Scott Fowler

‘Wow, you’re alive!’: The extraordinary journey of Davidson baseball coach Dick Cooke

Davidson baseball coach Dick Cooke on his near-fatal accident

Dick Cooke, Davidson's head baseball coach for 27 years, rebounded from a horrific car wreck in 2012 to direct the Wildcats to their first-ever NCAA tournament berth this weekend.
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Dick Cooke, Davidson's head baseball coach for 27 years, rebounded from a horrific car wreck in 2012 to direct the Wildcats to their first-ever NCAA tournament berth this weekend.

There is no crying in baseball. But there was a moment during this charmed Davidson baseball season when Susan Cooke still found herself on the verge of tears.

Her husband, Dick Cooke, was experiencing a far different emotion at the time. He was furious.

Davidson was in the midst of its best baseball season ever. A few weeks later, the Wildcats would win their first baseball conference championship and qualify for their first NCAA tournament, where they will play No. 2 national seed North Carolina at 6 p.m. Friday in Chapel Hill. It took 115 years for Davidson to win its first baseball championship, incidentally, which is seven years longer than it took the Chicago Cubs to win their most recent World Series.

Anyway, this was before all that. A questionable call had just gone against Davidson. Cooke – Davidson’s baseball coach for the past 27 seasons – leaped out of the dugout to argue with the umpire.

The important point wasn’t the argument. It was how Cooke got to the argument.

He leaped. He didn’t limp.

Cooke lost the debate, of course. But so what?

“Dick ran out on the field and just started chirping,” Susan Cooke said. “I could tell it was the first time he didn’t think about it. And I almost cried.”

The wreck, part 1

There are some days in our lives that we know will affect us deeply way ahead of time, and you get to plan for them. A wedding. A high school graduation.

There are other days that you never know – for better or for worse -- will be significant until the moment you figure out something is coming for you.

Dick Cooke had a day like that on Sept. 18, 2012. Something came for him that night that just about killed him.

It had been a sad but otherwise normal day until then for the Cookes. Susan Cooke stayed home from work. Her mother died in Richmond the week before. After the funeral arrangements and the out-of-town trip, she was exhausted.

Dick Cooke arranged to have dinner with a potential Davidson baseball recruit and his family in south Charlotte. It was a pleasant but uneventful meal – the player would end up not attending Davidson – and Cooke called home around 9:15 p.m. to say he was on his way.

“That phone call is the last thing I remember from that night,” Cooke said.

The baseball coach talked to one of the Cookes’ three daughters on the phone and then set off north on Interstate 77.

Cooke was driving his silver Dodge minivan – the one that none of the Cooke women particularly liked – as he drew within about 10 miles of the family’s home.

Behind him on I-77, near exit 18, was a 27-year-old woman who previously pled guilty three times to “Driving While Impaired” or “Driving Under the Influence” charges in the Carolinas. I am not publishing her name here, although it is a public record, because she has inserted herself into the Cookes’ family history enough already.

It’s hard to say how fast the woman was driving, but her car plowed into Cooke’s van, sending them both spinning.

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cooke-crutch
In 2013, Davidson head baseball coach Dick Cooke was still using a crutch after being seriously injured in an automobile accident in September 2012. Now he walks with a slight limp, but no longer needs the crutch. Robert Lahser Observer file photo

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Cooke’s van pinballed through a grove of trees, taking its first and worst impact in the back of the car.

As the van crumpled, Cooke sustained numerous serious injuries. His right leg was crushed into a jigsaw puzzle. His brain was bleeding. His cheekbone was broken. His right lung was punctured.

Eyewitnesses stopped and called 911. At some point during those chaotic seconds, Cooke was either ejected completely from the van or else managed to get out himself. After the phone call home the next few days have vanished into a haze for him, so who is to say. But one of the first responders to the 911 call located him.

“I know they found me in the woods, crawling toward the interstate,” Cooke said.

I know they found me in the woods, crawling toward the interstate.

Dick Cooke

Sirens wailed. Part of I-77 was shut down for awhile. Cooke was taken away in an ambulance. The woman who caused the wreck was also taken to the hospital, though her injuries were much less serious.

Meantime, Susan Cooke and her two daughters sat curled up in one bed at their home in Davidson.

It had been two hours by now. They called, texted and used the “Find my iPhone” app. Nothing worked. They were trying hard not to panic.

Then there was a sharp knock at the door. The family dog started barking crazily, and the three women got up and walked uncertainly toward their family’s fate.

‘Our own overachievers’

Davidson is a unique place in many ways. It is a small town wrapped around an academically rigorous college that in turn wraps itself around its students. About 20 miles north of Charlotte, Davidson has an enrollment of about 1,950. It’s a place where people often go and never leave.

