Prior to his junior year of high school, Bryon Cook felt a growing apathy toward a sport he had played much of his life.
The 2013 Tallmadge graduate had a passion for an indoor sport that was far less violent.
Therefore, the helmet, pads and spikes didn’t seem nearly as intriguing as the tank tops, shorts and sneakers.
“When I was in high school, I wanted to play basketball,” Cook said. “Basketball is my first love. I started as a sophomore on the basketball team for (former) coach (Darrell) Ayres. I almost quit football because I wanted to focus on basketball.”
As he was pondering this decision, Cook got some advice from a friend and mentor.
His name is Tony Gotto, now Barberton’s head football coach, who was the Blue Devils’ offensive line coach at the time.
“I’ve known coach Gotto since I was a child,” Cook said. “He told me to give it one more year because he felt I was a late bloomer.”
Cook certainly remembers that conversation fondly.
And now the standout receiver has a chance to shine on an elite level that most athletes have seen only in their dreams.
Cook, 22, recently signed a contract with the the Iowa-based Cedar Rapids Titans of the Indoor Football League. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound wide receiver is scheduled to report to camp Feb. 4.
Since the IFL isn’t as lucrative as the NFL, Cook won’t be a millionaire any time soon. However, Cook, who was a standout four-year defensive back/wide receiver at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, will get a chance to focus solely on football.
“We’re encouraged to get a second job, but they pay for our apartments, which are luxury apartments,” Cook said. “They also pay for all of our food and gear. We get paid after every game.”
Cook is expected to line up as a wide receiver for the Titans. He hopes to gain valuable experience against professional athletes and hopefully, make a lasting impression on an NFL scout or two.
“The ultimate goal is to play on Sundays,” Cook said. “I want to give back. I want to earn enough money to take care of my family.
“I’ve lived in Tallmadge all of my life. I want to earn enough to give back to the community and set a good example for everybody.”
Cook got his feet wet on the collegiate level as a defensive back for the Yellow Jackets. But the versatile chemistry major at Baldwin Wallace had another major decision to make about his athletic career.
Appropriately, those brainstorming sessions took place prior to his junior year.
“I felt comfortable playing defensive back my first two years,” Cook said. “I lettered, but I switched to receiver my junior and senior seasons.”
Not surprisingly, his play at receiver launched him into the football stratosphere.
Despite dealing with some injuries, Cook finished with a team-leading 27 receptions for 400 yards and a team-leading 5 touchdowns in just seven games during his junior year.
“In the second or third game, I had nine or 10 catches for 130 yards,” Cook said. “I was already playing well at the time. I had the frame of mind that I could dominate on this level. It helped push me forward.”
Although he found his niche at his new position, Cook’s career was nearly derailed by nagging injuries.
Due to issues with his hamstring, Cook only played five games as a senior and finished with just 8 receptions for 126 yards.
“It was sore, but I played on it for awhile,” he said. “At the time, I didn’t understand how serious the injury was. I thought it was just a pull. I needed surgery. I was starting to wonder if all of this was going to pass me by.”
His limited usage didn’t keep him out of the end zone, though. Cook still managed to score 3 TDs.
More importantly, he shined against a team that is rather well-known in football lore.
Cook was named the Most Valuable Player against the University of Mount Union (Alliance), which happens to be a multiple-time Division III national champion.
Cook eventually healed and has been training vigorously for his latest opportunity. Now that he has a chance of a lifetime to play a game he loves, Cook won’t forget how he got to this point.
“I’ve had great coaches, great family and great friends,” he said. “Coach Gotto is like a father figure to me, and his son Anthony is one of my best friends. (Former Tallmadge head) Coach Vass (Joe Vassalotti) is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.”
Another of Cook’s close friends is hoping to compete under the bright lights in the ring.
Tallmadge graduate David Rodriguez has participated in a few professional boxing matches and has motivated Cook to chase his dream.
“David is like a brother to me,” Cook said. “He’s the first dude I called after I signed. He’s a guy who never, ever complains. He just goes into the gym and does his thing.”
Cook also gave props to former Baldwin Wallace head football coach John Snell and current Yellow Jackets defensive coordinator Jim Meyer.
“Coach Snell always believed in me,” Cook said. “He had my back. Coach Meyer recruited me. He is the one who helped me get the opportunities I’ve gotten.”
Cook will have to deal with something that is rather unfamiliar to him when he takes the field again.
He is playing for a losing team.
After leading the Yellow Jackets to a winning record during his career and playing a key role for the multiple-time playoff-bound Blue Devils, Cook joins a squad that finished 1-15 in 2017.
The Titans, who enter their seventh year of existence, are led by first-year head coach Marvin Jones, a former middle linebacker for the New York Jets.
“He’s a goofball,” Cook said. “I’ve had numerous conversations with him. He is looking out for me and is in my ear in terms of what I need to do.”
Cook said mastering the team’s playbook will be a must. He also will have to adjust to life of being his own man in a town that is unfamiliar to him.
Cook, who worked in the equipment department for the Cleveland Browns after graduating from college, believes he is ready to take that crucial step.
“Working with the Browns, I got really close with (current Washington Redskins wide receiver) Terrelle Pryor and (current Atlanta Falcons wide receiver) Taylor Gabriel,” Cook said. “I also had multiple conversations with legendary coach Al Saunders (Browns receivers coach).
“I had a conversation with former All-Pro running back Larry Johnson a couple of weeks ago. He gave me the lowdown on the game and told me where I need to get better.”
Cook certainly enjoyed the holidays as he took a break from the excessive workouts. Lucky for him, Santa Claus gave him one more unexpected Christmas gift after the rest of the presents were already opened.
“Coach Jones called me a couple days after Christmas,” Cook said. “It was one of the best Christmas gifts ever.”