The golden Southern California sun gleamed off the small, blonde-haired toddler as he strode into the backyard, dragging a baseball bat behind him. As his family gathered around for his first swing, someone placed a ball on the tee and his mother inched closer, camera in hand, ready to capture the moment. He awkwardly cocked his arms back and swung with all the might a two-year-old can muster.
A loud ding off the tee was immediately followed by a thud on his mother’s chest. An innocent picture of her little boy’s first swing was replaced by the still image of stunned faces.
Case Cookus didn’t pick up a football until middle school, but much like his first swing of a bat, hitting people in the chest comes naturally for Northern Arizona University’s award-winning quarterback.
After winning national freshman of the year honors in 2015, Cookus saw his sophomore season last year cut short by a shoulder injury. Adversity, though, has proven to be the biggest motivator for Cookus, who didn’t receive a Division I offer coming out of high school.
Cookus played wide receiver as a junior at Thousand Oaks (Calif.) High School before moving to quarterback his senior season. Despite passing for 27 touchdowns with just two interceptions, Division I recruiters opted to pass on the inexperienced signal-caller.
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“It obviously upset me (not getting any Division I offers),” said Cookus, who also played baseball and basketball through high school. “The thing that hurt me was that I was a senior and teams already had their quarterbacks when they were juniors, and it’s just something where I look back and say no one wanted me.”
Instead, he ventured to Ventura College, just a sandy skip north of Malibu. Slowed by a shoulder injury, Cookus never played a down of junior-college football. He continued to hone his skills and send his film to D-I programs.
NAU wide receivers coach Aaron Pflugrad took notice and decided to visit Ventura.
“He was as impressive as I’ve ever seen from a quarterback,” said Pflugrad, a receiver at Arizona State in 2010-11. “Just throwing darts all over the field, something where our receivers are going, ‘Who’s that guy? We’ve got to get him here.’ He just put on a show.”
With his Division I aspirations nearing reality, Cookus visited Flagstaff with some reservations.
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“When I came up here, I really wasn’t expecting anything,” Cookus said. “But when I got here, I loved it, and I told myself that if they give me an offer, then I’m going to take it.”
The transition did have its own obstacles, however: a new team, different environment, unfamiliar faces. Additionally, he hadn’t played a down of competitive football in over a year.
Despite his introverted and often unspoken nature, Cookus’ quiet confidence and outspoken ability quickly earned him respect in the Lumberjacks’ camp.
“He’s got that charismatic charm that people follow,” said Jason Brown, his high school offensive coordinator. “Everyone is looking at him and his demeanor reflects onto the team.”
Added NAU head coach Jerome Souers: “I think as a freshman he was a little hesitant (as a leader). He took on more and through his leadership and inserting his competitiveness into his teammates, he makes our offense a better unit and can make our whole team better.”
Souers and the coaching staff thought so highly of Cookus that they anointed him as the first true freshman to start an opener for NAU since Jason Murrietta in 2003.
He responded by throwing a 57-yard touchdown to his soon-to-be favorite target, Emmanuel Butler, on the opening drive and finished with 267 yards, three touchdowns, no turnovers and, most important, a win on the road at Stephen F. Austin.
This trend of dismantling defenses would not only continue, but soon became expected.
The freshman standout threw 37 touchdowns — most in the Football Championship Subdivision division — and tallied 3,111 passing yards and just five interceptions, numbers that earned him the Jerry Rice Trophy, awarded to the most outstanding FCS freshman.
“As soon as I got the chance to throw with Case, I knew he would be a great football player,” Butler said. “I truly believe we’ve got the best quarterback in the nation, bar none.”
FCS pundits agreed, and for the first time in school history NAU was projected to win the Big Sky Conference going into the 2016 season.
Instead, just four weeks into his sophomore year, Cookus landed on the same right shoulder that hindered him back at Ventura, ending his season and NAU’s conference title hopes in one crushing blow.
Once again, Cookus faced another hurdle, but according to his father, Steve, those hurdles have served as springboards throughout Case’s entire career.
“If it wasn’t for his ‘setbacks’ he wouldn’t be where he is today,” Steve Cookus said. “He’s had to overcome a lot, but in a way he is very fortunate.”
After undergoing two surgeries this offseason — one for his shoulder and the other to remove his tonsils — Cookus is back leading the offense in spring practice. He looks as sharp as ever and is settling into a new offensive playbook with first-year offensive coordinator Brian Sheppard.
For Cookus, however, the comeback is not about him, but his team.
“It’s all about working toward a bigger goal than my own achievements,” he said. “It’s all for NAU, and the team.”
NAU football spring game
When: 2 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Walkup Skydome, Flagstaff.