DAVIDSON Susan Cooke and her two daughters were huddled in her bed just after 11 p.m. last Sept. 18.
Dick Cooke had called his middle daughter, Lindsay, almost two hours earlier to say he’d be home in about 30 minutes. Susan always gave him a 20-minute grace period for the stop at the grocery store or the office, but that had long passed.
Texts and calls went unanswered, and even the iPhone locator app couldn’t find Dick Cooke.
Then, a knock on the door. The Cookes’ black lab barked wildly at the two state troopers standing outside. Lindsay and Erin, the youngest daughter, burst into tears immediately. Susan took a deep breath and opened the door.
“He’s alive,” one trooper said, thankfully getting to the point quickly. “He’s in the hospital, but he’s alive.”
Dick Cooke’s silver minivan had been rear-ended by a 27-year-old woman driving in excess of 90 mph. His vehicle spun out of control into a row of trees along Interstate 77 North just before Exit 19. Cooke was left with his lung collapsed, bleeding on the brain and his leg shattered. The other driver was charged with driving while impaired, among other charges.
Friday, Cooke, 57, enters his 23rd year as Davidson’s baseball coach. The Wildcats will open their season at home against George Washington at 6 p.m.
Cooke said he’s been hobbled and humbled by the crash, unable to throw batting practice or catch his pitchers during the offseason. He uses a crutch most of the time to get around.
Friday, he’ll watch the game from the dugout behind a net the school installed last week in case an errant ball goes into the dugout and Cooke can’t avoid it.
Baseball has been a getaway for Cooke, a reprieve from the three sessions of rehab a week, the fluid buildup and stiffness in his right leg and the uncertainty of when, if ever, he’ll be back to normal.
“He gets so much energy from his players, the parents of players, his former players who have reached out,” Susan Cooke said. “They all have a bond of brotherhood that has lasted a very long time.
“The fact that he’s not laying on the sofa but he’s riding around in the golf cart (at practices), and even though he can’t throw to his hitters or catch his pitchers, he can still teach and lead. He gets tremendous energy from that.”
Cooke doesn’t have nightmares about the crash because he can’t remember it.
He recalls the rare in-home visit went well with a recruit from Providence Day, even though the player decided not to attend Davidson. He remembers telling Lindsay he was on his way.
Cooke has no recollection of the wreck, hitting the trees, being thrown to the back of the van, possibly crawling out of the left rear window or being taken to Carolinas Medical Center-Main.
Nine days earlier, the Cookes were dealing with the death of Susan’s 78-year-old mother, who passed unexpectedly from a heart attack.
“(Susan’s) feet weren’t close to being on the ground and then she was getting two state troopers knocking on the door,” Cooke said.
In the accident, Cooke sustained bleeding on the brain, a broken right cheekbone, broken ribs, a collapsed right lung and broke the fibula, crushed the top of the tibia and broke a portion of his ankle.
He was conscious and lucid throughout, despite the doctor saying he was “beyond concussed,” as Cooke recalled.
But because he didn’t remember the accident, it took Cooke a while to realize the impact and severity the crash had on those around him.
“I had a conversation with one of my daughters,” Cooke said, “and was asking her details about that night and what went on, and in the midst of that conversation she paused and looked at me and said, ‘I didn’t eat for four days.’ That kind of put it in perspective.”
‘I’m certainly making progress’
In the month before Cooke could return to work, he would text his assistants daily, asking who looked good at fall practice, what the team did and offering suggestions.
He had a new staff hired during the summer, and Rucker Taylor became the de facto head coach in Cooke’s absence, scripting practice and reporting back to Cooke each day.
He heard from coaches that the players were working hard to crawl out of the bottom of the Southern Conference for the first time in four years.
This preseason, the league’s coaches and media tabbed the Wildcats to finish last. Davidson has finished last or next-to-last in each of the past three seasons.
“This year we’ve worked harder than any other year I’ve been here,” senior relief pitcher Bryan DaCanal said. “We have higher expectations than just getting to the Southern Conference (tournament).
“Last year we lost a lot of close games to good teams. We definitely have the potential, just sometimes you get caught up in not being used to good outcomes.”
The Wildcats were 17-31 last year, including an 8-22 conference record, and have not advanced to the conference tournament since DaCanal arrived.
While Davidson’s team prepared for the upcoming season, the Davidson community looked after the Cookes. The day after the accident, a neighbor came by the house to clean out the refrigerator. Days later, four Davidson students volunteered to walk the Cookes’ dog on a regular schedule.
“It was extraordinary. We were kind of gathered up by all our friends and neighbors,” said Susan Cooke, who also works at the college as the director of research. “I literally did not cook a single meal for a solid two months because of a food signup.”
During that time, Cooke went from the hospital bed to a wheelchair before the doctor told him he could be weight-bearing by mid-December. He initially thought that meant he could throw batting practice and hit ground balls to infielders come the first practice on Jan. 14.
But knowing the nature of his injuries, it was clear Cooke couldn’t do that anytime soon.
“That’s probably been the hardest piece, because the change of rhythm in me not throwing the baseball,” Cooke said. “It’s not just for my own sanity, but it’s also a functional part of practice or pregame.
“I think the docs and physical therapists would tell you I’m certainly making progress. It’s not going fast, but I don’t think they expected it to be fast either.”
Neither the woman who hit him nor her family has reached out to Cooke since the accident, and he doesn’t know whether he ever expected that to happen.
The legal proceedings are ongoing and Cooke said it’s unclear when there will be a resolution. When asked whether he’s reconciled the events of that night, the raspy-voiced coach paused and looked around his small office, which is decorated with team pictures, hundreds of red and black Davidson hats and boxes stacked on boxes filled with baseballs.
“It kind of depends on the day, I think,” he said. “I haven’t had any voracious anger toward her. I think that’s coming, because I’m assuming that’s part of grieving or whatever. I’m just kind of mad in general. It’s inconvenient, and I can’t knock the volleyball around with my daughter and I can’t throw (batting practice).”
The more he learns about the accident, Cooke said, the more he understands how fortunate he is to coach or see his daughter play volleyball at Wingate, or to just be alive.
That insight, his wife said, probably led to Cooke changing in some way.
“It has to. He was probably inches from dying or being severely disabled,” Susan Cooke said. “He’s not sitting around gazing off into the distance pondering the meaning of life, but I do think there have been moments of introspection and what can I take from this and how can I move forward.”
When he returned to the practice field in the fall, there was no welcome-back party. There were a few pats on the back and “nice to see you again, coach” passed around, but he didn’t speak to the entire team in a meeting until January.
He wanted to tell them where he was physically. He needed to tell them as much as they needed to know, he said.
Cooke had to tell them about the nets going up on the dugouts, that he didn’t know what the timetable was for when he’d be 100 percent, if ever.
He had to thank them.
“I remember seeing him in a different light that meeting. He doesn’t really wear his emotions on his sleeve,” DaCanal said. “He had to kind of gather himself for a bit, and usually when he pauses for a second he’ll hit you with a punch line. But he had to stop and take everything in.
“This team’s a family, and I know I feel that way. He’s like a second father to me. You realize how thankful you are for this family, this team. And that’s what he expressed.”