MSU’s Cook divides loyalties in home state of Ohio
Hinckley Township, Ohio — This rural enclave in northeast Ohio is known for a spring festival celebrating the return of buzzards from their sojourn south during the winter.
But this story isn’t about the return of birds of prey. It’s about the departure of one — Connor Cook.
Yes, that Connor Cook.
You may not know the quarterback of Michigan State hails from a state whose namesake university is viewed by some Michiganians as the evil empire.
If you’re surprised, imagine how Ohio feels.
In the past three years, MSU has not once but twice knocked Ohio State University out of contention for the national college football championship.
For some Ohio residents, the fact that Cook is a local boy made the losses a little easier to bear. For others, it made it worse.
To them, he is a traitor, a turncoat, a no-count, a Brutus sans the Buckeye.
The disgruntled even include students at his old high school, Walsh Jesuit in the Akron suburb of Cuyahoga Falls.
“We hate them, either Michigan or Michigan State,” said Jon Smykowski, 16, a junior at the private Catholic school.
He said MSU happened to catch Ohio State on a bad day last month when the Spartans won 17-14. He also opined that his beloved Buckeyes are better than all four teams in the College Football Playoff, which, we hasten to add, includes Michigan State.
As for Cook, aka The One Who Got Away, he comes from an athletic family.
His dad played football for Indiana University, mom played basketball for the University of Cincinnati and older sister Jackie played hoops for Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
Cook, a 22-year-old senior, has been the Spartan’s starting quarterback for three years and has helped the team win its last three bowl games.
But long before he was a Rose Bowl MVP, two-time Big Ten champion and winningest quarterback in MSU history, Cook was just a big, goofy kid, said friends.
In high school, he was forever chattering, cracking wise, they said. A smile never left his face, making him look like he had just gotten away with something.
Before his last high school game in 2010, on a lumpy, balding football field in Toledo, a coach asked how he was doing.
“Well, nice field,” quipped the QB.
Cook was always upbeat and had energy to burn, gamboling all over the field even before practice started, said his coaches.
But success in college was far from a sure thing.
Few major colleges wanted him.
The ones who sent recruiting letters didn’t bother to learn how to spell his name, which they thought was “Conner.”
Ohio State didn’t mail a letter at all. He said it didn’t bother him.
“I wasn’t an Ohio State fan, so coming here wasn’t anything super crazy,” he said this week. “I wanted to be in Michigan.”
If you looked closer at Cook, something was there, said Gerry Rardin, his coach at Walsh Jesuit.
He was smart and focused, said Rardin. He also was resilient, bouncing right back from a mistake.
“He didn’t let anything bother him,” said Rardin, who stepped down last year after coaching the team for 35 years.
Even as a youngster, Cook never wanted for confidence, his parents said. Whether snowboarding or rollerblading, he believed in his ability.
The place he was most confident of all was a football field, said his mom, Donna.
“He’s always been very comfortable with himself,” she said.
MSU saw the same thing Rardin and Cook’s parents did, and offered him a scholarship.
So, while most of his friends went to Ohio State, he didn’t follow them.
It was goodbye, Columbus, hello, East Lansing.
Burning scarlet, gray
To understand how Ohio feels about Cook, one needs to know how the state views college football.
Ohio burns scarlet and gray, Ohio State’s colors.
During football season, few events are held on Saturday afternoons. That’s because everyone is watching the Buckeyes.
That’s not just in Columbus, where the school is located, but across the state.
In Hinckley Township, a rural patch between Cleveland and Akron where Cook grew up, scarlet fever runs deep.
Kristyn Kolozvary, a cashier at Greensmith Garden Center, doesn’t follow college football but even she knows how Ohio and Michigan feel about each other on the gridiron.
“People get pretty upset when they lose,” she said about Ohio State.
The nursery offers several Ohio State-related items in its shop: ornaments, a steel football and a lawn statue of Brutus Buckeye, the school mascot.
The rivalry between the two states’ football teams is so severe that some Michiganians are convinced the Ohio State Highway Patrol has it in for them, ticketing them just because of their origin.
While that might be farfetched, it’s fair to say the more rabid Buckeye fans have little use for anything Michigan.
Their distaste is non-discriminating. They don’t like Michigan residents of any stripe — blue or green.
‘He’s a local guy’
Not everyone in Ohio hates Cook.
Sure, one of his parents’ neighbors tries to get under their skin by flying an Ohio State flag outside his home.
And there’s the guy who sent an Instagram photo of a bikini-clad Jackie to a sports website.
But it wasn’t clear whether the sender was trying to embarrass the quarterback or just liked the photo.
And Cook didn’t do himself any favors with Buckeye fans when he seemed to snub Archie Griffin earlier this month when he was awarded the MVP trophy after the Big Ten championship game.
Griffin, a Buckeye running back who won the Heisman twice in the 1970s, is like a secular saint in Ohio.
Cook later explained he got caught up in the moment, and didn’t mean to ignore Griffin as he snatched the trophy from his hand.
Despite all that, some of the local gentry said they were tickled by their proximity to Cook.
“They’re a Big Ten team and he’s a local guy,” Mike Vilimonovic, 43, said while waiting for a monster burger at Foster’s Tavern in Hinckley Township.
A few doors down in the block-long shopping district, insurance agent Mark Shick described his light despair when Michigan State beat Ohio State on Nov. 21.
“I’m sick. I can’t stand it,” he said.
He said he can’t even mention the name of the state where Cook now resides.
But Shick was just kidding about the last part.
He said he’s actually happy for Cook, and will be rooting for him in the playoffs.