DALLAS – Often, football is a sport of projecting machismo and keeping secrets.
And then Connor Cook comes around.
"Funny story, actually," is how the Michigan State quarterback begins a tale about a crucial play from the Big Ten Championship Game. It's a story that offers a rare glimpse into an athlete's vulnerability.
Eighteen plays into the Spartans' game-winning touchdown drive, Cook was on the sideline after an Iowa timeout. Coach Mark Dantonio asked Cook, who's not exactly J.T. Barrett on the mobility front, whether he could run a speed option on fourth-and-2 from the 5.
Cook: "I'm like, 'No, I don't think I can. Let's give it to LJ [Scott].' And he's like, 'Connor says he can't do it.' And I'm like, 'No, no, no, let me get it, let me do it, let me do it.' Originally I said no. I was afraid."
Afraid of reinjuring his sprained right shoulder?
"No," Cook replied. "The main thing was failure."
Cook kept the ball, making the first down by a foot.
Three weeks have passed, and Cook says his shoulder is back to full strength. It better be. The Spartans will need his passing Thursday night in the Cotton Bowl semifinal playoff game to attack an Alabama defense that is allowing a national-low 2.38 yards per rush.
"I don't see a lot of vulnerability," Cook said, "but occasionally they'll get beat deep in the pass game."
Another refreshing burst of honesty and insight.
Cook had another excellent season, bettering his career record to 34-4 while being named the BigTen's Quarterback of the Year. But the Spartans stunned Ohio State with his backups, and Cook passed for only 191 yards against Iowa with his shoulder at about 70 percent strength.
So this Cotton Bowl will be huge for his legacy and NFL draft stock.
Alabama certainly is impressed. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart likened Cook to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan when he was slinging it for Boston College. The Crimson Tide's Eddie Jackson went a step further, relaying comments from fellow safety Geno Matias-Smith that some of Cook's work reminded him of Peyton Manning.
"He makes throws," Jackson gushed, "where you say, 'Whoa!'"
The recruiters weren't saying that when they saw Cook play at Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. Actually, one was: Pat Narduzzi, the former Michigan State defensive coordinator who now is head coach at Pittsburgh.
Funny story, actually.
Narduzzi visited Cook's school to recruit Cameron Ontko, a future linebacker at Wisconsin. Cook threw passes to Ontko in the basketball gym, recalling of the session: "I was a skinny sophomore probably throwing lollipops. And he goes back to East Lansing and tells [Dantonio]: 'Hey, we have to recruit this guy.'
"The next year Michigan State is the only school sending me handwritten letters every week. I threw nine touchdowns and 14 picks in my junior year, and we were 5-4, didn't make the playoffs. But I still got these letters week after week. Why?"
Narduzzi & Co. were so serious and so eager, they offered Cook a scholarship while Cook's father was in a bathroom outside the football offices.
You'd figure Cook would have accepted on the spot, but he admitted to this thought process: "OK, cool, maybe I can get some other offers and have a range to choose from. A month goes by, no one offers."
Finally, Miami (Ohio) and Akron offered. Cook pulled the trigger on Michigan State after coaches told him that they would take only one quarterback in the class — and that they also coveted Braxton Miller and Cardale Jones.
Once Cook arrived on campus, he marveled at Kirk Cousins, noting that during practice drills, the ball never touched the ground. Cook got serious about his game, putting in extra time in the weight room, film room and with his receivers.
That formula for success?
It's no secret.