Some days you never forget: This was August of 1979. I was new to the Clarion Ledger where my first job was to cover Mississippi State. The football Bulldogs were in two-a-days, and it was a brutally hot, humid morning workout when I first saw Johnie Cooks, shirtless and in shorts, glistening with sweat, running through drills. 

Johnie Cooks will be remembered as one Mississippi State’s greatest football legends. He died July 6, 2023, after a long illness. Credit: MSY athletics

“My God,” I remember thinking, “who is that?” As I wrote that day, “Cooks has more muscles in his neck than most humans have in their arms.” He was a sculpted 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 240 pounds, slim in the waist, huge through his chest and shoulders. His trapezoid muscles, the ones between his neck and shoulders, were insanely huge and seemed to ripple as he ran. He was as fast as the fastest running backs and cornerbacks.

Some plays you never forget: This was October of 1980, Orange Bowl Stadium, Miami. State was playing the mighty Miami Hurricanes, quarterbacked by future first ballot Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. The game was tied, and Miami had the ball. Kelly went back to pass. Defensive ends Tyrone Keys and Billy Jackson hit Kelly from either side just as he threw. The ball fluttered down the field until Cooks snatched it, and headed for the end zone, knees pumping high. Two Miami players hit him en route, but Cooks did not so much as acknowledge them. He shrugged them off like pesky gnats and never broke stride. His pick-six gave the Bulldogs the lead in a game they would win 34-31.

Rick Cleveland

Some games you never forget: 1980, Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium, Alabama vs. Mississippi State. No. 1 ranked Bama, coached by Bear Bryant, hadn’t lost in forever, certainly not to Mississippi State, and was a 20-point favorite. Cooks, from his middle linebacker position in State’s 4-3 defense, was everywhere that day. He made 20 tackles and at one point in State’s landmark 6-3 victory, Cooks challenged the Bear himself. Bama had called timeout on a fourth and one situation. Cooks took a few steps toward the Bama sideline and shouted, “You got to go for it. You know you got to go for it. You are Bear Bryant, you know you got to go for it.” 

And this one from 1981, also at The Vet: Southern Miss vs. State, both nationally ranked. Emory Bellard, the State coach, called it “a hoss and and a hoss.” The next week, Southern Miss would put up 58 points on Bobby Bowden and Florida State. Not this day. Southern Miss, with the remarkable Reggie Collier at quarterback, eked out a 7-6 victory in a game that was stopped intermittently as players from both teams were helped off the field after violent collisions, many involving Cooks. The great Orley Hood dubbed it, “The Limp Off Bowl.”  “Cook was a monster,” Collier told me years later. “What a great, great player. I’ve never been hit so hard in my life.”

All these memories flashed Thursday when I heard the news that Leland native Johnie Earl Cooks, age 64, had passed away following a long illness. Johnie and I ran into each other often over the years, and I know this to be true: A proud warrior on the field, he was kind, caring and funny off it. I always enjoyed his company. How could you not?

Glenn Collins, the Jackson native and superb defensive tackle who played six NFL seasons after his State days, knew Cooks better than most. “Johnie was such a tremendous linebacker but an even a better person and teammate,” Collins said. “He kept us all laughing all the time.”

Cooks will go down as one as the greatest players in Mississippi State football history, despite missing most of that 1979 season with a severe knee injury that required surgery. It was the first of many football afflictions that would take a terrible toll on Cooks in his later years. We will get to that.

Johnie Cooks

But first we should talk about all Cooks did achieve, which is to become a first team All American in his senior season at State, the second overall pick in the 1982 NFL Draft, a Super Bowl champion in 1991 with the New York Giants, and a Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer in 2004.

Prior to his 2004 induction Cooks talked about growing up poor – but very much loved – in the community of Long Switch, out from Leland in Washington County. He was the sixth of nine children. Entering the ninth grade, Cooks, bigger and faster than his classmates, decided he wanted to play football. One problem: A physical exam was required and the exam cost five dollars, which the Cooks family did not have. Minnie Bell Cooks, his mother, improvised, as Johnie would explain: “My mom borrowed the five bucks from her bossman so I could play. Her only requirement was that I couldn’t quit.”

And Cooks didn’t quit until at age 33, in 1991, a series of injuries forced the issue. The cumulative effect of all those injuries took a much greater toll later in life. In 2008, Billy Watkins and I wrote a project for The Clarion Ledger about the myriad physical issues former Mississippi NFL football stars were facing later in life and how little the NFL was doing to help them.

Cooks’ was among the worst-case scenarios. At age 49, he was afflicted with arthritic knees, severe lower back issues, numbness in his legs and feet, the near total loss of vision in his left eye and several other lesser ailments. He said he couldn’t remember the last time he had slept through the night.

As the years have passed, those ailments worsened considerably, a sad reminder of the price many football warriors pay later in life for the glory of their younger years. Few pay a more painful debt than did Cooks from so many hits in four years of high school ball, four years at State and 10 in the NFL playing a position in which violent collisions are part of the job description. Again, few hit harder than Cooks, but in football the guy delivering the hit often suffers as much damage as the guy he hits.

Better, today, to remember the Johnie Earl Cooks of 1979, with a physique as chiseled as a Greek statue, a broad smile, a quick laugh, and with the speed to run down the fastest backs.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.