Cook overcomes family struggles for NFL opportunity

By Joe Scalzo |

This is an Easter story, and like the first one, it begins with pain.

It begins with a 28-year-old single mother named Michelle Cook, an only child who grew up in a two-parent home and went to a private high school, but who spent more than a decade battling drug and alcohol addiction.

It begins with a 3 1/2-year-old future NFL player named Jamaine, an undersized, over-motivated running back who never ran away from anything, except his past.

And it begins with Michelle hosting a house party one night at her home on Cleveland’s East Side, a night Jamaine doesn’t remember and Michelle wishes she could forget.

It’s 1995, two years after Children and Family Services first knocked on Michelle’s door and convinced her to start attending Alcoholic’s Anonymous but several years before she admitted she had a problem. The party featured drugs, alcohol and a cast of unsavory characters, including one who slipped her two boys some crack cocaine.

Michelle — in a moment of clarity — noticed Jamaine was acting funny. Wired. Irrational. As the party broke up, she scoured the house for cab money and took Jamaine and his younger brother, Javon, to the hospital, where they both tested positive on a toxicology screen.

Someone at the hospital calls the police, who ask Michelle the same question 15 different ways: Did you give them the drugs?

No, she said. Of course not.

So the police ask Jamaine: Who gave you something to eat? He tells them.

“I just remember they had Jamaine in an enclosure,” Michelle said. “It reminded me of a cage. It was a big old crib and it had bars. He was able to communicate what happened, which was consistent with my story, but that’s the point they were taken away from me.”

Michelle avoided jail, but the boys spent the next three years in foster care. Michelle was allowed to visit twice a month.

Rather than serve as a wake-up call, it only plunged her deeper into drugs.

“At that point, I was on a suicide mission,” she said. “I could not cope with the fact that the only thing I loved was taken from me.”

Over the next 15 years, Jamaine grew up in three other houses, went to seven different schools and lived off government assistance with four half sisters and two half brothers.

But when he arrived at Youngstown State in 2009 after graduating from Midpark, a suburban high school located in the mostly white city of Berea, his teammates said, “Jamaine, you probably had the best life. You probably always had a silver spoon in your mouth.”

And he just smiled and say, “You’re right.”

This is an Easter story, and like the first one, it’s connected to Christmas.

After Michelle returned from the hospital, her oldest daughter, Jasmine, went to live with her father, while Jamaine and Javon went to foster care. The first home was fine. The second wasn’t. One year, just before Christmas, Jamaine’s foster mother took him and his brother to Sears to buy her own children some new shoes.

When Jamaine saw them, he said “Oh, I want some shoes.”

Her response? “Tell your mother to get you some.”

In 1996, while still battling the courts and her addiction, Michelle became pregnant with twin daughters. For the first trimester, she stayed clean. She relapsed in the second trimester and, when Jamika and Janika tested positive for cocaine, the government took them away.

They were five days old.

Children and family services moved to permanently place her kids in different homes — “They didn’t see no hope in me,” she said — and Michelle tried (and failed) to get clean. After two years of failure, she finally realized: If she was going to do it, she couldn’t do it for her kids. She had to do it for herself.

“I got to a place in my life where I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” she said. “I wanted a better life for myself. I was going through so many court proceedings that it got to the point that I didn’t want to fight anymore. I just wanted to stay sober.”

That was Jan. 20, 1998. She’s been clean since.

Jamaine and Javon returned home in 1997, soon after Michelle got married. (She divorced a year later.) The twins came home a year later. With his mother still struggling, Jamaine turned to school as an escape from the chaos. It was an oasis, even on snow days, when he would walk to nearby Watterson-Lake Elementary to check the locks because he refused to believe school was closed.

A year later, Jamaine started playing flag football at a Cleveland recreation center called the Michael J. Zone. Something clicked. Sports became an outlet for his frustration and his anger.

“That’s where he found his connection,” Michelle said. “Even though I was sober, I still had issues to work through. I still brought in characters that he could not identify and relate to. It kind of shaped our relationship, where he was the leader in our home because he was forced to be.

“He just kind of found his niche outside the house.”

When Jamaine was in third grade, the Cooks moved to Tremont, a neighborhood south of Cleveland’s downtown that had yet to begin its renaissance. His mom started taking him to church. He found another outlet.

Michelle was clean by then, but Jamaine still had to go with her to AA meetings. His family was still poor. He wore the same clothes to school. He recalls spending Christmas morning in his basement, crying and asking God why he didn’t get anything. Once, when he got back from Christmas break, his teacher asked everyone to talk about what they got for Christmas. Rather than tell the truth — nothing — Jamaine lied.

“Things like that hurt, but at the same time, I never forgot them,” he said. “They gave me that passion, that drive beyond football to life in general.”

Jamaine spent the next two years at two different Catholic schools. Then, just before seventh grade, his family moved to Berea.

It changed his life.

“When it first happened, I hated the decision,” Jamaine said. “But honestly, it was probably the biggest blessing ever. I got to see things from a different light. I wasn’t seeing the inner city anymore. I was seeing people with money.”

The Cooks were still in Section 8 housing, but his friends weren’t. He was exposed to healthy families with nice houses and summer cottages and jet skis.

Ashamed, he did his best to hide the worst of his background, but he couldn’t hide his poverty.

