Colts 1st round draft pick Malik Hooker talks about getting call from Colts. (Matt Kryger/TheStar)
Malik Hooker was in the eighth grade when he decided he was never playing football again. He was a hooper, a do-it-all wing who could jump out of the gym, so explosive he’d land on “SportsCenter” for a dunk that got Kobe Bryant’s attention.
The dream? The dream was always the NBA.
Hooker had broken his collarbone playing football when he was 14, and he’d had enough, walking away, vowing to never return. Basketball was life. Football was over with.
Thing was: John Cox, Malik’s uncle, wasn’t buying. He’d coached Malik in Pop Warner, in AAU basketball, in youth baseball. He saw something his nephew never did, certainly not back then: Malik was playing the wrong sport. So he kept on him, year after year, begging him to give football another shot.
“Give me one year,” he asked Malik when he was a high school freshman.
Malik said no.
“Give me one year,” he asked Malik when he was a sophomore.
Malik said no.
Fine, Uncle John said. “Give me one year,” he told Malik when he was a junior, “and at the end of the season, if you don’t like it, I won’t bother you as a senior.”
Malik obliged. Everything changed.
MORE ON MALIK HOOKER:
True to his word, Uncle John went up to his nephew at the end of that football season, after Hooker’s New Castle, Pa., team had fallen in the first game of the state tournament, and asked him if he was done with football once and for all.
“I’m not done,” Malik snapped back. “I’ve got unfinished business.”
From there, a blur: a breakout senior season, The Game That Changed Everything, interest from Pitt … interest from Penn State … interest from Ohio State?!? …. three years in Columbus, 13 starts, seven interceptions, All-American honors, the coaches darn near ordering him to go pro early, his phone buzzing Thursday night, the 317 area code popping up and shivers running down Malik Hooker’s back.
From basketball star to first-round NFL draft pick in 43 months.
“I was just in the clouds, honestly,” the former Buckeyes safety said of the call Thursday night that made him an Indianapolis Colt. “Next thing you know, I’m flying on the jet, meeting the coaching staff.”
It’s all happened so fast. The switch. The decision. The rise. The draft. The call.
“Unreal,” a proud Uncle John said from the back of the room Friday afternoon. The kid he’d begged to give football one last chance had just aced his first news conference at Colts headquarters. Now comes the real work. Now come the expectations.
The turning point came in Malik’s senior year of high school, after he’d settled in at safety. His New Castle team was facing Central Valley, an area squad that boasted the state’s top-ranked wide receiver, Alabama signee Robert Foster. Hooker shadowed him all night. Shut him down, too.
“Completely – I mean completely – shut him down,” Uncle John remembers. “That game put him on the map.”
Word spread. Who was this basketball player who had erased Robert Foster? Pitt reached out. Penn State called. Virginia Tech. Michigan. Ohio State showed up for one of Malik’s basketball games, and, really, that was when it hit him. His hooping days were done. He was too good a football player to walk away again.
From there, everything shifted. One standout game and Hooker’s NBA dreams faded. Suddenly, he was shooting for the NFL.
“When I started getting offers from Ohio State and stuff like that, I just about threw basketball out the window,” Hooker remembers.
But Columbus wasn’t a cakewalk. Not at first. Hooker, a self-described “momma’s boy,” grew intensely homesick his freshman year, returning to western Pennsylvania nearly every weekend. More than once, when it was time to head back to school, Angela Dennis had to go looking for her son. He’d left the house.
She’d often find him standing on a bridge in town, gazing out at the water. This wasn’t the time for deep thought, she decided. This was the time for tough love. Her boy wasn’t going to quit something he’d started.
She’d pull up right next to him and shout, “Get in this car!”
Malik listened. He got in the car. Went back to campus.
“That was hard, because when your kid is struggling, as a mother you want to reach out and help them,” Angela said Friday. “But I knew if I did that I would cause him a lot of suffering. I know that if he stuck it out, he would eventually make it here.”
There were times Angela couldn’t answer her son’s calls, because she knew she couldn’t keep coddling him. Eventually he’d have to figure it out himself. Eventually he’d have to grow up.
“It was rough for me at first,” Hooker remembers.
MORE MALIK HOOKER:
But as time wore on, and he grew more comfortable with the coaching staff, Hooker became a player, then became a star. He was taking a crash course in football, playing catch-up with all the teammates who’d played their whole lives. The game started to slow. He came into his own.
All that untapped football potential, camouflaged inside a basketball player’s body? Hooker found it. Unleashed it. He went from a redshirt to a reserve to an All-American in three seasons. Not bad.
After last season’s College Football Playoff loss to Clemson, the Ohio State coaches all but made the decision for him. “As bad as we want to keep you,” they told Hooker, “this is a no-brainer.”
Hooker was the 15th player chosen in the draft Thursday night, a safety in the mold of Ed Reed who has only scratched his surface. At his best, he plays the deep safety spot like a center fielder armed with the vision of a point guard. All those years on the basketball court, paying off.
But he’s only 21 years old. He’s only been playing football for five years. He’s going to need some seasoning at the professional level.
His ascension has come swiftly, improbably.
In so many ways, Hooker’s story is just beginning. Good thing he gave Uncle John that one year of football – he’s got a lot left.
Call IndyStar reporter Zak Keefer at (317) 444-6134. Follow him on Twitter: @zkeefer.