On the day the NFL draft’s circus visits Johnny Manziel in College Station, Brandin Cooks half-watches the big top from the couch of his sparsely decorated apartment in Oregon. On this rainy afternoon, just as Cooks clicks to ESPN, his name appears onscreen in a list of Mel Kiper’s top five receivers available in this year’s draft.
“I don’t pay attention to it much,” Cooks says. “But it’s cool to have [happen], because I would be hot if they wasn’t talking about me!”
Cooks is third on Kiper’s board, behind likely top-10 picks Sammy Watkins and Mike Evans. It’s a quantum leap from where he was just four months ago. Few players have aced the barrage of pre-draft tests like Cooks has. As a junior at Oregon State, he smashed both school and Pac-12 records for receptions and yards in a season. But when Cooks declared for the draft, the NFL’s advisory board slapped him with a second-round grade. All he’s done since is run the fastest 40 among receivers at the combine. Now, he may be gone in the top half of the first round. It’s still not enough for Cooks.
“Wherever I go,” Cooks says, “I know I’m going to do it better than those guys considered top-five, top-10 picks.” This is how Cooks talks. At 20, he’s young, but he never seems brash. He isn’t trying to convince anyone of anything. He already knows.
Just ask Brian Gray. Six weeks before the combine, Cooks was back in his hometown of Stockton, California, having lunch with Gray, his former coach at Lincoln High School. They were talking about the 40-yard dash, and what Cooks expected to run: “He said, ‘Coach, I’m going to force some people to make some tough decisions when I pull off this 4.3.’” It’s the same tone Cooks used when he told Gray he was ready to play varsity football as a 14-year-old sophomore.
“His confidence is very direct,” Gray says. “He wasn’t going to tell you how good he was going to be; he was going to show you. But if you asked him, ‘Do you think you can do it?,’ he would tell you yes. And he would look you right in the eye.”
Cooks didn’t waver as he got older. When asked about his college plans before he’d received a single offer, Cooks told everyone he’d end up at a Pac-10 school. He did. Before he even got to campus, he told people he planned to leave Oregon State after his junior year. He did that, too. “He’s so focused on where he wants to go,” OSU receivers coach Brent Brennan says. “He’s not leaving anything to chance.” No one could blame him.
Cooks was 6 years old when his father, only 48, died of a heart attack at home “He pushed us, hard,” Cooks’s brother Worth Jr. says. “Every Pop Warner practice, every game, he was there. And he got the most out of you.” The chasm left by his death affected the four Cooks boys in different ways. Fred, the eldest, was a father by 18. Worth had his first child at 15. Andre, three years Cooks’s senior, is currently serving time at a federal corrections facility in Fort Bragg, California, for violating parole. Since his conviction on a weapons charge at age 18, he hasn’t been out of prison for more than a few months at a time.
Cooks was barely a teenager when he realized where Andre was headed and what it was doing to his mother. When Cooks neared adulthood, his brothers urged him to avoid their mistakes. So Cooks did all he could to piece together the education his brothers never had. “An aggressive learner,” the man who recruited Cooks to Oregon State called him, and it’s a quality that goes far beyond route trees. Cooks is confident in his answers because he has asked every question.
With Kiper and Todd McShay bickering in the background, Cooks explains the reason for asking all those questions: “It was going to end with me, or it was going to start with me.”
The first race Brandin Cooks ever lost was to a red Lincoln Town Car speeding past his house on Stockton Street. Cooks was 9 and in line at an ice cream truck across the road when he heard Worth Jr. calling. As Worth dangled the dollar for his sherbet from their mother’s second-floor window, Cooks bolted from around the truck. The car was only a few feet away. The boy jumped, but his little legs weren’t enough. He landed flush on the hood before rolling off the side. There were no broken bones, just a scared mother and a guilt-stricken brother. Sitting at the hospital, Andrea Cooks told her son he’d have to miss school the next day. “He ended up going anyway,” she says. “He just wanted to challenge everything.”
That stretch of road, from Stockton Street to the family’s driveway, is where Cooks learned to run. Worth Cooks Sr. would challenge his sons to a race, one at a time — always barefoot — while the other two kept watch for cars.
