WALKER -- Conversation is rarely at the top of Josh Cook’s to-do list. Especially not when there are plays to be made on the football field or the basketball court for that matter.
The soft-spoken Walker senior has emerged as one of the top defensive players in Livingston Parish football the last three seasons, very quietly in a way but with a loud exclamation point once he steps between the lines.
“When I’m on the field, my confidence level goes way up,” Cook said. “I go out there and feel like nobody can stop me if I play like I can. I have this relentless mindset that whatever I need to do, I’m going to go hard and get a job done, so I don’t see any reason to talk about it. If there’s something I feel needs to be said, I say it.”
Added Eric Cook, his father and a Walker City Councilman, “Josh is a student of the game. He’s quiet because he’s always watching and learning. He’s like a sponge and once he gets something, then he plays with his emotions and everything comes out on the football field.”
Being cerebral and using that energy and emotion as fuel are key elements for Cook to be as good as he has been. Because he is not the stereotypical size for a Class 5A middle linebacker at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds.
His size may explain why a player who influences games as thoroughly as Cook does isn’t more prominent on recruiting charts at big-name schools all over the country.
In this case, size truly doesn’t matter.
“Ever since (playing for the Walker Renegades), it’s been all about football for me,” said Cook, who has also been a key reserve on the Wildcats’ basketball team since he was a freshman, with a handful of stars mixed in when he was a sophomore.
“I’ve always been a better football player than basketball player and when I got to junior high, my love for football just kept growing.”
With no sign of slowing down. In fact, Cook doesn’t mince words about how he wants his future to play out: He wants to play football at the next level.
Louisiana Tech, Tulane, Southeastern Louisiana, McNeese State and Nicholls State are the teams showing the strongest interest. And it’s hard to imagine Cook not making the most of whichever program gives him the chance to shine.
As a sophomore, Cook manned a strong safety spot with former WHS star Kyle Nevels roaming the field at middle linebacker. Last season Cook slid into the middle of the Wildcats’ defense and, like Nevels, became the heart of that unit with 110 tackles, 6 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in Walker’s 7-4 season. Former Walker coach Brandon Lawley referred to Cook as a “relentless competitor” and said he hopes his soon-to-arrive son is just like his former player.
“I play fast and make a lot of plays,” Cook said. “I like to get involved in a lot of tackles. I’m pretty good at getting off blocks and I feel like I can play at the next level and contribute.”
So far this season Cook has remained that touchstone for the Walker defense and his play has shown that he is again comfortable as the leader of a crew off to a rousing start.
In wins over Dutchtown and Broadmoor, Walker has allowed only 328 total yards and 14 first downs with 6 takeaways – 5 interceptions and a fumble. Foes are averaging only 2.5 yards a rush, in large part because finding room to run in the middle in a non-starter with Cook there.
When Walker coach Lester Ricard got the job last February and took stock of his returning players, he wasn’t sure what to make of his middle linebacker built like a toy cannon but with uncharacteristic 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash.
Like opposing offensive players, Ricard quickly found out that Cook’s size doesn’t hinder his effectiveness in the slightest.
“My first thought was that he was too small to be a 5A middle linebacker,” Ricard said. “I was surprised by what I saw on film. I honestly didn’t think he would be as good as he has been. He’s been lights out. He probably won’t have the stats that he had last year, but his impact will be 10 times greater just because he causes so much havoc.
“He’s running down plays like nobody I’ve ever seen before. He’s so fast sideline to sideline and sets an incredible tone for the rest of the guys on our defense.”
That speed is a big part of what allows Cook to compensate for what he might lack in size. As much as he dares to wander into boastfulness, Cook acknowledges as much.
“I run a 4.5,” he said nonchalantly. “I’m pretty fast.”
There is also another ingredient that might matter more than anything else, though: The kind of heart and desire you often find in a player who is passionate about representing a tightknit community that he has always called home.
Like the Cooks, Wildcats’ basketball coach Anthony Schiro was born and raised in Walker, so he has had a front-row seat while Josh Cook and younger brother Jalen Cook have evolved into two of the best athletes in recent parish history.
