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JIM MCBRIDE

How a few key decisions turned Brandin Cooks into a choice player

Brandin Cooks set a Pac-12 receiving record and was a consensus All-American while at Oregon State.
Brandin Cooks set a Pac-12 receiving record and was a consensus All-American while at Oregon State.Karl Maasdam/Oregon State University

One coach pounded the table. Another almost fell out of his chair. Brandin Cooks’s sterling playmaking skills elicit those types of reactions.

These weren’t acts of frustration from opposing coaches at their wit’s end trying to stop him. These came from Cooks’s advocates. God only knows what’s happened to the furniture belonging to the guys on the other sidelines.

Brian Gray was the offensive coordinator at Lincoln High in Stockton, Calif., when Cooks was a sophomore. Gray wanted the kid — nicknamed “Sonic Boom” by one of his Pop Warner coaches — on his side of the ball, but he was meeting some resistance. Head coach Jim Rubiales was concerned about Cooks’s perceived lack of size and thought he might better suited at cornerback.

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“I really had to pound the table to bring Brandin up,’’ Gray said. “He wasn’t the biggest receiver and I think at the time there was some concern, ‘Can he handle it?’ Well, I knew the kid was a competitive giant. And early in that [sophomore] year he ran a post route and he was just faster than everybody on the field. That’s when you knew, ‘Uh-oh, we might have something special on our hands.’ ’’

It came in a game against rival Tracy High and Gray can still remember the play vividly.

“Not many times you throw a post against single high Cover-3, complete it, and score, and we did all three,’’ said Gray. “The safety was protecting the middle of the field and clearly he wasn’t deep enough.’’

Questions about Cooks’s size or spot on the field never came up again.

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“[Rubiales] kind of winked at me like, ‘Yeah, he’ll be just fine,’ ’’ Gray said.

Asked if he remembered that play, Cooks grinned and nodded. “I do,” he said. He appreciates Gray advocating for him to get his chance.

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“I guess he was right to this day [about keeping me at receiver],’’ said Cooks. “So me and Coach Gray have a connection there.”

Gray took over the head job the next year and Cooks continued to flourish, building off an impressive summer, during which the receiver not only built his résumé but his confidence, as well.

“I would have to say going into my junior year after going to the Stanford/Nike camp,’’ Cooks said, when asked when he started to seriously think about his post-high school plans. “There was a lot of talent there but no one knew who I was. I ended up winning the MVP and that’s when I got my first offer in college. That’s when I was like, ‘OK. It’s my time.’ I knew I could really do something with my talent.”

Gray also knew Cooks was destined for greater things — though he acknowledges he wasn’t predicting NFL stardom at that time — and it was during his senior year at Lincoln when Cooks made highlight play after highlight play that persuaded him.

“There was a game against a very highly ranked team Oak Ridge in which we had him returning punts and kicks and playing receiver, and he was a man amongst boys,’’ Gray said. “That’s when we knew that this guy wasn’t just going to be a Division 1 guy but he might be real good at the Division 1 level.’’

Tales of Cooks’s legend — and the video evidence to prove it — were making their way to colleges all over the West Coast. Mike Riley, who was coaching at Oregon State at the time, will never forget the first time he popped in the tape.

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“The thing that drew me to him was he never got tackled. I’m not kidding you,’’ Riley said recently from Nebraska, where he’s now the head coach. “His highlight film coming out of high school was like 35 plays in a row where he scored touchdowns. I mean, it was the craziest thing. You just put it on and, ‘Hey, this guy never gets tackled.’ It was beautiful.’’

Videos of Cooks’s high school plays still exist on the web and he is tackled in a few of them, but it’s easy to see why Riley was so enamored.

Riley was convinced Cooks could thrive in Corvallis (“It was a no-brainer . . . I always said my daughter could have evaluated Brandin,’’ he said, only half-kidding) but Cooks already had made up his mind that he was going to UCLA.

He wasn’t signed, sealed, and delivered, however, so Riley kept the communication lines open in case Cooks had a change of heart. Unbeknownst to Riley, Cooks was studying the offenses of both schools and he was wavering.

In addition to studying, Cooks said he did a lot praying as he contemplated a final decision. As far as Riley is concerned, those prayers were answered.

“When we actually got that phone call from him and he said, ‘You know, I actually think your offense is a better fit for me than UCLA,’ I almost fell out of my chair,’’ said Riley. “For him to end up flipping and coming to us, it was a beautiful thing.’’

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Cooks had originally committed to the Bruins because his best friend, Phil Ruhl, was there and the two had dreamed of playing together.

“But at the same time I knew I had to do what was best for me,’’ Cooks said.

He said a visit from Riley went a long way, too.

“I’d have to say Coach Riley, coming to my living room, winning my mom over and my family — they loved him,’’ Cooks said. “And I’d say, at the end of the day I felt like my prayers led me in that direction.”

At Oregon State, Cooks teamed with Markus Wheaton to form one of the best 1-2 receiving duos in the country for two seasons. After Wheaton left, however, Cooks really turned it on. That kind of surprised Riley.

The coach was concerned that with Wheaton out of the picture, Cooks would face constant double and triple coverage.

Brandin Cooks finished the 2013 season with a Pac-12-record 128 catches for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Brandin Cooks finished the 2013 season with a Pac-12-record 128 catches for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. Rick Scuteri/AP/Associated Press

“Well, he put on the best 10 pounds a human being has ever put on in history,’’ said Riley. “He just became a fast ball of muscle. People couldn’t catch him and they couldn’t tackle him — let me tell you, there was no more arm-tackling Brandin Cooks. He just had a phenomenal season.’’

Cooks finished the season with a Pac-12-record 128 catches for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns. He won the Biletnikoff Award and was a consensus All-American.

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He was drafted 20th overall by the Saints and after three seasons and 215 catches was flipped to the Patriots in March for the 32nd overall pick. In essence, Cooks is a two-time first-round selection.

“Everything is possible,’’ said Cooks. “I’m just blessed to have the opportunity to play for this organization and for them to think of me so highly to give up a first-round pick, not only do I want to make my family proud, it makes me want to work extra hard for the Kraft family and coach [Bill Belichick] for thinking of me so highly.”

Cooks has always been deeply religious and even derives his current nickname, “The Archer,” from a Bible passage from Psalm 144:6: “Send forth the lightning and scatter them; send out your arrows and rout them!”

He recently explained while taking a break from a workout at Gillette Stadium why the message means so much to him.

“It’s not just important from a scriptural standpoint but just from a life standpoint, period,’’ he said. “You go through things. You’re going to have times when people are against you. Out here on the football field, the defenders are, in a sense, your enemies. Guys are against you, so it’s one of those things that gets me amped. It’s almost like my shield, so when I step out there on the field it’s go time.”

Cooks said he already “loves” being with the Patriots and has spent lots of time in the playbook so he can hit the ground running. Riley, for one, thinks it’s a perfect match.

“I think Tom [Brady] will just love this guy,’’ he said. “He’ll add a ton to that team and it’ll be fun to watch.’’

Cooks credits his dogs — a golden retriever (named Scout) and a mini goldendoodle (named Archer) — with helping him acclimate to New England

“Those dogs are my world,’’ he said, beaming. “I don’t post about them too much. But those are the ones that kind of calm me down a little bit and kind of balance football and life a little bit.’’


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride.