God-given talent, a formidable work ethic, and the gift of joy
Published 7:45 am Tuesday, July 11, 2023
By Sid Salter
Let’s get the football hero stuff – impressive as it is – out of the way.
Johnie Cooks lost three football games when he played for the Leland High School Cubs in the 1970s. At Mississippi State University, Cooks was an All-American, All-SEC linebacker who led the Bulldogs to what many consider the greatest victory in program history – a 6-3 win over then-No. 1-ranked Alabama and mighty Bear Bryant.
As a Bulldog four-year letterman, Cooks logged 373 tackles – 241 of which were unassisted. At 6’3” tall and 240 pounds with deceptive speed and uncanny balance, Cooks was like a guided missile headed for the football.
After four years at State, Cooks was the second player selected in the 1982 National Football League draft by the Baltimore Colts. He played for a decade in the NFL for the Colts, and the New York Giants, and ended his career with the Cleveland Browns.
He earned a Super Bowl XXV ring in 1991 in Tampa Stadium as the Giants outlasted the Buffalo Bills 20-19.
He was my friend and classmate at Mississippi State. As a sportswriter for The Starkville Daily News while a student, I also covered his junior season in 1980. For all the dread he inspired among opposing players, off the field Johnie was a kind, gentle and funny soul.
Johnie never met a stranger. He loved people and he loved needling and poking his friends. His outsized personality and his superhuman abilities between the lines made Johnie a fan favorite and a must-get interview with the sporting press.
What many of those reporters didn’t know was that Johnie Cooks was among the last generation of Mississippians to experience life on large commercial farms. In an earlier era, they were called plantations.
The Cooks family lived and worked at Palasini Farms off Bamboo Road in the Long Switch community northeast of Leland in rural Washington County. The Palasini family – patriarch Ellis Palasini and later his sons, Duke, and Mike – owned and worked a successful 4,000-acre cotton farm. The work was hard, the hours long, and the duties tedious.
Johnie was a late bloomer to organized football and never played until he was headed into the ninth grade. When he told his mother he needed five dollars to pay for his physical exam to play, she had to borrow it from “her bossman” – which was exactly the term Johnie used in recounting the story.
One might extrapolate from Johnie’s life story that he excelled at State and in the NFL to escape an impoverished childhood on a Mississippi Delta cotton farm – never to return. But that’s not how the story turned out.
In 1982, the average NFL player’s salary was $160,000. The highest-paid player in the league that year was Archie Manning at $600,000. So, what did Johnie do after he was drafted?
“I bought my momma and daddy a house,” Johnie said, with that mega-watt smile across his face. “I felt like our family had made it and I wanted to make them happy.” The sixth of nine children, the impact of his NFL success was life-altering.
He loved MSU. “They saw something in me and believed in me. Mississippi State changed my life and changed my family’s life,” he said. “I love this place and these people.”
Ellis Palasini died in 2017. His grandson, Blake Palasini, is a Farm Bureau insurance agent in Washington County. He said his grandfather, his father, and his uncle, were all proud of Johnie.
“Johnie came back to our farm often to visit with our family and spend time where he grew up,” said Blake. “My grandfather appreciated his relationship with Johnie and his family. He loved Johnie and took pride in where his work ethic took him.”
Johnie Cooks was gifted in so many ways. But his greatest gift was the gift of joy that he shared with everyone he met – and he shared that joy for a productive lifetime. Turned out, the biggest muscle Johnie had was his immense heart.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.