Anyone who questions whether 5-foot-10 receiver Brandin Cooks is sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the NFL ought to hear the story about the red Cadillac.
When Cooks, who played three seasons at Oregon State, was 9 years old, the melody of an ice cream truck lured him across the street from his Stockton home. When he crossed again on his way back, he stepped in front of a big, red car.
Even as a second-grader, Cooks was confident in his athletic ability, and he figured he would jump over the oncoming sedan.
“I thought I could do it, but it didn’t happen,” Cooks said with a laugh. “I learned my lesson right there.”
He got as high as the windshield, and the impact sent the little boy and his half-eaten ice cream sandwich flying. The next thing Cooks knew, he was in an ambulance headed to the hospital.
Tests revealed scratches and bruises but no broken bones. But his mother, Andrea, wanted him to stay home the next day nonetheless.
Cooks insisted he was fine and convinced his mom he should go to school. After all, he had an awesome story to tell at recess and many times after that.
“That was my sign that, ‘Hey, I’m a tough cat,’ and I’m going to take that with me throughout my life,” Cooks said “If I can get hit by a Cadillac, then I can take a hit from a human being. That was my mindset throughout my life.”
As a junior last season, Cooks, 20, led the nation in receiving yards in 2013 and won the Biletnikoff Award given to the top college wide receiver. The Lincoln High School graduate is expected to be one of the fastest players at the scouting combine in Indianapolis and said he is aiming to run his 40-yard dash Sunday in the 4.3-second range.
He’s been compared to Carolina’s Steve Smith, another short but well-built receiver, and to Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin, speedy wideouts whom offensive coordinators line up in a variety of formations. Cooks also took 32 handoffs last year with Oregon State – many on fly-sweep runs – and averaged 6.8 yards a carry.
What separates him from other small, jitterbug receivers, he said, is his strength and ruggedness. Some receivers shy away from the bench-press test in Indianapolis, but Cooks said he plans to hoist 225 pounds at least 20 times, something many safeties and linebackers fail to accomplish.
Cooks also is proud that he’s never missed a game – from the Pop Warner through college – despite defenses knowing that if they could rough up and intimidate the little receiver, they would stall Oregon State’s offense. Cal attempted that tactic Oct. 19. The result: Cooks finished with 13 catches, 232 yards, one receiving touchdown and another on the ground.
“Every report you read is that he’s small,” said Cooks’ older brother, Worth. “But if you watch film on him, he’s taken some pretty big shots this year from pretty big guys. He’s always able to bounce right back up.”
It’s no mystery where Cooks gets his toughness. His father was a former Marine who was close to his sons and who made his living as a bounty hunter. Worth Cooks Sr. died of a heart attack at 48 when Cooks was 6, and Andrea worked two jobs to support her boys.
The oldest, Fred, already was out of the house when his father died. The second-oldest, Worth, fathered a child when he was a sophomore in high school. The next boy, Andre, has been in and out of prison in recent years and is scheduled to be released in December, Worth said.
Aside from the Cadillac encounter, Brandin, the youngest, always has been the least of Andrea’s worries. When she talks about her son, she takes long pauses and fights back tears.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m just blessed with him. He’s just different. I don’t know. God put something into him.”
Cooks’ Pop Warner coach, Mike Sullivan, said that when he first saw Cooks he was playing for a rival team. It was immediately apparent that he was “the best player on the field by far,” Sullivan said. “He stood out like a bright light.”
It wasn’t just that Cooks was fast. He had what Sullivan described as an abundance of “want” – he wanted to be coached, he wanted extra practice, he wanted to be great.
“When his dad died, I think he really wanted to prove that he was really good and make his family proud,” said Sullivan, a former quarterback at Sacramento State.
Unlike his brothers, Cooks is talkative like his father. Sometimes Andrea will look at him at a certain angle, and she’ll think her late husband is in the room. Sometimes Cooks will say something exactly the way his father would have said it.
“It puts a smile on my face because even if he’s not here, I’m still carrying around some of the qualities that he had, that he taught us at a young age,” Cooks said.
One of those qualities Cooks inherited is his father’s speed. His father claimed to have once had a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys. (His sons relay the story with skepticism; they’re not sure if it’s one of the old man’s famous tales). He also would routinely race the boys down the street and up the driveway to their home.
Andrea said she remembers watching Cooks in a 100-meter race against other 8-year-olds from the Stockton Unified School District. She knew her son was fast but didn’t realize how fast until she watched him blow past the other kids.
He went on to a regional race in San Jose and then to nationals in Pennsylvania. She’s collected all the ribbons, medals and trophies Cooks has accumulated, devoting her living room to his accomplishments. The Biletnikoff trophy – it weighs 56 pounds – has yet to arrive.
“That’s going to go in a special cabinet,” she said. “I’m going to have to buy one because I don’t want it just sitting out.”
The growing shrine is a testament to Cooks’ drive and goal-oriented nature. When he arrived at Oregon State, he refused to blend into the background with the other freshmen. Instead, he tried to arrange one-on-one matchups in practice with senior All-American cornerback Jordan Poyer, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns.
When fellow receiver Markus Wheaton was drafted last year, observers figured defenses would be able to concentrate on Cooks in 2013 and his numbers would drop. Instead, he broke Pacific-12 Conference season records for receptions and receiving yards.
His current goal is to dazzle at the combine. Cooks has studied how other similarly sized receivers performed in Indianapolis. He knows how many bench-press repetitions Austin had, how high Smith jumped, how fast DeSean Jackson ran his 40-yard dash.
He knows he needs to match – and perhaps top – them if he’s going to convince NFL evaluators he’s not just another swift but small receiver.
“Maybe the question they have is, ‘He’s 5-10, how strong is he?,’ ” Cooks said. “But that’s something I want to showcase at the combine, to get these teams and these GMs to understand that I’m a pretty strong guy. Don’t let the size fool you.”