James Cook was following the path of his famous older brother Dalvin to a tee: same position (running back), same high school (Miami Central) and, for a while at least, the same college (Florida State).
It wasn’t easy. Expectations were unfair. Having the same last name as the 2013 “Mr. Florida Football” and Florida State’s all-time rushing leader had its drawbacks.
“High school was a little difficult,” James Cook’s mother, Varondria Burnett, told The Post in a phone interview. “James tried to live up to that hype and a lot of people comparing them to each other.”
In July 2017, James made a change. A five-star recruit, he decommitted from Florida State and later flipped to Georgia, avoiding the comparisons that would’ve no doubt landed on his shoulders.
“I think it was the best thing for him to kind of branch out from my name, to just be him,” said Dalvin Cook, the Vikings’ three-time Pro Bowl running back. “There was going to be a standard that they kind of held him to. … I didn’t want that for him. I wanted him to do his own thing and create his own legacy; just be James.”
The decision has worked out well for James. He has enjoyed a strong career at Georgia, carving out his own niche after patiently waiting for his opportunity. On Monday night, he will play against Alabama in the national championship game, a cap to a memorable final season.
The 5-foot-11 halfback set career-highs in rushing yards (651), receiving yards (269) and touchdowns (11), improving his NFL draft stock. In the biggest game of his life up to this point — the College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan last Friday — he excelled, catching four passes for 112 yards and a score while also rushing for 32 yards. Now comes an even bigger game, a chance to help the Bulldogs win their first national title since 1980.
Ultimately, that is why James returned to school for one last season. Around this time last year, he was on the fence. His father, also named James, had died and he was in mourning back home in Florida while Georgia defeated Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl. The Bulldogs’ running backs coach, Dell McGee, wore Cook’s No. 4 jersey to honor him. Teammates and coaches sent flowers to the Cook home and flooded his phone with encouragement.
“I was literally in tears when I saw it,” Burnett said.
Added James: “Everyone around here just made me feel special.”
It was then he realized he couldn’t say goodbye to Athens quite yet. Dalvin was in his ear, emphasizing the need for him to gain more experience before joining him in the NFL. The next level, his mom told him, wasn’t going anywhere. There was more for him to accomplish in college. His No. 1 goal was getting Georgia back to the sport’s biggest stage.
“It’s so crazy,” Burnett said. “We said it, ‘We’re coming back to play for a national title.’ He’s so happy right now. I’ve never seen him smile so much in my life.”
Dalvin saw a change in his brother when their father died at the age of 46 due to complications from diabetes. James, who was usually very guarded, let his emotions out. They leaned on each other. James hit another gear this year. Dalvin saw it as him playing for their father, working harder than he ever had before.
“I think he knows we’re playing for something bigger,” Dalvin said.
Dalvin was always a running back. He likes to say he was born to play the position. James was different. He initially played defense before being converted to running back shortly before high school. Following his brother’s career served as motivation. If Dalvin could make it, James thought, so could he.
“He’s got better hands than me,” Dalvin said.
Soon, the brothers will both be playing in the NFL. Maybe they could wind up on the same team one day.
For now, the family’s NFL dream can wait. Dalvin will be at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Monday to root for James. He never won a championship in his three years at Florida State. Little brother may finally be able to one-up big brother.
“I want him to have bragging rights. I want him to [do it] so bad,” Dalvin said. “That would be good for the Cook legacy.”