Worth Sr. was a former Marine who could talk his way into anything. He did some work as a bounty hunter when the boys were young, convincing people on the other end of the phone that he was a creditor or an old friend just to track them down. “He was a hustler,” Cooks says. “That’s what they all said. The ice cream truck always used to come by, and he did an I.O.U. with the ice cream man. He would never pay.”
Cooks was in school when his father died. A voice over the intercom called him and Andre to the office. Their mother and older brothers were waiting outside. The car ride home was mostly silent. In the hours after his father died, Worth Jr. retreated to his room until it was time for football practice. He walked into the living room in full pads; the packed room stared. That Saturday’s game was dedicated to his father.
Money soon became a problem. Some nights, dinner was little more than rice and beans. Trips to McDonald’s were the ultimate luxury. “The chicken sandwich,” Cooks says. “I remember exactly what [it tasted like] because you only got a few times.” Already working the 3 a.m. shift at a warehouse for Dorfman Pacific, the company known for making Indiana Jones hats, Andrea Cooks took another job at an after-school program.
That’s where she first saw her son’s future. It took only a few races before Mrs. Cooks understood what all those sprints down the driveway had wrought. Her son was fast. So fast that at age 9, he advanced all the way to the regional track and field finals in San Jose. He won. The reward was a trip to a national competition at the Hershey factory in Pennsylvania. Cooks had never been on a plane, and as mother and son waited at the gate, she could see he was scared. She kissed him on the forehead and sent him on his way. “Since then,” Andrea Cooks says, “he’s been everywhere.”
Cooks stands waiting for a sandwich at the Podesto’s deli counter, a typical lunchtime hangout back when he was an upperclassman at Lincoln. The three girls in aprons behind the counter keep glancing his way. Finally, one speaks up.
“Do you remember me, from middle school?” she asks. Cooks shakes his head. “Nah, I don’t,” he says, his tone slightly apologetic. She laughs. “You got a lot taller,” she says.
Podesto’s is in the middle of Lincoln Center, an upscale shopping strip around the corner from the high school. “There were less boutiques [where I used to live],” Cooks says on his walk back to the car. The two younger Cooks boys and their mother moved to this side of town about eight years ago, when Brandin was in seventh grade. Stockton Street has two businesses: a Taco Bell and a muffler welding service with two tin stalls that look about ready to collapse.
Moving north meant a change from the Stockton Unified School District to Lincoln, a well-regarded, self-contained district that sends most of its students to college.
When the family came to Long Barn Way, Andre was 15, and he’d met enough of the wrong people for them to follow him north. In the middle of the night, Cooks would hear the door open and close, not sure if his brother would be back. “He always kept in touch and made sure I knew he was safe,” Cooks says. “That’s one thing he promised, to always check in with me.”
One night, as Cooks laid in the living room watching a movie, he heard a knock at the door. About two steps from the knob, Andre pulled him back. There was no peephole, but Andre knew who was outside. “We never answered the door,” Cooks says. “Ten minutes later, my brother got a text that said, ‘It’s a good thing you didn’t open the door, because I would’ve shot whoever did.’”
Andre’s problems started small — school suspensions and the like — but by 17, they’d grown more troubling. At one point, he stole a car and drove it into a stranger’s house. His mother still gets the bills. “I remember she would be stressed out all the time,” Cooks says. “He was putting her through so much; if I had gone down the same path, she could have been gone by now.” By then, Cooks had realized what type of instrument football could be. He was a Pop Warner star, and as a high school sophomore, still just 14, the varsity team’s offensive coordinator was banging on tables demanding a promotion for the scrawny kid. Brian Gray got his wish. Cooks averaged nearly 20 yards per catch, and in Lincoln’s playoff opener he finished with 232 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in a 56-12 route of Davis High School.
Gray finally had the scoreboard-exploding threat he envisioned: Cooks scored 10 touchdowns as a junior. “I think his highlight tape was … I don’t know how many touchdowns in a row,” says Mike Riley, head coach at Oregon State. “It was a long tape, and it appeared like every play he had the ball he scored a touchdown.”
