- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 3, 2011

The flood started with Erik Cook’s wrinkled shirt.

Instead of an iron, the Washington Redskins’ center decided to steam away the problem. So Cook hung the shirt in the bathroom of his room earlier this month at the team’s hotel in National Harbor. He unleashed a stream of hot water from the shower, closed the door and turned on the television.

Thirty minutes later, Nick Sundberg, the Redskins’ long-snapper who is Cook’s housemate and frequent recipient of his pranks, received a worried call.

“You need to come look at this,” said Cook, the second-year player thrust into the middle of the Redskins’ reshuffled offensive line after Kory Lichtensteiger’s season-ending knee injury Oct. 16.

Sundberg walked into a flood. Water was everywhere. Four inches deep in bathroom. Spilling into the rest of the room. Squishing noises accompanied each step.

“What did you do?” Sundberg said.

Cook had neglected to unplug the drain.

That Cook was even there, in the middle of the soaked hotel room was remarkable. Ask Ben Shultz, Cook’s football coach at Cibola High School in Albuquerque, N.M., if he ever believed Cook would become an NFL starter.

“No, no,” the coach said.

For clarity, Shultz added a third, “No.”

What popped into Shultz’s mind was the giant ball of athletic training tape he caught the good-natured Cook fiddling with in the school’s locker room, not an unusual occurrence.

“He used to make me pull my hair out,” Shultz said. “I remember getting in his face a couple times going, ‘Erik, why are you wasting all this ability? It’s not that you’re not working hard, but, my gosh, you’ve got to be a leader sometime.’ “

A wistful look crossed Cook’s face when he remembered the ball of tape.

“I was definitely the problem child in high school,” Cook said.

At first, he comes across as soft-spoken. Don’t believe it. Cook is the sort of person who was the first to seek out and welcome practice squad guard Eric Olsen, who occupies the adjacent locker at Redskins Park, to the team in September. Though Cook’s jokes have slowed after he started the past two games, he brings levity to team meetings.

“He’s kind of shy until you get to know him,” said his father, Rick Cook. “Then he’s a comedian. Then he’s always rappin’, clappin’ and finger snappin’.”

Cook’s brother, Ryan, converted him from soccer to football 16 years ago. Ryan Cook, now a backup tackle with the Miami Dolphins in his sixth year in the NFL, played for Shultz before walking on at the University of New Mexico and starting four years. Cook calls his brother a “role model” and “inspiration,” the one who made him believe he could play in college and, one day, make the NFL.

When Cook started high school, his father asked him why he didn’t want to continue a burgeoning career playing the trumpet. Never mind Cook’s gifted ear for music; he wanted to be on the field with a helmet and shoulder pads, not marching around with the school’s band.

Cook followed his brother to the University of New Mexico, snagged a scholarship and, after 6 a.m. tough love sessions with hard-nosed coach Rocky Long, transformed into a lineman so versatile he once played four of the line’s five positions in the same game.

He wasn’t the player oozing potential and inexperience Shultz first encountered at Cibola High School.

“I can say this because it’s true: They were little butterballs as freshmen,” Shultz said. “When they left high school … they just kept growing.”

That’s led to an unusual problem. Cook stands 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, brontosaurus-like by NFL center standards.

After spending his rookie season on the practice squad, the former seventh-round pick started this year as the backup at both guard positions in addition to center. But he feels at home in the middle.

The height concerns followed Cook through college. They aren’t new. He tries to stay low and powerful, to avoid defensive linemen getting under him. And he uses unusual athleticism — like the ability to (barely) dunk a basketball — to cope with the challenge of using his hands after snapping the ball.

Regardless, Rick Cook and Vicki, his wife of 35 years, will don their “Cook” jerseys Sunday — one Dolphins and one Redskins — and ballcaps, as always. In their Albuquerque home, they have tapes of every football game their sons have played since high school.

“I never really see the football game,” Rick Cook said. “I just watch my son.”

Vicki Cook, on the other hand, knows each player by name and number and position. After each play, her husband always asks what happened.

“We wanted the kids to be something,” Rick Cook said. “It kind of turned out good.”

Cook’s role for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers remains in flux, along with the rest of the offensive line. Coach Mike Shanahan left open the possibility of reshuffling the line after it surrendered 10 sacks to the Buffalo Bills. A day after the game, the bright lights of television cameras made Cook squint as he talked about the miserable feeling of helping quarterback John Beck up from the ground play after play.

After the questions ended and the lights clicked off, one of the television men patted Cook on the back.

“Good job,” he said.

At Cibola High School, Shultz hopes for a Cook jersey to hang in the school’s trophy case. The pride, like a father for his son, thickens Shultz’s voice and slows his words. And he allows an occasional boast to escape his lips.

“I coached that boy once,” Shultz said.

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