Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- While the rest of his teammates were attending practice and playing on Saturdays last year, Virginia cornerback Chris Cook was working in a Sears warehouse, moving refrigerators, loading trucks, and making deliveries.
It was, as he called it, "making an honest living."
Cook, who was academically suspended, couldn't even bring himself to attend Virginia's games. On occasion, he'd come afterwards to hang out with his teammates, but he didn't want to watch them on TV.
"It was very humbling," he said. "A lot of people were doubting me back home, saying I wasn't going to go back, that I was going transfer. It makes me want to get back and prove to everyone I have the ability, I can do this, and I'm gonna do this."
Cook enrolled at Virginia again in January, and by the spring, coach Al Groh had given him a second chance on faith. Cook still had to take classes and raise his grade point average in the spring while working his way back into the good graces of the football staff.
"There was never any decision," Groh said. "Chris is one of our guys. That's what coaching is about, and that's particularly what college coaching is about, is developing young people and I've made plenty of mistakes for which people gave me another chance. I'm just trying to give him the same thing people gave me. If there's an innate goodness in a person and a willingness to be successful, those are the kind of people you go with. There was never any decision."
"That meant a lot for him to trust me that much," Cook said.
Cook hasn't quite gotten around to thanking Groh in person yet, but odds are he shows his appreciation on the field this fall. Cook should be half of the equation in one of the top cornerback duos in the ACC, along with Ras-I Dowling. Cook has yet to have that breakout season, though. In 2007, he missed three games for a sprained knee after starting the first six games. He's got 26 games worth of experience, though, three career interceptions and 103 tackles and 13 pass breakups.
"Chris is a ball hawk and that's what we need on our defense," said defensive end Nate Collins. "That's something we kind of were missing last year. We really didn't have too many people catching interceptions other than Ras-I back there. It's so easy for a team last year to not throw the ball to Ras-I's side. Now they have to make that decision, if they're going to throw it to Ras-I's side or Chris Cook's side. I feel like both of them are doing great back there. They're both ball hawk threats. Last year we were lacking in turnovers on defensively, and that's going to be a huge part of our season this year."
Virginia tied for 67th in the nation last year with 11 interceptions, and was 58th with 23 turnovers gained. They're numbers the Cavaliers are looking to improve this fall, and Cook's return should help.
"I'm always trying to get the ball," Cook said. "We work on that a lot. Since he's emphasized it a lot, everybody on the defense tries to get the ball now. They're going to have to throw at somebody. We're going to make some plays, whether it goes to me, him or somebody else on the defense."
Cook said his second chance has inspired him to work harder on his footwork, fundamentals and technique. And his teammates have noticed.
"Sitting out a whole year, he works harder, he attacks the weight room harder, conditioning, everything about him this year is working hard," Dowling said. "He always worked hard, but I see a change in him this year. It feels like he wants it more."
And now he's got another chance to do it.