A photo of Dominique Cooks is tacked on a bulletin board alongside the bell schedule and academic advisor contacts in the Decatur High (Federal Way, Wash.) principal’s office.
Cooks, dressed in a navy No. 56 jersey, stands on the sideline attentive and unsmiling as he examines the field. The word “InDOMitable” appears in yellow across the top of the photo.
It was rare to see “Cookie” without a grin on his face. He was the life of the party, as Decatur principal David Brower described. One could typically spot Dominique high-fiving and chatting enthusiastically with students and staff in the halls at Decatur.
Brower feels inspired when he looks at the photo of Cooks from his sophomore football season. He credits Cooks for teaching him to embrace every day. “Dom reminds me of the greatness in the world,” Brower said.
His courageous fight had an impact nationwide, and Cooks is being recognized as part of the USA TODAY High School Sports and Army National Guard Most Inspirational Athlete contest, a search of student-athletes who inspire others to better themselves.
On April 15, the final day of the contest, Cooks passed away from an inoperable brain tumor.
The contest received more than 3 million votes, 214,260 cast for Cooks. He finished 11th after the semifinal round, but one finalist, Nicholas Hibbeler, was so moved by his story that he withdrew so Cooks could take his spot in the final round.
Hibbeler, a junior soccer player at Park Hill (Kansas City, Mo.), was diagnosed with testicular cancer last July. After six rounds of chemo, four surgeries and seven stomach drains, Hibbeler is cancer free. While the two didn’t know each other personally, Hibbeler said Cooks inspired him.
“I admired the way he looked at life. I can’t imagine how strong he must have been,” Hibbeler said.“His story broke my heart.
“I was honored to give up my spot for him. He deserved it more than I did.”
Cooks’ story also triggered semifinalist Luke Smorey, a senior at Baldwin High (Pittsburgh, Pa.), to encourage friends and students to vote for Cooks instead of him.
Brower was taken aback by the acts and delivered the news to Cooksas he lay in the hospital with pneumonia.
“The contest came at an important time for the school,” Brower said. “It was amazing to see Dom inspiring a community across the country.”
Decatur football coach Leon Hatch wasn’t surprised by Cooks’ influence. That’s how he always knew Cooks, even when he started on the junior varsity team as a 6-foot, 225-pound freshman.
Cooks’ quick feet, explosive power and strength earned him a spot on varsity by midseason. He started his entire sophomore season and took on a leadership role unprompted. He’d get on teammates for not showing up to practices or not working to their ability. For his approach and athletic ability, Cooks earned the respect of upperclassmen.
In February 2012, Cooks was diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable brain tumor. A month before the diagnosis, his grandmother, Faye Wade, noticed that he dragged his left leg on the way to the bus stop each morning. “He walked as though he had a stroke,” she described.
Cooks’ left fingertips to his upper arm progressively weakened, and he had difficulty holding things. Decatur basketball coach Collin Sawyer noticed one day during practice that Cooks was unable to hold a ball.
An MRI revealed a golf ball-sized tumor in the center of Cooks’ brain.
Hatch’s heart broke. “I thought, ‘This athletic kid, with his body and determination and right medical help, he could get through this.’ ”
Following the diagnosis, Cooks underwent six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. The tumor shrunk to the size of a small pebble, but it returned last June, and he started chemo treatments for three weeks.
The physical effect of the tumor was undeniable. As Cooks’ vision weakened, activities that used to seem easy, such as texting, became difficult. He relied on walking with a cane. Last fall he transitioned to using a wheelchair as his body continued to fail him.
“It was clear he was struggling, yet he never complained,” Brower said. “He was always laughing, making people smile and saying something positive.”
Brower recalled watching Cooks in his wheelchair greeting a shy freshman with his secret handshake. He found satisfaction in uplifting everyone.
While he couldn’t play football as a junior, Cooks attended practices and games, sometimes carrying a bible, and sat on the sidelines to show support for the team. He performed physical therapy at 6 a.m. alongside teammates as they lifted during the offseason.
“The only way you can really test character is through adversity,” Hatch said. “He faced the challenge. He understood the way he handled it could inspire others.”
Added senior wide receiver Jared Cooper, “I never knew if he was having a rough day. He was always happy. He didn’t want people to feel bad for him.”
At the beginning of his senior year, doctors informed Cooksthat he had approximately three to six months to live. One of Cooks’last wishes was to play football. So Decatur and Auburn Mountainview agreed to allow the former noseguard to score a ceremonial touchdown during Decatur’s homecoming game last season.
Away from the field, the student body designated Cooks as the school’s spirit ambassador. Throughout his senior year, he participated in daily announcements, ending each session with words of encouragement. Cooks even gave motivational talks at high schools in the district.
Knowing that Cooks would likely not live to June, a graduation for him and his twin sister, Diamond, was held inside Decatur’s gymnasium in February. Approximately 1,600 people from the school and community attended, including members of the local fire department and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin. As Cooks struggled to get out of his wheelchair, Baldwin assisted him up the steps so he could accept his diploma.
And just as Cooks joked with the crowd throughout the ceremony, he kept the same spirit while he lay in the hospital days before he passed away. Cooks had made peace with his fate.
“He told me he was excited to go to heaven and not have any bills or homework,” Brower said. “He understood what was happening to his body, but he stayed positive for the benefit of others.”
Hours before his passing, Brower held Cooks’ hand and said goodbye.
“You inspire us,” he said.