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Trojan Fits Well in Big Picture

College football: A family that has taken in nearly 30 foster kids helps USC standout safety Cook excel in the shadows.

November 13, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

USC's Rashard Cook plays well with others. Can it be any wonder?

The Trojans' standout free safety grew up in a family that has taken in close to 30 foster children over the years.

Some needed a home only for a few days, others for longer, and one, 11-year-old Rosa, has been with the family seven years and counting.

What's a football team to contend with after all that?

When Cook steps onto the field with the USC defense, a tight group of 11 players, he's sharing space with fewer people than used to sit around the family dinner table.

Time was, there were 12 of them--Mom, Dad, four biological children and six foster children, youngsters who were often troubled or ill and needed a place to call home.

"I learned a lot from it," said Cook, a senior preparing for the final three games of his career--UCLA, Notre Dame and a bowl game--after the Trojans' open date Saturday.

Ten kids in the same house. Talk about an example of teamwork.

"You just work together, help each other," Cook said. "Learning patience, that's most important."

Learning how to squeeze everyone into the family's five-bedroom house in San Diego was just another puzzle to be solved.

"Bunk beds," Cook said with a laugh. "There were times when there were four in a room. It's a little tight. You learn to keep all your stuff in one little corner.

"Sometimes you want to sleep in, and they're getting up, playing or turning the TV on. Or little babies are crying in the middle of the night."

Still, Cook and his three brothers never lost sight of why his parents, spurred by his mother, Arlesia, were doing this.

"It's like we understood what was going on," Cook said. "She explained it's not any one child over the other. They needed help, and we were there to give them help."

Those are words that make his mother proud.

"They have not always had everything they wanted, but they had their needs," she said. "They still know they had more than a lot of children."

Growing up in a family where no one could possibly be the center of attention probably prepared Cook well for his role with the Trojans.

On a USC defense led by a star the magnitude of linebacker Chris Claiborne and that includes a player as well-known as cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, Cook lives and plays beneath the radar.

Only Claiborne and linebacker David Gibson--another standout who gets less acclaim than he deserves--have more tackles than Cook's 71, and he is coming off a 13-tackle game at Stanford in which he was all over the field.

"Other guys in this city are getting recognition," said Dennis Thurman, the Trojans' secondary coach--and yes, he means UCLA's Larry Atkins. "Rashard's not getting as much as his play warrants.

"To me, he's had an All-American-type season. You turn on the tape, and you're going to see No. 8 making plays."

Claiborne is one person who appreciates all Cook does.

"First of all, he relaxes us all because he's a very funny character," Claiborne said, talking about how Cook teases teammates, even on the field during games.

"Plus, there's the way he plays. He comes up and he hits. He's much like the great safeties here in the past--Ronnie Lott, Mark Carrier. And he knows all their stats. If you say Mark Carrier, he'll say, '108 tackles, seven sacks.' He told me that just today."

Chances are, Cook's football career won't end with college, and he has the types of skills that could make him an invaluable NFL special teams player.

"I think Rashard Cook is a natural, instinctive football player," said Hackett, who has spent much of his career in the NFL and call's Cook's pro prospects "excellent."

"He's really played well. People talk about Chris and Daylon before Rashard, but he'll do well. Look at Sammy Knight, he wasn't even drafted. Some guys are just football players. This guy can play and help somebody."

Helping somebody is what the Cook family is about.

There are five children still at home. In addition to Rosa, there is 8-year-old Dennis, who is adopted, and three other foster children between 2 and 11 living with the Cooks.

The Cooks have seemingly dealt with all the problems such children often have.

"I've had children stop breathing," Arlesia said. "Children on apnea monitors. Children who needed caffeine to keep their heart rate up. Several asthmatics. Newborn drug-exposed babies. Babies who walked the floor all night, not able to sleep going through withdrawal.

"Once when we were going to L.A., I had to take a baby out of the infant seat and hold him. He was shaking so much it was like a seizure. We've had children who've been molested. You name it, they've had it."

For the Cooks' own children, the family's commitments have sometimes meant sacrifice. Rashard once preferred basketball to football in his days at San Diego Morse High.

"He knew his chances were better in football, and he said, 'I'm gonna get a scholarship,' " his mother said. "He knew we couldn't afford to send him to school. We had three in college at the same time. He's going to graduate in December."

And some day, he might do something like what his family has done.

"Early parenthood, I'll hold off, I think," he said. "I think we took care of enough.

"I'd like to do something that would not be 24 hours a day at my home, but somewhere else. Something to contribute to society, to help people.

"Maybe a temporary home for one, two or three people at a time. Or an after-school spot where children could go get tutoring or mentoring. I'm really not sure, but I know I want to do something to help."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

He's Cookin'

Free safety Rashard Cook is USC's third-leading tackler with 71:

Games: 10

Solo tackles: 51

Assists: 20

Total tackles: 71

Tackles for loss: 1-(-3)

Passes defended: 2

USC Facts

Saturday

Idle

Next: vs. UCLA

Rose Bowl, Nov. 21

12:30 p.m. Ch. 7 in L.A.

Records:

USC: (7-3)

UCLA: (8-0)

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