There was one problem — Brandin Cooks was tiny. Listed at 5-foot-10 and generously at 160 pounds his junior season, all those scores weren’t enough to attract the big-school offers he coveted. That changed in May, when he finagled his way into the region’s Nike recruiting camp in Palo Alto. Against a slew of Pac-12 commits, he turned the one-on-one segments of the camp into his own personal showcase. “That’s where he smoked virtually everybody he faced,” Rivals.com wrote at the time. “Even the best defensive backs in the camp had a hard time keeping up.” Cooks hadn’t even made it to the car before emails from Oregon State, Washington, and UCLA landed in his inbox.
The first recruiter to visit was Jody Sears, then on staff at Washington State. When Sears walked into Gray’s office, Cooks was ready with a three-page résumé, complete with his academic history, goals, and even his personal interests. A similar package went out with his highlight DVDs, sent to nearly every major school on the West Coast. Jay Locey is now Oregon State football’s chief of staff, but in 2010, Northern California was part of his recruiting area. The letter was the first time he suspected Cooks might be different. “He talked about his goals in a humble way,” Locey says. “Here’s who I am, here’s what I want, here’s who I want to become. It was just so sincere.”
Getting to Corvallis means taking a 10-mile stretch of Highway 34 that branches off of I-5, a stretch filled mostly with open space and tractor dealerships. “All you see is blank,” Cooks says. The first time his brothers took the drive was when Cooks first reported for fall camp; Worth Jr. spent most of the final half-hour asking his brother what he’d gotten into.
The middle of Oregon is a long way from Westwood. Before his senior year of high school began, Cooks committed to UCLA, where his good friend Phil Ruhl was already playing. When Cooks started watching Bruins games that fall, he quickly realized there might be a problem. At the time, UCLA was running most of its plays out of the pistol formation, and its receivers spent the majority of the plays as wide-aligning offensive linemen.
That same season, Oregon State played two of its first three games on national TV against top-10 teams. As he watched, Cooks noticed a 5-foot-7 Beaver named James Rodgers tearing up the field. Oregon State played a sophisticated offense with a sophisticated route tree, but also one that favored the fly sweep — a handoff to an in-motion wide receiver — that was a college football craze at the time. “What I liked about the pro-style offense, you’re running routes,” Cooks says. “Me, not being very big, what was going to separate me from other receivers is route-running ability.”
During a September bye week, Locey was passing through Stockton on a recruiting swing when he decided to stop by Lincoln to see Brian Gray. During the visit, Gray mentioned that Cooks had been rethinking his choice and that Locey should reach out. He did, and Cooks admitted that Oregon State had caught his eye. “He actually paid attention as a 17-year-old to his fit as a football player,” Riley says. “Most kids at that age are kind of enamored with the surface stuff with recruiting. He based his decision on things of substance. He knew why he was doing it.”
As his senior season wound down, Cooks called Rick Neuheisel and told him he was considering a trip to Corvallis. What Cooks found at the end of those 10 miles of country road was a town where football, and the Beavers, were the only thing around. At UCLA, rumors about Neuheisel’s future swirled. Riley is Corvallis’s native son, having grown up there while his father was an assistant at OSU. “You could get lost at UCLA,” Cooks says. “They took me to Bel-Air, but I’m telling myself, ‘When am I ever going to get the code to Bel-Air?’ You’re looking at Magic Johnson’s house and Michael Jackson’s house, but once I got to campus, I’ll never see that place again.” Within a week, Cooks called Oregon State. His decision was made.
“I told Coach Riley I was coming to take some spots,” Cooks says. “That’s exactly what I told him.”
Brent Brennan was only a couple of months into the job as Oregon State’s wide receivers coach when he got his first text message from Brandin Cooks: What do I have to do to come in and start? “It was one of those cliché answers,” Cooks says. “‘Work hard, learn the playbook.’ But I really wanted to know!”
