm is a great young man,” said Mendenhall, who’s also the Wahoos’ defensive coordinator, “and he’d worked so hard and made so much progress from when we arrived through fall camp. The news all of a sudden that he goes from being a starter to being lost for the season was difficult for everybody.”
And so the staff came up with a solution: Cook would be by Mendenhall’s side during practices and games and help signal in plays to the defense.
“We wanted to make sure we gave him a role where he would stay involved and where he would feel like he was needed,” said Kelly Poppinga, who coaches Virginia’s outside linebackers.
Mendenhall said: “In our program we think everybody is somebody, and family’s first and last and always, and we considered him family. So the thought was: What do we do? One of the coaches suggested signaling on the sideline, and I’ve never had an injured player do that. It’s a huge responsibility and a lot of pressure, but we thought that role would be something that would be meaningful and valuable and it would keep him engaged and keep him connected.”
Cook, 22, embraced his new responsibilities.
“The best part about it is when I’m out there, I’m understanding why [Mendenhall is] calling certain plays, and then I’m understanding what everybody’s role is on that play,” Cook said. “My knowledge of the game is through the roof now. I understand what the nose, the ends, what the backfield are doing.”
Of UVA’s outside linebackers, Cook is the only one who’s not a freshman or sophomore. The starters are redshirt sophomore Chris Peace and true freshman Jordan Mack, both of whom Cook tutors during practices and games.
“One of the best ways to learn is to teach,” Mendenhall said, “so Malcolm’s not only signaling, he’s giving feedback frequently throughout the course of a practice to players on our defense, and becoming a player-coach, so to speak, and the players respect him for that.”
Mack helped the `Hoos end a 17-game road losing streak Oct. 1 with an emphatic fourth-quarter sack of Duke quarterback Daniel Jones at Wallace Wade Stadium. Mack’s hit forced a fumble that defensive end Eli Hanback recovered for a Virginia touchdown.
Cook looked on with pride.
“I’m happy for Jordan,” he said. “I coach Jordan up every day. So when he made that tackle, I felt like I made that tackle. Anything [the outside linebackers] do, I feel like I have a hand in it, because I’m out there and I’m helping people. And Coach Mendenhall told me those who help others are those who get blessed. I think that’s one of the best parts for me.”
Even so, Cook acknowledged, it’s not easy to for him to be confined to the sideline during games.
“Every time I lay down on my bed, I picture myself being on the field, running around, making plays,” he said. “I still do that every day.
“The worst days for me are Fridays, going to the [stadiums for walk-throughs], getting off the bus knowing that you’re not going to play.”
In its ACC home opener, Virginia (2-3 overall, 1-0 conference) hosts Pitt (4-2, 1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.
As he did for the Cavaliers’ first five games, Cook will wear a headset Saturday and listen to — and learn from — the back-and-forth between Mendenhall and the other defensive coaches. That’s also how he gets the play call from Mendenhall. Cook then uses hand signals to relay the play to the defense on the field.
“That first game was nerve-wracking, but now it’s smooth sailing,” Cook said.
As kickoff approaches on game day, Cook leaves the locker room with the coaches, and they take the field a few minutes before the rest of the team does.
“It’s fun being around them,” said Cook, who added that the coaches remind him regularly that life is full of challenges.
“Everybody goes through trials and tribulations,” Cook said. “Coach Mendenhall always tells me, `This is something that you can come back from, and I know you can do it.’ ”
Mendenhall’s assistants encourage Cook too, and that’s helped keep his spirits high.
“Talking to them, they’ll have you thinking you can run through a brick wall,” Cook said, smiling. “I love it.”
Cook marvels at Mendenhall’s calm demeanor during games.
“I’m learning how to be poised, because he’s poised like I’ve never seen,” Cook said. “During any of those games, he’s never raised his voice. He’s always poised. He’s quiet. As soon as the play’s over, he asks us, `What do you guys see?’
“The game could be tied or it could be a game-winning field goal or something, and he’s just like, `All right, let’s just do it, guys.’ I’ll be looking at him like, `How are you this calm?’ ”
Mendenhall “always tells me that the team leader can’t panic or his troops are going to panic,” Cook said.
Born and raised in Richmond, Cook attended Armstrong High School for three years before transferring to Fork Union Military Academy, from which he graduated in 2013.
He’s played in only six games since enrolling at UVA. Cook injured his right knee in 2013 and ended up redshirting that season.
In 2014, an injury to his left knee limited Cook to three games. Then, as a redshirt sophomore, he suffered a shoulder injury that ended his season after three games.
The 6-1, 235-pound Cook rehabbed diligently from that injury and impressed the new coaching staff during winter workouts, spring practice and through most of training camp.
“He was becoming one of our best football players,” Mendenhall said.
The coaching staff is confident that will be the case next year, too, and Cook is considered an excellent candidate to receive a sixth year of eligibility should he want to return to UVA in 2018.
Whenever he gets back on the field, Cook figures to be a more complete player. He’s always had impressive physical tools — he returned four interceptions for touchdowns as a FUMA senior — but his time with Mendenhall has helped Cook better understand the mental part of the game.
“He’s gaining more knowledge,” Poppinga said, “not just of the outside `backers, but also the whole entire scheme, understanding what everybody’s doing, all 11 guys, and that just makes you a better player.”
Cook has started light workouts and hopes to be able to return to practice on a limited basis next month. “Pushups, situps, jogging, biking, just trying to get in the rhythm of things,” he said.
The bond between Mendenhall and Cook has strengthened as they’ve worked together.
“It’s been fun being under him, because he’s taught me a lot,” Cook said. “And he teaches me that it’s not all about football. It’s about living a great life. So if you’re living a great life, then life on the field is going to be good.”
Mendenhall said he told Cook “this process that he was going through would end up being a benefit to him when he came out the other side, and he could learn a lot. And then somehow that morphed into our connection in reading.”
An avid reader, Mendenhall worried about the effect Cook’s latest setback might have on the player. So he lent Cook inspirational books by the author Og Mandino.
“The books are simple and fast reads, but always with a great message and inspiring, and I thought those, and that collection that I keep for the intent of players learning, would be beneficial to him,” Mendenhall said. “And every time I saw Malcolm after I gave him that first book, he was reading, and the other players noticed it. And then he asked for another and then he asked for another. I think he’s on number 5 now. I’ve kind of switched authors now. Where he ends up, I’m not sure, but it’s one of the greatest gifts I think there is. I enjoy reading and learning, and I think he’s becoming the same.”
Before his illness, Cook said, reading ranked low on his list of favorite activities. But he trusts his head coach, and so Cook plunged into the first book Mendenhall lent him.
Cook found its message resonated with him, and he couldn’t put the book down.
“I found that reading centers you,” Cook said. “Now I read and I feel good. I’m just flowing through the books. Books are helping me through this time.”