Before Kenyon Martin’s leg snapped in Memphis, before Ken Griffey Jr. was hobbled running around third in a spring training game and before Carson Palmer met Kimo von Oelhoffen, the injury that led to a million “what ifs” in Cincinnati was Greg Cook’s golden right shoulder.
Cook, the former Bengal and Bearcat quarterback, died last week at the age of 65.
Drafted fifth overall in the 1969 draft — a spot after the Steelers’ “Mean” Joe Greene, Cook was to be the Bengals’ franchise player. A University of Cincinnati product, playing the same stadium that made him a star, Cook was a set to be a star.
“He was a talent at the level of Otto Graham, John Elway — you name it,” Bengals owner Mike Brown said by phone on Jan. 30. “He was a top-level talent. If he had stayed healthy we would have been the team of the ’70s, not the Steelers.”
That’s not hyperbole — legendary coach Bill Walsh repeatedly said Cook was the most talented quarterback he’d ever coached. Walsh, an assistant with the Bengals for the franchise’s first eight seasons, later coached Joe Montana and Steve Young. Neither of whom, he said in multiple interviews before his death in 2007, could hold a candle to Cook. Cook had the release and vision of Montana, with the athleticism of Young, plus another two inches on either and an arm that was much stronger than either Hall of Famer’s.
A rookie in 1969, he led the Bengals, who had won just three games in their first season a year earlier, to a 2-0 start before facing the powerhouse Chiefs in the third game of the season. The Chiefs had won the AFL West the year before and would go on to win the Super Bowl, but with Cook on the team, the Bengals were confident. They were a different team, said center Bob Johnson, who played for the Bengals from 1968-1979 and was the team’s first-round draft pick their inaugural year. The players followed their leader, Johnson said, care free, confident and talented.
Cook gave them a 7-6 lead in first quarter with a 17-yard pass to Eric Crabtree. But a short time later, his life, his career and a franchise would be changed forever. Bobby Bell, who, like Cook, was an athletic specimen before his time, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound linebacker with the speed of a running back, hit Cook on a pass, driving the golden right shoulder into the ground.
Backup quarterback Sam Wyche went on to lead the team to victory over the Chiefs that day and Cook was back two weeks later before missing two more weeks because of the injury, only to lead the Bengals to a victory over the Raiders. He finished the season as the AFL Rookie of the Year, but the team didn’t win any other games after the first three and the win over Oakland. And Cook wasn’t the same.
He tried to come back every year, but played in just one more game — in 1973.
“It never was the same,” Johnson said. “I don’t understand shoulders. He lost his touch — he was still strong, he just didn’t throw it the same.”
While the exact nature of his shoulder injury has been debated over the years, one thing is for sure — sports medicine has made leaps and bounds since the early ’70s. “If he got injured today, he’d be playing the next year,” Brown said.
Cook stayed in Cincinnati the rest of his life, spending time as an artist, a businessman, but never anything too long. He was a walking “what if.”
If he hadn’t gotten hurt, not only would the Steelers dynasty have been derailed, but possibly also the 49ers dynasty that deprived the Bengals of two Super Bowls. It was because of Cook’s injury that Walsh developed the so-called West Coast Offense (which could easily be called the Cincinnati Offense), to use the talents of Cook’s replacement, Virgil Carter, who had the accuracy, smarts and savvy of Cook, but not his rifle arm. If he hadn’t been hurt, he’d have been immortalized in Canton, as well as Cincinnati.
The one person who never, publicly at least, asked “what if” was Cook himself.
Brown, who stayed in touch with Cook the rest of his life, said Cook never asked the question: “Far from it, he never complained about anything. Just the reverse.”
Said Johnson: “Even after that, even after he fell on hard times intermittently, he was happy as can be. I never saw the guy down. Maybe part of that was an act. He was fun to be around, any part of his life.”
It all came easy to Cook, Johnson said: from kidding his coach, to picking up women, to painting — and especially football. And it was taken just as easily.
“He gave us hope — we went from the expansion team to a team that could beat anybody,” Brown said. “Then you had the story of recovery, getting better and not getting better. He was prominent in the news for four or five years and then it faded it away, and the myth never faded away. People still had him in their minds. He was the prince who never became king.”