Jamaine Cook could be bitter.
In chasing his dream of making the National Football League, the former Youngstown State University running back has been yanked around for the past five months.
He’s been overlooked, signed as an undrafted free agent, released, re-signed and then released again. His hopes have risen and fallen, his heart has been broken and his will to continue the pursuit has been tested.
But here in late September, as Cook waits for the next NFL call while taking classes at YSU, he maintains one thing.
It’s something that keeps him pushing forward through all the ups and downs: A positive attitude.
“I think that’s the biggest thing,” Cook said. “I think it’s very important to keep a positive mindset with the whole NFL thing. The only thing I can control right now is making sure I stay in shape and — when I get the opportunity again — to perform well.”
Fridays are a good day for Cook. He doesn’t have any classes, which allows him to stay home with his 18-month old daughter.
Between his 15-hour fall semester schedule and his daily workout inside the Stambaugh Stadium weight room, Cook doesn’t have as much free time with his daughter as he would like.
So on this particular Friday afternoon, Cook spoke over the phone as yells and laughter from his daughter howled in the background.
“I have a daughter and a family, so I have to get the ball moving,” Cook says. “I can’t just sit out and wait for the whole football thing. I have to keep things moving.”
Cook, an accounting major, is on pace to graduate in the spring semester.
Truth be told, he would rather be studying for a Sunday NFL opponent instead of a Monday exam. But he knows his priorities, and family is at the top.
Still, the guy who rushed for 4,052 yards in his four-year Penguins career — second best in school history — can’t help but think about his dream.
“I want to get that degree and move forward,” Cook said. “But the way things are going with running backs, I think it’s just a matter of time of time before I get a call. I’m just going to have a tough decision — do I drop all my classes and stop moving forward with school for something that’s not even guaranteed longer than a week?”
Nature of the business
Plain and simple, Cook was heartbroken.
A native of Middleburg Heights – a city just outside of Cleveland – he signed with the Cleveland Browns as undrafted free agent on April 30.
He participated in rookie and mini-camps, but was waived by the Browns on May 21. It was his first exposure to the business-like nature of the NFL.
“That’s something I had to learn the hard way,” Cook said. “You don’t truly understand unless you’re experiencing it. The saying is ‘here today, gone tomorrow,’ because you could be there one day and have a great practice, then a linebacker will go down so they cut a running back because they have one extra. That’s the type of stuff that goes on.”
Loyal to football his whole life and all the hard work it requires, Cook quickly learned the NFL doesn’t return the favor.
“I think as a player, you devote your whole life to the whole football thing and you’re so loyal to it,” he said. “But once you get to the NFL, football is not as loyal to you as you are to it. It’s very cutthroat.”
However, his passion and positive attitude never faded.
Cook continued working out and keeping in shape for the next three months while doing construction, painting and landscaping for his grandpa’s properties.
Nonetheless, the Browns called again on Aug. 15 for a workout. On Aug. 18, he re-signed with his hometown team.
“I sat out for three months and it was hard, but I just trust in God, because he knows if it’s meant to be,” Cook said. “I got back in there and got a chance to perform. So the way I look at things, I have to just roll with the punches and whatever happens, happens.”
Dream come true
Make no mistake, when Cook suited up for the Browns in the preseason on August 24 against the Indianapolis Colts, it was a dream come true.
Receiving playing time at the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium with the third-string, he rushed two times for 11 yards and caught three passes for 24 yards.
“That was amazing being around great players and in that environment,” Cook said. “It was everything I expected and everything I dreamt of.”
But the following game — August 29 against the Chicago Bears — was even more satisfying. Playing at Soldier Field in Chicago, Cook got to perform on the same field as legendary Bears running back Walter Payton.
“He’s my favorite player of all time, so that made things even better,” he said. “It really was a great experience.”
The experience of playing in the NFL is something Cook highly values. During that time, he tried to soak everything in.
“I got to speak with a lot of the vets, especially the veteran running backs that have been in the league,” Cook said. “Like [former Browns running back] Brandon Jackson. I got to sit down and talk with him about everything concerning the league and concerning things outside of the league — things such as staying ready every day and making sure your family’s good.”
And while Cook took advantage of mingling with the other players, he feels he also took advantage of his playing time.
“I think I showed more than enough,” he said. “I showed that I can play on special teams and play in the backfield, whether it’s first down, second down or even third down. I even returned some kicks — so I showed some ability — but at the end of the day, I don’t know if I was in the best scenario.”
The Browns released Cook again on August 31 during the final cuts before the regular season.
“I don’t know what the Browns are doing right now,” he said. “They just traded Trent Richardson. So I’m thinking, if they just got rid of him like that, what chances did I really have of making that team?”
Still, Cook believes he showed enough to earn another call.
“After that second opportunity, I’m more content than I was the first time around,” he said. “I felt that I got out there and competed against the best. I showed that I can play and have the ability.”
The right attitude
It’s an unusual time right now for Cook.
Accustomed to performing on the gridiron during fall weekends, the days pass without any competition. The only game for Cook right now is the waiting game.
“I know you can get called up any day,” he said. “You always have to be ready and always have to be on your toes. I understand it’s a business, so I’m always ready to go.”
However, Cook isn’t going to stress about that phone call — it would go against what he believes in.
“When you worry about things you can’t control, that’s when your mind starts going crazy and it’s harder to focus,” he said. “When you start focusing on the future, you can’t focus on the task at hand.”
It’s an attitude that is continually tested through his treacherous climb to an NFL roster. It’s also an attitude that he said will serve a deeper purpose.
“That’s something that will always stick with me even after football,” Cook said. “Just stay positive and focus on what you can control right now. Everything else will fall into place.”