Cooks spent most weekends during his final high school semester shuttling back and forth to Corvallis. He’d sleep on Rodgers’s couch, in part to save money, but also because Rodgers had the playbook. Cooks attended morning meetings, to the bemusement of older players who couldn’t understand why someone who didn’t have to be there would be. The week of Oregon State’s spring game, which happened to fall during spring break, Cooks was constantly tangled up in Brennan’s feet.
“He wanted to know how we call our formations, how we call plays, what part of the play spoke specifically to him,” Brennan says. “He’s like, ‘Well, when you say this, what part of the play is that?’ He was just hanging out watching practice. But he was just really, really focused.”
A coach’s days during fall camp are long. By the time Brennan got to the one-on-one segments of practice, it was well past midnight. The mind plays tricks that late. Somehow, Brennan thought he saw Cooks pitted against Jordan Poyer and Rashaad Reynolds, the team’s two best cornerbacks, whenever his turn came. It didn’t make sense. The next day, he saw why. “He was letting people cut in front of him, so that he can go against the best guy on our team,” Brennan says. “Normally, true freshmen don’t choose the toughest matchup on the field. He chose it every time. When I realized it, I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’”
When Oregon State hosted Sacramento State in the season opener, Cooks was on the field with the starting offense.
About three minutes from the boutique-filled shopping center where Cooks grabs lunch is a house with a long driveway leading to a gated home. As he drives up, it opens to reveal a perfectly groomed shrub line to one side and an immaculate lawn complete with two golden retrievers on the other.
When Cooks was a high school sophomore, he met Phil Ruhl, then a junior on the football team. The two quickly bonded over weightlifting and an appreciation for each other’s dedication. Not long into their friendship, Ruhl invited Cooks to his family’s home. “I was like, ‘Goddamn,’” Cooks says. “I was sitting there, just soaking it all in.” Ruhl’s mother is Alexis Ruhl, formerly Alexis Spanos — that Spanos. Her father, Alex, is the real estate mogul who owns the San Diego Chargers, and her husband, Barry, has had his own professional real estate success.
The Ruhls became a second family for Cooks; even when Mrs. Ruhl opposed other overnight guests, Brandin was always welcome. He spent weekends at the family’s home near Lake Tahoe. On the Ruhls’ kitchen counter, there are six senior photos — of her five children and Brandin.
Emotional support was one thing, but the education Cooks received from his time with the Ruhls was another. There was talk of politics, finance, investments. It was a world he hadn’t been exposed to before. Cooks went with Mr. Ruhl when he leased a car, just so he could learn. He asked about real estate decisions, how to surround yourself with a team whose knowledge could buttress your own.
Cook can recite the signing bonus for DeAndre Hopkins, one of last year’s first-round receivers, and also how much of that check goes to the government, how much he’ll have left over, how much should go this way and that. “It’s one of those things,” Cooks says, “short-term greed, long-term wealth.” He attributes it all to his time around the Ruhls. “They were just teaching me those things I never was exposed to growing up.”
On a Saturday afternoon last July, Brent Brennan got a text message from OSU’s offensive line coach, who was on his way to a wedding near campus. All he could see in the attached photo was a blurry body with one line of context: Check this shit out.
It was Cooks, alone on the volleyball courts a couple of blocks from the facility, doing cone drills in the sand. “He is working out in a place where no one on our staff would ever see him,” Brennan says. “He’s not doing it for anybody but himself. That’s why he is who he is.”
Cooks’s second year at Oregon State was a chance for him to show how much he’d grown since his first. As a freshman, Cooks survived on little more than wiggle and speed, but as a sophomore, the polish emerged. “Sometimes just to torture him, I’ll put on tape of him as a freshman, and he’ll just beg me to turn it off,” Brennan says. “He knows how far he was from where he is today.” Cooks had 67 catches for 1,151 yards in his second season. Cooks combined with senior Markus Wheaton to form one of the best receiving duos in the country.
The question heading into his third season was whether he would be the same player without the departed Wheaton, picked in the third round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. All spring, Cooks fielded questions about life as Robin without Batman. His response was to learn his way around the kitchen, regularly whipping up chicken, sweet potatoes, and quinoa. “He put on the best 10 pounds I’ve ever seen in my life,” Riley says. “It was strength, it was explosiveness, it was durability. I think it really, really made a big difference.”
