When Gardner-Webb's Kenny Cook was in high school, becoming one of the top receivers in the NCAA's Football Championship Subdivision one day wasn't something he thought about too much.
For one thing, Cook was in a run-oriented wishbone offense at Clinton High School in South Carolina and he likely was a better prospect as a defensive back. Then there was the summer morning before his sophomore year that he woke up with an uncomfortable swelling in his neck.
"My parents took me to the hospital," said Cook. "They ran a bunch of tests and scans on me."
Cook was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a disease that originates from the white blood cells. It also is one of the more treatable forms of cancer. So, while Cook was forced to miss his sophomore year of football, he was back on the field eight months later.
The disease is in remission now, but Cook returns to the doctor for annual tests. If this year's test is clear, he won't have to return for five years.
"It was tough, but I just never gave up," he said. "I had my family and friends there to help. But it really [stunk], standing on the sidelines and not being to help my teammates out."
Fast forward six years to Boiling Springs, North Carolina where Cook returns for his senior year at Gardner-Webb. He's coming off a season in which he caught 76 passes for 1,008 yards and nine touchdowns, leading the Big South in all three categories. And Cook was clutch: 92 percent of the 25 passes he caught on third down went for first downs or touchdowns."He's really worked to develop himself," head coach Carroll McCray said. "He hasn't always been that way. But most of the good ones developed what they have. He's one of those guys. He considers himself a work in progress."
Cook wasn't much of a receiver prospect coming out of Clinton. Although he caught 29 passes as a senior, he also was finishing up a career in which he intercepted 17 passes as a defensive back. It wasn't until Cook spent one season at Garden City Junior College in Kansas that he began to blossom as a receiver. That's what caught the eyes of the Gardner-Webb coaching staff.
"I was able to really hone my craft in Kansas," said Cook. "I'm pretty good with the learning curve."
He caught 48 passes for 666 yards and seven touchdowns as a sophomore, setting himself up for his big junior season, during which he clicked with quarterback Lucas Beatty (2,497 yards, 12 touchdowns).
Now, he has made some preseason all-America teams and is on the watch list of the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top offensive player in FCS. Cook's size (6-foot-4, 218 pounds), wing span (6-9), hands (10.2 inches) and speed (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash) also give him a legitimate shot at the NFL, if not in the draft then at least with a training camp invitation.
"I think a lot of [NFL] people will look at him," said McCray. "He already has [been looked at] by some, who have been by to watch him run around a little bit. But he's got to perform well this year. But that's a good goal for him."
Said Cook: "All that's exciting, but I'm concentrating on winning the Big South this season. [The NFL] isn't possible if I don't have a good season and winning goes with that. But I hope to have a chance at that level."