How intertwined is Schiro with the Cook family? He said he grew up emulating Eric Cook in backyard basketball games with his cousins after watching the patriarch star for the Wildcats from 1986-88.
So he had a good feel for the family the brothers Cook were a product of. Once Josh Cook got to high school and started playing both sports, Schiro quickly realized there were big things ahead.
“Josh is just a great competitor, no matter if it’s on the football field or in basketball,” Schiro said.
“He’s a great athlete and when you combine that with his determination and work ethic and just his desire to do whatever it takes to win, you’ve got a special player.”
Indeed, the ‘whatever-it-takes’ aspect of Cook’s athletic personality is also an important intangible characteristic.
Schiro recalled an unheralded play Cook made in the championship of the 2015 Livingston Parish Tournament when he controlled an offensive rebound on a missed free throw that helped set up a 3-pointer. That shot and Cook’s play were keys in a late-game rally that sparked the Wildcats to a 46-45 come-from-behind win.
“He’s never going to light up the box score for me, but always seems to be in the middle of play we need to win a game,” Schiro said. “He’s not going to back down from a challenge and that’s why I don’t hesitate putting him on a guy 6, 7, 8 inches taller than him. He finds a way to slow his guy down.”
Cook acknowledges that his myriad physical abilities are God-given, but he also knows the two people setting his path from Day 1 have been vital.
Like his sons, Eric Cook played both sports at Walker and unabashedly says he has been their toughest critic and most demanding coach. Lydia Cook is where Josh Cook gets his quiet, contemplative nature.
Both are major influences.
“My dad definitely motivates me the most because he pushes us to be the best we can be in sports and in life,” Josh Cook said. “He always tells us to play as hard as we can, make plays and give it our all. He tells us how it is and doesn’t sugarcoat anything.
"My mom and dad are hardworking and have always done whatever it takes to get us whatever we need. I work hard because of them and for them. It’s always on my mind how hard they have worked for us to accomplish what we have.”
Whenever Josh Cook refers to “we,” he is including Jalen, who joined his older brother on the football team in August after at first opting out to focus on basketball. The younger Cook is regarded as one of the top 50 players in the country in his class on the basketball court and last spring was the first freshman to claim All-Parish MVP honors since Denham Springs High legend Tasmin Mitchell.
Two years separate the two brothers, but there is no doubt that a fierce loyalty flows both ways. Josh Cook occasionally posts videos of himself on Twitter from the scouting service Hudl.com, and Jalen Cook follows up with “Best LB in the state.”
“We always want to push each other,” Josh Cook said. “I want more for him than I do for me. He’s my little brother and I love him. We both push each other as much as we can.”
Which doesn’t bode well for any offensive coordinator trying to scheme for Josh Cook and Walker or the ball carriers who might wander anywhere close to his vicinity.
Whether it’s his size or playing with a birth defect that left him with only two fingers on his right hand, Josh Cook plays football with a tenacious edge that belies his quiet personality.
Eric Cook saw that fire start to glow when his middle son was 8 years old and has spent the last 10 years as a father and coach making sure he helped shape the kind of work ethic required to excel.
Likewise, Ricard marvels at his senior leader for turning the defect and any doubts others might have of him into the kind of drive that helped him bench-press 300 pounds and power-clean 330 in offseason workouts.
“What I’m most proud of him about is that there is never an excuse,” Eric Cook said. “He just goes and does what his coaches ask him to do.
“That makes me proud because his mom and I have always told our boys that life isn’t easy. They have to understand that and it’s reinforced through sports because nothing comes easy and nobody is going to lie down and give you anything. You’ve got to be willing to work hard and understand that you have to earn what you want and don’t settle for anything less.”
“I’m not ever going to take it easy on the football field,” Josh Cook said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to win.”
Randy Rosetta is Sports Editor of The Livingston Parish News.
You can reach him at (225) 610.5507 or RandyR@LivingstonParishNews.com.
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