Virginia junior linebacker Malcolm Cook was admittedly emotional standing in the tunnel prior to the William & Mary game, preparing to make the run onto David A. Harrison III Field at Scott Stadium. The road to that point has been trying and difficult.
Shoulder and knee injuries affected Cook’s performance and ability to stay on the field in 2014 and 2015. The 2016 season was supposed to be the Richmond (VA) native’s time to shine. However, in August of 2016, Cook was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that, according to the Mayo Clinic website, can “affect your heart muscle and your heart’s electrical system, reducing your heart’s ability to pump and causing rapid or abnormal heart rhythms.”
While Cook’s career wasn’t over, it was certainly in question, and the once promising 2016 campaign was over before it began. Coach Bronco Mendenhall recalls the talented athlete being at a truly low point spiritually and mentally as a result.
With his mother and Coach Mendenhall, among others, supporting him, Cook persevered. Mendenhall helped by keeping him heavily involved in the program, including a role as defensive signal caller during games last season.
“You know you’ve got a guy out there who went through everything with you,” Cook said. “That was one of the most incredible parts, to hug him (following the William & Mary game) and tell him thank you for believing in me and sticking by me.”
Cook credits his mother with playing an “enormous role” in his comeback, saying she was “keeping me in it, making sure that I’m all right every day, making sure that I’m praying and I’m staying in it. Also, when I first got cleared, she stayed on me. She said, ‘If you’re not working that’s somebody else out there working to be great. You can’t have that.’”
“She’s a great motivator,” Cook continued. “I understand who I play the game for.”
Cook eventually gained medical clearance. This summer, he returned to the promising form he exhibited one year earlier. On Saturday, he took the field as a starting outside linebacker on the Virginia defense. Junior running back Jordan Ellis came up to his close friend pregame with one message: “This is what you have been waiting for.”
“I’m real grateful and I’m honored to be back out there,” Cook said. “Thanks to Dr. Battle and [UVA associate athletic trainer Kelli Pugh] and my mom and Coach Mendenhall for supporting me through everything. It’s a big honor to be back out there with the guys.”
“It felt great to play again,” Cook said. “It was exciting. Definitely before going out through the tunnel you’re trying to channel your emotions and get everything in tune with what’s really happening, I had to sit in the back in the tunnel and I was thinking about my mom and holding my tears back. It was emotional, and my head was spinning. To think that I’ve been here all this time and was starting to really play and I could’ve died last year on the field is emotional. It felt good to actually hit somebody that wasn’t wearing a V-sabre or my colors.”
The 6’1”, 230-pound linebacker took full advantage of his opportunity, overcoming early jitters to finish with a team-high 13 tackles and one sack as the Cavaliers defeated William & Mary, 28-10. The sack, Cook recalled, was “incredible. I didn’t know I was going to beat him that clean. It was crazy when I came around the end and I knew he still had the ball. I was like, ‘This is going down.’”
Having achieved his comeback and with his first game as a starter under his belt, Cook now looks ahead to bigger and better things for this Virginia team.
“We need to get back to the drawing board and see what we can correct and go from there,” said Cook, who planned to spend his Saturday night preparing for next Saturday’s contest versus Indiana. “You always want more. I feel like there is more I could have gave (against William & Mary) and there is more the defense could have done and there is more the offense could have done. I felt like they shouldn’t have moved the ball.”
“I thought we got better today, but there is still improvement we need,” Cook added.