Cooking up punt stats
It was during the National Anthem that the reality of playing in the NFL delivered an awakening slap to Gary Cook’s psyche.
“It hit me pretty hard,” Cook said between the Oakland Raiders’ team practices Wednesday.
The 2001 Truckee High graduate was reminiscing about the first pre-season game of the year two Saturdays ago against the San Francisco 49ers ” on a field in a historic stadium where he used to watch watch his favorite Major League Baseball team play.
On hand at Monster Park (still referred to by most as Candlestick Park), was Cook’s mother, Sheron, father, Dean, and about 20 other family members and friends.
“It felt really good,” Cook said of his initial NFL outing. “I wasn’t nervous at all because I’ve been doing so well and I’ve been kicking for so long.”
Cook, in fact, didn’t appear jittery at all when he took his first NFL snap ” which required a leaping reach to pull down ” and nonchalantly placed a soaring punt inside the 20 yard line for teammates to down.
“Being back on the field and in full uniform got me excited,” Cook said. “It was like ‘Wow, this is for real.'”
And while nerves remained calm for his first punt, Cook said being called upon to kick the ball off a tee proved more unsettling.
“I was pretty nervous for the kickoff and the extra point, since I haven’t done it since high school,” Cook said of his new duty, which entails backing up Raiders Pro Bowl field goal and place kicker, Sebastian Janikowski.
Perennial Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler showed early in the game why the Raiders were in need of a backup when he pulled a hamstring muscle while scrambling for yardage after a bad snap.
“I knew it was my chance,” he said. “Once (Lechler) got hurt I was like, ‘Here we go. I got a chance to show what I got.'”
On three attempts, Cook placed each punt inside the 20 yard line, with two of them downed at the San Francisco 2. With a solid performance notched in his belt, it was on to Houston to face the Texans for the second game of Cook’s NFL career.
With Lechler still recovering from his injury, the Raiders decided to add a backup for their backup and signed 21-year-old punter Bryce Benekos after the rookie was cut by the Green Bay Packers.
The 6-foot-5, 190-pound Benekos, who at University of Texas, El Paso earned first-team All-Western Athletic Conference honors last year and, like Cook, was one of 10 semifinalists in the nation for the Ray Guy Award, punted once for 39 yards against the Texans.
In the Raiders’ second pre-season game, Cook ” who is listed at 6-foot and 2005 pounds ” punted twice, bringing his pre-season total to five and his average yardage per punt to 36, with a 44-yarder as his longest.
With Lechler unable to punt in Friday’s game in Oakland, the competing rookies will be filling his shoes. Cook knows that rosters are far from final, and he has no intention of letting up.
“I realize that I just have to play the cards I’m given,” Cook said. “I’m just going to go out and do the best I can. That’s all I can ask for.”