Dalvin Cook owes the Orange Bowl a thank-you card.
When Florida State's All-America tailback leads his team onto the Hard Rock Stadium field on Dec. 30 to face Michigan, he'll be carrying the hopes of 16,000 youth football players in South Florida.
Because they look at him and see themselves.The 17-year-old Orange Bowl Youth Football Alliance was created to give kids in the area a chance to funnel themselves into football. In those early years, Cook was right in the mix taking the field in the old Orange Bowl Stadium.
Though it was torn down in 2008 after the Miami Hurricanes moved out (the Dolphins had left in 1986), getting the chance to be a part of the Orange Bowl history is something Cook appreciates.
Which makes his return to his hometown -- where he dominated for Miami Central High School through 2013 -- especially poignant in what could be his final game.
"He'll make that (NFL) decision after the game once we gather all the information -- if he goes high enough, which he could be, we'll wait and see," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said at a bowl press conference last week. "It's great for him to get the experience. How many kids get recruited to a major university and come home to play a major bowl game in your hometown and your family and friends can share that? To play in the youth football league that the Orange Bowl sponsored.
"To me, that's what this is all about. Why did he get an opportunity? Because the Orange Bowl was here originally to set up a youth program. To get him out to the field, to get him to play. His talent came out there."
A little quicker than even Fisher may realize.
Cook began playing at five years old, but it didn't take long to realize he was in the wrong place. Always a tailback, he was outrunning defenders from the start and those who touched him, he slipped free.
"With my age group, I was doing things the older guys were doing, so I had to go up and play with the older guys," Cook told the Free Press at the College Football Awards in Atlanta. "I stayed at my age group when I was five but I had to skip to seven. It made no sense to play with my age group because it would make me no better. So I skipped ahead, got tougher and learned a little more."
It clearly paid off.
Maybe next year? pic.twitter.com/tCMruiTuzf— FSU Football (@FSU_Football) December 7, 2016
Cook was the nation's No. 13 overall prospect in the loaded 2014 class (U-M's Jabrill Peppers tied for No. 2) in the 247Sports Composite rankings.
He blew through the state of Florida as the top-ranked prospect and, living in Miami, there was major pressure to stay home and revitalize the 'Canes. But he took a different path and chose the Seminoles in late December 2013.
"You've got to make a business decision," Cook said. "You've got your friends from Miami that you grew up with and you want to go play with them, but it's something you've got to better yourself in. I wanted to see something different, go to a different environment, meet new people. That's what I did."
He committed a week before FSU won the BCS national championship, but when he visited the Seminoles in October 2013 it was something off the field that struck him.
"I came in the locker room after a practice and seen the type of brotherhood they had in the locker room and they treated all the freshmen like they were the upperclassmen and treated everybody the same," Cook said. "That's what tipped me off."
The environment has suited him well. As a freshman he rushed for 1,008 yards and was second-team All-ACC. As a sophomore, he set the program single-season rushing yardage record with 1,691 yards and added 19 touchdowns. This year, he's right there again with 1,620 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh put Cook right there with Penn State's Saquon Barkley as the best running backs Michigan has faced this year.
"He's a good back, he's fast, kind of reminds us of (Ohio State's) Curtis Samuel," U-M safety Dymonte Thomas said. "You can't let him get into space, got to close the space. He's a good athlete ... It's really going to test our defense and our run game. So I'm excited to see how well we do."
What makes Cook so talented, beyond his chiseled 5-foot-11, 213-pound frame, is that he knows what to do with the ball.
Florida State's offensive line is not considered dominant, but Cook is good enough to create when necessary.
"It's all off instinct, preparing and watching film," said Cook, who admires Jamaal Charles and is close with Miami Central and FSU predecessor Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons. "I watch film and go back and say coach told me to read this. But if I go back and hit this hole he won't be mad if I score a touchdown.
"It's all about going out there and being a dog. That's what I do sometimes, but I always go through my progressions of what the coach told me to do. But if I go off the track a little bit and get a first down or break a long run, he's still going to say good job. You've got to have that natural instinct on the field because if you don't, you'll just be a robot out there."
Cook planned to get home to Miami for a few days before his team arrived, and all he wanted was some of his grandmother's soul food cooking, the comfort of being back where he grew up.
Though this Orange Bowl game will be played 14 miles away from where he started on the former, original Orange Bowl field, the dream will still be there.
"It's definitely something that you grow up as a child dreaming about," Cook said. "Your college career, going out there and playing in the bowl game, in Miami your hometown, so it's something I definitely dreamed about. So you've got to seize the moment and take advantage of it."
This article is written by Mark Snyder from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.