Over one million high school kids play football each year in the United States. That number shrinks to roughly 70,000 at the college level (approximately 17,000 players per grade). According to ncaa.org, the odds of one of those NFL-eligible college football players making it into the NFL are 1.6% (253). For 11-year NFL veteran Toi Cook, those discouraging odds were never about him.
Life of a Saint: Toi Cook
The name Toi is certainly uncommon. When asked about his name’s origin, Toi Cook explained, “That came from my biological father who I’ve never met. His name was Toy. My mom decided to make it T-O-I.” Cook was raised by his parents Greg and Sandi Cook, spending his early years in Chicago.
An opportunity for Greg Cook to be a cameraman for Channel 13 ABC News prompted a then seven-year-old Toi, his parents and his newborn brother to move to Houston. What seemed on the surface to strictly be a great career move for his father turned out to be the first of several environments that would ultimately contribute to Toi Cook’s success. Cook remembered, “My dad used to do the Astros games and Oilers training camps. I would go to the Astrodome as a kid and see J.R. Richards, Cesar Cedeno, Roger Metzger and Milt May. I was like, ‘Man. This is what I want to do.’’
Life in Los Angeles
At the age of 12, Toi Cook and family headed to California following another opportunity for his father Greg. This time it would be for KTLA covering such classic shows as Soul Train, What’s Happening, Sha Na Na and Dodgers games. Cook summed up those influences by saying, “I was always going to baseball games. And I got to go with him which meant I either got to go down on the field before the game or around it. I got to see players and what that looked like. That made a big impression on me.” He added, “There’s something about growing up in that environment that it (success) doesn’t seem that far-fetched.”
While the idea of playing for USC was appealing, Toi Cook ultimately decided to take his talents to Stanford University after high school. There were several factors that went into the decision. First, Stanford was offering a full ride. Also factoring in was the opportunity to play baseball at Stanford, a team that had just been in the College World Series the year prior. Cook laughed as he gave the last reason in stating, “If I go to Stanford and I’m 40-years old and I get in an argument with someone, I’ll be able to bust out, ‘I went to Stanford. I’m right’”.
Despite being a standout football player at Stanford, Cook would have his most memorable moment in college on the baseball diamond. He and his teammates of the 1987 Stanford baseball team won the College World Series. Four years ago, Cook was inducted into the Stanford Hall of Fame as a 2-sport athlete.
Cook Joins the New Orleans Saints
Although Cook was drafted by the Minnesota Twins, he ended up choosing a career in the NFL. He was drafted in the eighth round by the New Orleans Saints, When asked about what that day was like, Cook offered up a humorous story. “I was playing a baseball game. All I know is that I hit a grand slam that day. I hadn’t gotten called yet and it’s not like we had cell phones so they could call you. So, my college roommate, John Valenti, the son of the great Jack Valenti, longtime president of the Motion Pictures Association, came to Denny’s to find me and my dad and tell me that the Saints had called my room to say they had drafted me.”
Cook knew he was going to make an immediate impression at training camp. “I’m getting off the bus and everyone has one bag for training camp because you might go home in three weeks. You don’t need a lot of stuff. I came from L.A. with my VCR, tv… I’m getting off the bus looking at all these people with one bag and I’m dragging everything. Chris Myers said, ‘I guess you’re planning on staying.’” It never dawned on Cook could get cut.
Well, Toi Cook did stay and immediately found himself comfortable with his surroundings. When asked if there was anyone that helped him early in his career, an emotional Cook immediately responded, “Dave Waymer. Rest in peace. I always cry when I say his name. Back when I first got there (New Orleans), I walked back to stretch and he said, ‘What are you doing coming back here, rookie?’ I go, ‘How many years you get in the league?’ He goes, ’10.’ I go, ‘Well, I’m getting 10, so I’m gonna be right next to you.’”
If you found Waymer stretching from that point on, you’d see Cook right alongside him. If you saw Waymer studying film, there was Cook as well. They would sit next to each other at team meetings. Cook mentioned his habit of constantly gravitating toward people who had walked the road he intended to travel, both on the field and off.
Cook on the Dome Patrol
Toi Cook was a member of arguably the best defense the New Orleans Saints have ever had, headlined by the Dome Patrol of Rickey Jackson, Vaughan Johnson, Pat Swilling and Sam Mills. Cook rehashed what it was like playing behind this storied group. “It was the greatest thing. From here until eternity I get to say that of my 11 years, I spent nine of them with Rickey Jackson. I also got nine with Sam Mills. To play behind them, Pat Swilling and Vaughan Johnson.
Then they brought in Reynaldo Turnbull when they got rid of Vaughan and he was an MVP. I was very, very lucky.” Cook then continued, “Because of them, people didn’t have a lot of time to be running routes. It made it a lot easier for me. We (the secondary) were overshadowed, but we should have been overshadowed, We had four pro-bowlers.”