“One of my friends in high school cracked a joke, saying, ‘Jamaine’s mom buys one present for Christmas and puts everyone’s name it,” he said. “I’ll never forget that.”

This is an Easter story, and like the first one, it features a Thomas.

Only this one is a believing Thomas.

In seventh grade, Jamaine started going to the Brook Park recreation center, where he met a supervisor named Tom Fowler, who would look the other way when Jamaine stayed past closing hours.

“A lot of times when young kids are at the rec that late, there’s a reason,” said Fowler, who, as luck would have it, was also Midpark High’s running backs coach. “One day we started talking and I said, ‘What kind of goals do you have for later in life?’ He said he was interested in playing football, so I asked him, ‘How are your grades?’ He said they were all right. I said, ‘With good grades, you can go to college for free.’ ”

A year later, Jamaine cornered Fowler and said, “I made the honor roll.” They started working out together and Fowler became a father figure.

“He’s an unbelievably hard worker, harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Fowler said. “I’ve worked with more talented people, but no one worked like he did. You could tell he was trying to find that way out.”

Jamaine played basketball and ran track, but at 5-foot-9 with a frame like a fire hydrant, football was clearly his future. He rushed for 1,000 yards as a junior and 1,500 as a senior. Not big enough or fast enough to attract FBS schools, he earned a scholarship in Jon Heacock’s final recruiting class at Youngstown State.

On Nov. 20, 2009, the night before YSU’s season finale at North Dakota State, Jamaine got a phone call from a number in Jamaica. It was his father, Tony Dehaney, talking to his son for the first time.

“We started talking a little bit but at this point, I’m like, ‘I’m a man. You missed it,’ ” Jamaine said. “If my dad walked past me today, I wouldn’t know who he was.”

A month later, YSU hired Eric Wolford, whose first goal was to rid the program of what he considered a sense of entitlement. He wanted players willing to work. Jamaine stuck out immediately.

“He’s got tremendous determination, tremendous passion,” said Wolford, one of the few people who knows Jamaine’s story. “Football is an escape for these guys. When they’re with us, that’s four hours out of the day they can get away from some of the problems they have. A lot of times, they even get a chance to get some of these emotions off their chest.

“When you’re angry and upset, you get a chance to kind of release those things. It’s a good avenue for those guys coming up the hard way.”

Wolford’s first major recruit was a running back named Adaris Bellamy, a former South Florida recruit who told reporters he wanted to win the Walter Payton Award, given to the top offensive player in the FCS. Instead, he spent the next three years as Jamaine’s backup, watching his less-heralded teammate gain more than 4,000 yards and finish as the second-leading rusher in YSU history.

After going undrafted in April of 2013, Jamaine signed with the Cleveland Browns, got cut three times and still finished the season on the team’s practice squad.

“It’s only made me stronger,” he said. “It only made me work harder.”

That work wasn’t limited to the field. Jamaine is taking five classes at YSU this spring, splitting time between school and minicamp, and is just three classes away from earning his accounting degree, a rarity in sport filled with general studies majors.

“I know this degree will take me further than any sport could,” he said. “But football has taught me so much. It’s taught me things that my father would have taught me, like being on time, being respectful, being responsible. Football gave me all the tools and things I wasn’t learning at home.”

This is an Easter story, and like the first one, it ends in redemption.

Michelle’s sobriety coincided with her salvation. She earned her bachelor’s degree in social work in 2004. She’s now a licensed minister, traveling to prisons and shelters to share her testimony. She’s also a social worker, “working for the same government that took my kids,” she said, laughing.

“I’m doing social work because of the way I was treated by social workers,” she said. “I’m not ashamed of my past. I’m not going to let my past dictate my destiny. I’m a single mother of seven children and I’ve worked through all my isms and schisms. I like me today. I’m unapologetic about who I am today. I’m OK with sharing my testimony, because I’m free.”

She’s also a proud mother — those twin daughters who were taken away in 1996 are now set to graduate high school this spring — and a proud grandmother of three, including Jamaine’s daughter, Amelia Rose, who was born two years ago. Thanks to his $6,000-a-week practice squad salary, Jamaine was able to play Santa Claus this year, giving his family the Christmas he never had.

“I was able to get my brother an X-Box,” he said. “I was able to give my family things I never had. It was an awesome feeling and I didn’t want anything in return from anyone. Just fulfillment. It’s a healing process and now I’m at the point where I’m healing.”

Telling his story is part of that process.

“I don’t have to be ashamed; I don’t have to be embarrassed,” he said. “I look back at where I came from and the way my life has progressed and I’m like, ‘Wow!’ I want to give back. I’ve seen the worst of the worst and the best of the best and I feel like I can help anyone, not just inner-city kids. Because no matter who you are, no matter where you are, people are always going through things. People always need help.”

Jamaine’s right arm has a tattoo that reads “Humble and hungry.” His left arm has a tattoo of Proverbs 16:9: “The heart of a man plans his way but the Lord establishes his steps.”

His story may have begun in the depths, but with God’s help, it won’t end that way.

“God knows my heart and where I want to be, but yet he has given me the route he wanted me to take,” he said. “I could’ve had a way easier path, but he gave me the rough one.

“Now I’m beginning to see why.”

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