From Wolverine to Runnin’ Rebel to Raider
Gary Cook’s father, Dean, suggested his son try out for the Truckee High School football team his junior year. Cook followed his father’s advice. Now the 22-year-old punter is vying for a spot on the Oakland Raiders roster.
“If it weren’t for my dad giving me a little guidance, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Cook said earlier in the week from his Hilton hotel room in Alameda, a stone’s throw from the Raiders’ training facility.
Cook is there because the Monday after the NFL draft, Raiders special teams coach Joe Avezzano called to inform him that the team was offering a free-agent contract. Now, the 6-foot, 205-pound kicker/punter is in training camp, scrapping for a roster spot as a backup for kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler.
Truckee High football coach Bob Shaffer likes his former player’s chances.
“If Gary makes it in the NFL,” Shaffer said, “that wouldn’t really surprise me because I know his work ethic. He’s very coachable, he’s a great athlete and he’s willing to persevere.
“And who knows, anything could happen with Janikowski. The good thing about Gary is he can punt and kick.”
Although Cook was solely a punter at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, he can still make field goals and blast kickoffs, and that’s what attracted the Raiders.
“They wanted someone to everything, in case (Shane Lechler) or (Sebastian Janikowski) get hurt,” Cook said. “Lechler and Janikowski are both really good, but there’s no one to back them up. A backup position would be great. Making the practice team would be great.”
Shaffer said Cook’s success could not have happened to a nicer guy.
“Gary is someone you would want your daughter to date,” he said. “You couldn’t go wrong with him as a son-in-law. I’m really happy for him.”
A 2001 Truckee High graduate, Cook played soccer his freshman and sophomore years. So when he switched sports, it was just a matter of time before Shaffer recognized, then put to use, Cook’s strength, which was packed in his right leg.
“When he first came out, he was pretty green,” Shaffer said, “a little rough around the edges. I thought he could probably kick because he played soccer. He could kick the ball a long way. We just never knew where it was going.”
Shaffer, sensing potential, sent Cook to a kicking camp in Reno the summer after his junior year. There, Cook learned how to kick a football. The Wolverines in return got a polished Cook for the 2000 season, a guy who could punt and kick for distance and, more importantly, accuracy.
The “green” kicker began setting school records, with an 82-yard punt, a 44-yard field goal and a punt hang-time clocked at 5.19 seconds. After being named to the 3A all-state team as a punter his senior year, Cook was invited as a walk-on at UNLV.
In his first game, on his first career attempt, Cook booted a 48-yard punt against Arkansas and was granted the job as the Runnin’ Rebels starting punter. Cook’s booming punts earned him a full-ride scholarship after his freshman year, and he didn’t let his coaches down. During his four-year tenure with UNLV, Cook punted 281 times for 11,430 yards, both Mountain West Conference records.
His senior year, Cook was one of only 10 semifinalists in the country for the Ray Guy Award, presented by the Raiders’ former star punter known for his knee-to-the-nose follow-through on his kicks.
Although Cook did not win the award, his nationally ranked status as a punter drew phone calls from several NFL teams before this year’s draft, including the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. But it was the Raiders who followed through.
As soon as Cook finished his grueling 21-unit load at UNLV ” where he majored in construction management ” he was off to train with the Raiders.
“I’m not nervous at all,” Cook said of making the cut in the NFL. “I feel very confident. I’m kicking the ball well in all three areas (punts, kickoffs and field goals).”
The Raiders told Cook that he was guaranteed at least a couple games in pre-season play ” which starts Aug. 13 against the 49ers ” where he will get a chance to demonstrate his abilities to other teams in case he is cut.
Training camp is not so bad, Cook said. In fact, it’s been an enjoyable experience.
“I was expecting it to be different,” he said, “but it’s not that much different than college. Everyone is bigger and faster, at every position, but all the guys are very supportive. Just being out here they respect you. It’s like a big family, I’d say more so than in college.”
Because training camp is not mandatory for established players, the entire team is not there. So Cook said he is yet to meet many of the veteran standouts, such as Warren Sapp and Randy Moss, as well as Janikowski and Lechler. Some big names are present, though, like quarterback Kerry Collins and receiver Jerry Porter.
“Jerry Porter is a very good guy,” Cook said. “Pretty much, they’re all kind people.”
Competing among the biggest and badest football players in the world makes Cook glad he plays a non-contact position.
“At least I’ll be able to retain some knowledge at the end of it,” he said.
Cook also has the chance to give friends and family members memories to retain.
“My grandpa said it gives him a couple more years to live,” Cook said.