Cook Heads Back West
The decision to head to San Francisco after seven years in the Big Easy was an easy one for Toi Cook, despite his love for the city of New Orleans. “It was easy knowing that I was going to a juggernaut. Look, all I wanted to do was win and all I wanted to do was prove the Saints wrong for not trying harder to keep me”, Cook explained.
Cook went on to remember the all-star cast of defensive players he would be joining as he headed west. Those names included Tim McDonald, Merton Hanks, Eric Davis, Rickey Jackson, Richard Dent and Ken Norton. They would also add Deion Sanders after Cook arrived. Cook recalled arriving to San Francisco and hearing comments like, “Toi and Rickey (Jackson) are off the schneid. Welcome to the win club” by the former division rivals turned new teammates.
Cook also made mention that being a Stanford guy, he was essentially, “coming home” even though he was leaving New Orleans.
Despite all those factors, Cook realized how special the cast was in New Orleans. He spoke about how much more successful the Saints should have been during his tenure with talented colleagues like Brett Maxie and the rest of his secondary, the Dome Patrol and the balance of their defense. Cook saw that the coaching style of Jim Mora, as successful as he was, to possibly have been the reason those Saints teams weren’t more successful. “You had Dalton Hilliard, Eric Martin and Bobby Hebert.
Those are Pro-Bowlers. We had a pretty good line with Stan Brock, Hilgy (Joel Hilgenberg), Jim Dombrowski, that’s a pretty good offense. The problem was we had Morten Andersen who was so accurate, it allowed them to play that Schottenheimer/Mora ball.” Cook was referring to the conservative, ‘play it close and win on defense’ coaching mentality with which Saints fans of that era are far too familiar.
Being a Super Bowl champion for the San Francisco 49ers and being a College World Series champion back at Stanford were the two greatest highlights of Toi Cook’s professional athletic career. And while winning the big game was incredible, his personal contribution to that victory makes it all the sweeter. You could hear the smile on Cook’s face as he rehashed, “It’s like hitting a home run in the World Series. When they go look at the stats, they’ll see that interception by Toi Cook. It’s on the Super Bowl highlight anytime they play it. I can walk into a room of wide receivers and hold my head high.”
After leaving the 49ers, Cook would then spend two seasons in Carolina playing for the Panthers. He would be reunited with former coach Dom Capers and former players Sam Mills and Brett Maxie. And like his stops in New Orleans and San Francisco, Cook found success in Carolina. Cook and his Panthers came one game away from a trip to the Super Bowl, a Super Bowl that happened to be held in New Orleans that season. Cook was so successful in his career that he hadn’t even experienced a losing season until his last, a 7-9 season with Carolina which they lost the last game of the year.
After the NFL
Amongst his many roles after his career in the NFL, Cook was appointed to the Board of Advisors for the Amarantus Traumatic Brain Injury Program. When asked about any personal concerns for his future, Cook offered, “We all have concerns. We don’t know. When you see stuff like what happened with Dwight Clark, he was looking good. Then a year later he’s in a wheelchair. Shortly after, he’s almost dead.” He added, “Roger Goodell makes $40 million a year. He doesn’t want to take care of the players. The only way we are gonna get paid is if we are diagnosed with something like A.L.S. which is a death sentence. All I know is that we are all off in some form or fashion.
They have the money to take care of us. If you played for 10 years in the league, it should be automatic, especially before these new rules. You just think about all the old timers they could take care of. Right now, a Hall of Famer can’t even get insurance.” Cook went on to reiterate the value of the league and it’s teams and how easy it would be to take care of the players that sacrificed so much.
Despite all of this, there was no hesitation when asked if he would do it all over again. “Yup. No question”, Cook answered. He added, “If it wasn’t for football, I wouldn’t have net Rickey Jackson or Dalton Hilliard or Bobby Hebert. I wouldn’t have met Jim Mora and know about all these great people. I wouldn’t know about New Orleans like I do. I wouldn’t have met other great people like Emeril Legasse, Lenny Alsfeld, Cyndy Alsfeld and so many others. I love saying that I played for the Saints. I got to play with Jerry Rice and Deion (Sanders). I’ll always treasure the experiences. You can’t get that anywhere else.
What Now for Toi Cook?
Toi Cook has been very busy since retiring and has had plenty of success off the field. Head over to Wikipedia for the laundry list of accomplishments. As far as what he’s doing now, Cook is very passionate about a new project. Cook stated, “I started a company called the Cardinal Media Group. I think that that’s going to be a pretty big deal. I haven’t hit my pinnacle yet in my estimation. I think that the success that I had from 23-34 was great but I think my true calling is about to come very shortly. For a lot of people, the pinnacle is to get to the NFL or to play in a Super Bowl. To me, that was always a means to an end. What I really wanted to do is what I’m doing now in starting this media company.”
Whether it was growing up, during his college years or in any of his 11 NFL seasons, Toi Cook has always been a winner. And again, while the odds of successful start-ups are low, the odds have never applied to Cook. Assuming success for Toi Cook was, and still is, a smart bet.