Article-The best player you never knew-Greg Cook
In 1969, the Bengals had the fifth pick in the common draft between the NFL and American Football League -- the final season before the 1970 merger of the two leagues. Defensive tackle Joe Greene of North Texas went No. 4 to Pittsburgh and became the cornerstone defensive player for the four-time Super Bowl champion Steelers of the '70s. Quarterback Greg Cook of the University of Cincinnati went No. 5 to the Bengals and became the symbol of why the Bengals could never dethrone the Steelers for the next 10 years.
Cook, possibly the single biggest lost talent in NFL history, died Friday of pneumonia. Cincinnati assistant Bill Walsh said in 1997 that Cook was the best quarterback he ever saw. And Bengals owner Mike Brown said Friday: "Greg was the single most talented player we've ever had with the Bengals. Had he been able to stay healthy, I believe he would have been the player of his era in the NFL."
My first sportswriting job out of college was at the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, and when I got there, the name "Greg Cook'' was like "Sidd Finch." Cook had been out of football for seven years (really, for a decade by then; he had only a cameo in 1973 after his 1969 injury disaster), and he was a shadowy, almost mythic figure around the Bengals by the time I covered them in 1984. I'd heard of Cook, of course, and when I once mentioned him to Brown, who'd coached him and watched his horrible disappearance, he shook his head and said something like, "A shame.''
Here's what happened, as told by his rookie-year roommate Sam Wyche, to me on Saturday:
"Greg came in as a rookie and you could see he was a marketer's dream. Tall, handsome, confident, great-looking. First guy I ever saw who used a hairdryer. All the rest of us were slicking our hair back with Brylcreem, and Greg's in there using a hairdryer. All the guys made fun of him, but he took it fine. He could have been from Manhattan Beach, Calif., instead of Chillicothe, Ohio, and no one would have been surprised.
"As soon as you saw him on the practice field, we were all like, 'This guy's going to take us a long way.' Six-four, 220, the quickness of a smaller guy, with a Terry Bradshaw arm and such great touch. With Joe Montana, the ball arrived. But Bill Walsh used to say, 'Don't throw it to him. Throw it through him.' And when Greg threw it, the ball was still carrying.
"The thing about football in those days, it wasn't as complex as it is now, obviously. No fire zones, no complicated blitz packages. And Greg came in, and he was so obviously the best quarterback that he started right way for us. Here's how good Greg Cook was: We were an expansion team the year before [the Bengals went 3-11] and when he came in the next year, he turned us around.''
In the first two games of the season, Cook beat the Dolphins and Chargers by a combined 20 points, throwing five touchdown passes and setting the Reds-crazy town on fire. In the second quarter of Week 3, the Kansas City Chiefs came to Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus, the same stadium where Cook set school records in college. The Chiefs were really good, the team that would go on to win Super Bowl IV four months later. Cook threw a 17-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to give the Bengals a 7-6 lead.
Soon after that, Cook dropped back to pass, set up, and as he threw, got blasted -- cleanly -- by linebacker Bobby Bell. Cook was driven into the ground, and his right arm got wedged awkwardly against the ground. Immediately Cook began writhing in pain. When he came to the sideline, he walked with his right arm hanging low, in intense pain. Wyche relieved him and, incredibly, led the Bengals to a stunning upset over the future Super Bowl champs, throwing an 80-yard touchdown pass to Bob Trumpy for the win.
But Cook was seriously injured. Doctors examined the shoulder and didn't know exactly what was wrong. Wyche thinks they shot dye in there to study the structure of the shoulder, and the study was inconclusive. As a friend of Cook's, he remembers how frustrated Cook was, especially to hear the football bromide over and over: "You've just got to fight through the pain.'' The best guess is Cook had a torn rotator cuff, but that's still a matter of debate in Cincinnati. Whatever it was, it never healed properly.
He started eight games the rest of the year and won AFL Rookie of the Year, but he was never right. His personal life went to hell; he separated from his wife, got hurt and had his dad died -- all within a month. Wyche remembers him having surgery and aggravating the shoulder in an offseason charity basketball game, but he never was right again.
Wyche's crystal-clear memory, an agonizing one to hear 42 years later, came from early in training camp in the 1970 season, at dry and dusty Wilmington College, an hour northeast of Cincinnati.
"Greg was warming up, trying to throw, and he just couldn't,'' Wyche said. "He unsnapped his chin strap, yanked off his helmet, threw it to the ground and yelled: 'I can't do it! I can't throw anymore!''
He threw three passes the rest of his life -- in a 1973 game against Denver. He was finished.
"His life just fell apart,'' said Wyche. "He tried to find something to do. He was a chef. He was a really good artist. In fact, I've got one of his oil paintings, of a landscape. I think it's in Ohio. But it's hanging in my house. The other night, Bob Trumpy was on a talk show and they asked him what was [Greg's] life like after football. He said, 'Greg was like a stray cat.'
"A shame. Just a shame. We knew he was the golden goose, and we just imagined all the golden eggs he would have laid if he'd had a normal career. And he still was really popular in Cincinnati. I remember a few years ago, maybe around 2000, going to a banquet in Western Hills [a Cincinnati neighborhood; Pete Rose grew up there]. He was the most popular guy in the room. People loved him. They remembered him from his great college career too.''
And that's the story of Greg Cook. Had he been born 30 years later, when someone like James Andrews could have fixed his shoulder, we'd have seen the greatness. In 2005, Drew Brees had his shoulder ruined in the final game of the season. It was reconstructed by Andrews. Ten months later, he was playing like a Pro Bowler and led the Saints to the NFC Championship Game. Cook was just born too soon.
Read more: Tom Brady, Eli Manning preparing to lead their teams in Super Bowl XLVI - Peter King - SI.com
That would drive anyone crazy. The NFL N did a story on him.
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