- By Tom Archdeacon columnist
It started out as a regular text message from his grandfather.
Back when he was playing football for Seneca Valley High, a school of nearly 7,600 students just north of Pittsburgh, Jack Cook said his granddad, James Newton, who played basketball at the University of Buffalo, would message him:
“Dare to be Great.”
Then a year ago – as he was coming into the University of Dayton where he’d spend his first football season as a redshirt playing on the scout team – Cook had that message, accompanied by a sword and a crown, turned into a large tattoo on the back of his upper right arm.
And finally, last Saturday afternoon at Welcome Stadium, Cook – a never-having-played-a-down back-up to the Flyers’ veteran starting quarterback Alex Jeske – turned the ink work into reality.
Late in the first quarter of the season opener against Robert Morris, Jeske, a fifth-year senior, suffered a season- and career-ending torn ACL.
As Cook was being sent from the sideline to the huddle – with the Flyers up 14-7 with the ball on the Colonials’ 5-yard line – he said several seniors counseled him with:
“Don’t freak out!”
“Go out and play like you do.”
And then, he said, his roommate, redshirt freshman linebacker Shane Ferrick, broke the tension as he laughingly needled: “Just don’t mess it up. Don’t blow the lead!”
Cook trotted onto the field and promptly handed the ball off to running back Richie Warfield, who ran for the touchdown.
The rest of the way, Cook completed 7 of 12 passes for 111 yards and two touchdowns and rushed nine times for 37 yards and another score.
The Flyers won 49-28 and Cook ended the day closer to “Dare to be Great” than “Don’t freak out!”
That’s not to say there weren’t a couple of miscues.
“I thought he did very well,” said Flyers head coach Rick Chamberlin. “He was put into a situation where he didn’t have time to get ready, but he got it done.
“It wasn’t perfect. You could see some freshman mistakes out there. A couple of balls were dropped to the ground and instead of falling on them, he grabbed them.”
Chamberlin shook his head and grinned: “That last touchdown we scored, he fumbled the snap. The ball hits the ground and he picks it up and out runs everybody to the corner for a (three yard) touchdown.”
That play has been discussed, Cook said, as he’s been preparing to lead the Flyers into Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Saturday, for their game with Southeast Missouri, a scholarship program that plays in the Ohio Valley Conference:
“Yeah, when I watched films with Coach Hoyng (quarterbacks coach Kevin Hoyng), he said nine times out of 10 you’re not going to get that lucky and have it work out like it did.”
‘A take-charge guy’
Cook came into UD as a champion, known for his “good throws” and the special connection he had with his best friend Payton Skalos, Seneca Valley’s top receiver who now plays at Washington and Jefferson College.
“Yeah, we were pretty good,” Cook said. “We used to dominate people.”
The thing is, he was talking about playing Cornhole….not football.
“We grew up together and played on the same teams since we were about six years old,” Cook said. “He was my go-to guy in high school – he had like 75 receptions – but we did really well competing in cornhole tournaments. We were just consistent and could always make some good throws.”
On the football field, Cook wasn’t just Seneca Valley’s quarterback, he was the punter and was best known as a safety.
He won All-State honors as a safety.
And because he’s 6 feet – short for a quarterback – he was viewed by colleges as a safety prospect.
That’s how former Flyer, Nolan Harmotto, who had coached at Seneca Valley, presented him to the Flyers’ defensive coordinator Landon Fox when he brought him to see UD play at Duquesne, who was also recruiting him, as was Bucknell.
“We recruited him as a safety because he’s just a tough kid and we thought he’d be a real good fit for us,” said Chamberlin.
“But as it turned out, we didn’t get all the quarterbacks we wanted in that class, so we said, ‘OK Jack, we’re going to play you at quarterback and see what you can do there. If other guys are better than you, we’ll move you back to safety.’”
As a redshirt last season, Cook only practiced, never played and didn’t travel to away games. Undeterred, he ended up being named the Flyers Offensive Scout Player of the Year.
In fall camp, he bested five other players vying to be the backup to Jeske, who, in just 2 1/2 injury-free seasons, was 23-5 as a starter, was the MVP of the 2016 team and is third all-time in career completions yards and total offense at UD.
Chamberlin said Cook edged the others “because of his athletic ability – how he can make something out of nothing – and because he’s a take charge guy.
“You sense that when you’re around him. There’s a confidence, not a cockiness, and he’s relaxed. That gets the other players’ attention and they respond to him in the huddle.”
‘Safety days are over’
Asked if he remembers a blow to the program as devastating as the start-of-the-season loss of Jeske, Chamberlin thought a moment and then shook his head:
“Three years ago we were at practice on a Thursday, just before we were going to leave to go play San Diego. It was the biggest game of the year to that point – both of us were undefeated in the conference — and Connor Kacsor tore his ACL at the end of practice!”
With 3,543 career yards, Kacsor was the leading rusher in UD history. He’d run for 1,547 the year before and was named the Pioneer Football League’s Offensive Player of the Year.
“Our guys responded in that game” Chamberlin said. “We won 15-14 and that’s when Tucker Yinger started playing. And you can see what he has done since.”
Yinger has rushed for 2,556 yards, fifth on the Flyers’ all-time list. Although he only played for a half against Robert Morris last Saturday, he ran for 139 yards.
If Cook now blossoms, it will be thanks, in part, to Jeske, who, once he was fitted with crutches last Saturday, tried mentoring him as he stood on the sideline.
As he waits for the swelling to go down in his knee so he can undergo surgery, Jeske has been at practices and film sessions this week and was scheduled to travel with the team on its six and a half hour bus ride to Missouri on Thursday afternoon.
Whatever happens now, Cook is sure of one thing:
“My safety days are over. No more defense. In my head, I always thought I was a quarterback anyway. And now I am.”
No freaking out.
Time to dare.