In the season opener against Eastern Washington, he finished with 13 catches for 196 yards and two touchdowns. Even better, he went home without a bruise. “When I got hit, I just wouldn’t even feel it,” Cooks says. “I was so much stronger. I could take more of a beating. After the game I would come home and relax, where the year before, I’d always be in pain.” He ended the year with 128 catches for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. His worst game of the regular season came against USC, when he finished with six catches for 88 yards and a touchdown.
Cooks has turned short screens and tricky handoffs into touchdowns since he was 9 years old; the difference last season was that the only place he looked 5-foot-10 was in the program. “There are other guys you watch where there are segments of the field they just aren’t going to be able to live in,” says NFL Network draft analyst and former pro scout Daniel Jeremiah. “The entire field is open to this guy. Courage is not a problem.” Cooks says his ideal NFL comparison is Steve Smith, an outside-the-numbers jump-ball winner undeterred by stature. He relishes traffic. He also happens to be the fastest receiver in this draft. Kiper has called him an “oh-so-slightly more athletic version of Tavon Austin,” who went eighth overall a year ago.
Winning the 40 was the combine triumph everyone knows about, but Cooks piled up smaller victories throughout his time in Indianapolis. “I’ve talked to different teams that interviewed him, and they were just blown away by how football smart he was,” Jeremiah says. At Oregon State’s pro day, Brennan heard the same reviews. Five different teams said he was the best interview they’d had.
Position coaches are hard to trust when it comes to their own players. The time spent together during the season is almost endless, and with Cooks and Brennan, it was even more time than most. Cooks was a fixture in the Oregon State complex, and it would often lead to sit-downs in Brennan’s office that would veer far from football. Brennan struggles to settle on one memory he’ll cling to after Cooks is gone. “For me, it’ll be that he’s the gold standard of receivers going forward,” Brennan says. “He was the most complete football player that I’ve ever been around. For there to ever be another one to have all the things that he had … I couldn’t even imagine.”
As he pulls back into the driveway of his Stockton home, Cooks points to a gold, late-’90s Saturn across the street. It’s the car his mother drove for years. Until now. All afternoon, Cooks has been driving around in a day-old white Mercedes GLK. He’d surprised his mother with it the previous day, her first gift of thanks for the early warehouse mornings and the dedication to her boys. “She said right away, ‘Your dad is looking down on you. He’d be so proud,’” Cooks says. “When you’ve got your mom saying that, it’s emotional.” These are the best days of Cooks’s life, and somehow, they’re also the ones marked as much by what’s gone as what’s here.
You can hardly see the walls of Andrea Cooks’s home. They’re covered with Oregon State jerseys, posters, and photos, from floor to ceiling. When Cooks won the Biletnikoff Award last December, he didn’t consider that there might be no room for it. Amid all the orange is a photo of Mrs. Cooks and her four sons. Brandin and Andre are wearing matching sweaters. They look like twins.
“I want him to be a part of this,” Brandin says of Andre. “It seems like every time he goes back to jail, it’s the time for football season to get started.” Every time Andre went back, it led to fights between the two brothers, with Brandin bluntly asking if he even wanted to leave. Now, he says, the conversations are different. Andre is scheduled to be released this fall, just in time for his brother’s first season in the NFL.
There isn’t much more space in Cooks’s old room, either, the shelves filled with Junior Olympics shoes and Pop Warner trophies. Pinned next to them on the wall is an unfolded handwritten letter. It’s from September 2010, for Cooks’s 17th birthday. It hangs there as a reminder, as a renewing source of motivation. ”I don’t like putting you guys through this,” it reads. “So it’s a wrap for them streets. There’s nothing but jail and death out there so continue to do the right things.” Promises — the ones everyone else laughed away, the ones he made to himself — got Brandin Cooks here. This time, he hopes his brother keeps one of his own. Maybe then, football can take Brandin’s family all the places it has taken him.