By Billy Watkins
He had been in the hospital in Memphis for 11 months. Doctors had to amputate both his legs and some of his fingers.
Still, Johnie Cooks fought on, which surprises none of us who saw him play middle linebacker at Mississippi State (1977-81) and become the second pick in the NFL draft.
One of Cooks’ closest teammates at State, Tyrone Keys, talked to him for an hour by phone on Wednesday.
The conversation had been so good, so promising, Keys couldn’t sleep. He texted Cooks’ wife, Maggie, around 1 a.m. Thursday. It read: “Great day catching up with my man. Still on Cloud Nine.”
Just hours later, Cooks died at the age of 64.
When I reached Keys shortly after the news began to spread, all he could say at first was “Johnie Cooks, man. Johnie Cooks.”
This is how close the two were: When they were being recruited out of high school — Cooks from Leland, Keys from Jackson Callaway — they made a pact. They weren’t going to sign with Alabama’s legendary coach, Bear Bryant. They were going to sign with Mississippi State and beat him.
As the Bulldogs filed out of the dressing room to take the field at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson on Nov. 1, 1980, Cooks and Keys were the last two out.
“Neither one of us said a word. We just looked at each other like, ‘This is the day.’ ” Keys recalled.
Indeed, it was. State 6, Alabama and Bear Bryant 3.
“He sounded so good,” Keys said about Wednesday’s phone call. “He said he was getting out of that hospital, and because he would have a handicap parking tag, a bunch of us were going to the first game of the season together and park right beside the stadium.”
Keys, a member of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears, chuckled at the thought of that.
“He had been up that day, learning how to walk on his new (prosthetic) legs,” Keys said. “It had been a rough go of it. I think it was only the second time he’d done it. But he was so upbeat.”
My phone dinged at that point of our conversation. “Look at the video I just texted you,” Keys said.
It was Cooks during his workout, struggling but succeeding to put one foot in front of the other. And all the while he was telling the physical therapist in charge, “Let’s go. I’ve got to get out of here.”
Cooks woke up one morning last August and had a hard time breathing. He was admitted to the hospital with congestive heart failure. During his stay, he contracted something known in medical circles as the “super bug” — a bacteria that is aggressive and, for the most part, won’t succumb to antibiotics.
Sudden complications cost Cooks his life.
“It’s just hard to believe,” said John Bond, the quarterback during Keys’ years at State. “Not Johnie. No way. He was bigger than life.”
Cooks was first team All SEC two years, first team All America as a senior. He helped lead State to 9-3 and 8-4 records his final two seasons.
“Johnie was the guy who made us dominant,” Keys said.
In four seasons, he made 241 unassisted tackles and was part of 132 others.
He spent 10 seasons in the NFL, seven with the Indianapolis Colts and three with the New York Giants. He was part of the Giants’ victory in Super Bowl XXV — the Whitney Houston national anthem game. He is a member of the Bulldogs’ Ring of Honor and the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
Bond recalled his first memories of Cooks.
“When I got there my freshman year, I was like the seventh-string quarterback,” said Bond, a magician at running coach Emory Bellard’s Wishbone offense. “Pretty soon, I was all the way up to No.2 and I was fired up. But then I realized that the No. 2 offense scrimmaged the No. 1 offense all the time. And that meant scrimmaging against Johnie Cooks all the time.
“Now I could outrun a whole bunch of folks, but outrunning Johnie Cooks … that ain’t happening.”
Another teammate, Glen Collins — a defensive tackle who had a solid NFL career with the Cincinnati Bengals — said Cooks was probably the fastest player on State’s team. The fastest … at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds.
“My wife and I were just talking about Johnie,” Bond said Thursday afternoon. “He’s known my kids all their lives. Emily, our 17 year old, has always loved him.
“When she was in first or second grade, they were talking about mammals. Well, Emily raised her hand and said, ‘The biggest mammal I’ve ever seen is Johnie Cooks.’ Johnie thought that was hilarious when I told him. He told Emily, ‘You just keep telling them that.’ ”
I asked Bond to describe Cooks in one word.
“Leadership,” he said, “He was a born leader.”
Collins remembered Cooks as “a good ol’ down-to-earth country boy.”
“He loved life,” Collins said. “He was always making people laugh. He just loved to have fun. He was a good, clean guy.”
Larry Templeton, the former MSU athletic director, hired Cooks following his football days as an assistant athletic director.
“That was an emotional day for both of us,” Templeton said. “First of all, he was a fan favorite. I think every State fan felt like Johnie Cooks was their friend.
“He worked with athletes across the board, not just in football. He came from a small town like many of them did. He had gone through a lot of the same struggles they were going through. They could relate to him and they knew Johnie cared.
“He was a unique human being who made others feel good.”
I was sitting with Johnie Cooks’ in his Starkville apartment when the Colts made him the No.2 pick in the spring of 1982.
He cried. He called his mother and told her, “We made it … we made it.”
Cooks said the one thing he wanted to do was buy his parents a new home, which he did.
I told him, “Johnie, I’m proud of you. That’s a great thing to do. But I hope the second thing you buy is a new television.”
He wrinkled up his face. “What’s wrong with my television?”
I said, “Johnie, that TV is 20 years old. They’ve got color televisions now, you know.”
He smiled and shook his head like, “OK, OK, I got it.”
The next time I visited Cooks at his Starkville dwelling wasn’t as joyful. Rick Cleveland and I were writing a series of stories for the Clarion Ledger about how the mega-rich NFL would not help pay for the medical bills of former players suffering from crippling football injuries. All that Sunday afternoon entertainment we enjoyed year after year came at a steep cost to those on the field.
We were sitting in Cooks’ living room and he asked me to come over and stand in front of him. He reached up and put his right hand on my shoulder and slowly, painfully raised himself to a standing position. His knees popped like popcorn. Then he eased himself back down to his lounge chair.
“Not a pretty sound, is it?” he asked.
I could only shake my head.
Word is that the NFL finally paid the players something, but not nearly enough to cover all the surgeries and rehabilitation it took for them to try and lead normal lives.
But even at the end, after the amputations and staring at the walls of a hospital room since last summer, Johnie Cooks refused sympathy.
He told Keys, “Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m just happy to still be alive.”