The Cookes did that. Susan Cooke also works for Davidson, as a researcher, and she and her husband eat lunch together nearly every day.

Close to a quarter of the students on campus participate on a varsity sports team. The Wildcats’ sports teams are most well-known for their sustained excellence in men’s basketball, personified by two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steph Curry and longtime Davidson basketball coach Bob McKillop (who arrived on campus just a few months before Cooke did).

What Davidson is absolutely not known for is sustained excellence in baseball. Cooke has had to learn to be a gracious loser at Davidson, because he has lost about 60 percent of the games he’s coached there.

Cooke, 60, has won more than 500 games at Davidson. But he has lost more than 800. He is about to coach his first NCAA tournament game in his 27th season, which leaves you wondering how many other colleges would have endured an 0-for-26 postseason stretch in any sport and kept the head coach around.

Do not blame all this on Cooke.

The odds are stacked against him and Davidson every year (not that he complains, mind you). NCAA Division I baseball teams get a maximum of 11.7 scholarships to divide among their 35 players.

That’s the maximum. The Atlantic 10 schools with which Davidson competes average giving nine baseball scholarships per school, according to statistics supplied by Davidson.

And the Wildcats?

They give out less than three total baseball scholarships among those 35 players, and then they cut up those three scholarships into roughly a dozen pieces. That means two-thirds of Davidson’s baseball players – as well as two-thirds of the starting lineup and the likely starting pitcher against UNC in the NCAA tournament game Friday night – receive no athletic scholarship aid .

While the NCAA allows Division I schools to grant up to 11.7 scholarships for baseball, Davidson makes do with less than three. Most of the Wildcats’ players receive no athletic scholarship aid.

And this is at a school in which the published price for the 2017-18 academic year is $63,903.

So Cooke has long had to find very smart players who might bloom late and whose parents don’t mind writing a very sizable check to Davidson each year (even with the school’s need-based aid packages factored into the equation, the sticker shock can be enormous).

“Davidson by nature has an overachieving student body,” Cooke said, “and we certainly try to find our own overachievers.”

The wreck, part 2

When the knock came on the door on Sept. 18, 2012, at about 11:15 p.m., Susan Cooke quieted the dog, took a deep breath and opened it.

Two state troopers stood on her porch.

“Are you Mrs. Cooke?” one of them asked.

“Yes,” she said cautiously.

“He’s alive,” the trooper said.

And then, after that bit of good news, the troopers told her about the wreck, and that her husband was seriously injured and in the hospital, and that their van was totaled.

The Cookes’ two younger daughters had crept up near this conversation by then and were overcome by emotion.

“The girls were shrieking while the police were at our house,” Susan Cooke said. “It was all horrifying.”

Susan Cooke got a family friend to drive them all to the main Carolinas Medical Center in uptown Charlotte, where her husband had been taken by ambulance. There she had a bit of trouble finding the baseball coach, because he originally had not been identified (his wallet would be found near the crash site two days later by his brother-in-law).

There was one patient, however, listed simply as “Dodge Trauma.” This, it turned out, was Dick Cooke – identified by the maker of his van and the traumatic nature of his injuries.

Susan Cooke found her husband still in the emergency room, where he was being assessed. There was blood everywhere. She left the girls out in the waiting room because she didn’t want them to see their father like that.

But Dick Cooke was awake and lucid, so she tried to put on a happy face for him.

“Well,” she told her husband, “the good news is that none of us liked that van anyway.”

236 pitches

That Davidson will play North Carolina at all in the NCAA tournament Friday night is a stunner. The Wildcats (32-24) had not only never made the 64-team NCAA tournament field before, they also were only seeded No. 6 in the Atlantic 10 tournament bracket.

But they got hot at the right time and got a few ridiculously good performances. Pitcher Durin O’Linger, a fifth-year senior, threw an astounding 236 pitches during the tournament. Shortstop Alec Acosta, who had not hit a home run the entire season, exploded for five homers in four days. Davidson’s players found a Mexican restaurant early in the tournament at St. Louis and, as they kept hitting the ball so solidly, kept returning each day to fuel up on more lucky burritos and nachos. All of it somehow worked.

Now comes an even more difficult challenge. The Tar Heels will host the four-team regional starting Friday and are a heavy favorite to make it through in the double-elimination tournament.

fowler-olinger
Davidson’s best pitcher, Durin O’Linger, threw 236 pitches during the Atlantic 10 tournament last weekend. He plans to attend pharmacy school after the NCAA tournament concludes. Saint Louis University Billiken Sports Center

But Davidson will not be easily cowed. The Wildcats played UNC earlier this season in Chapel Hill, hit the ball well and actually led 6-3 going into the bottom of the ninth inning. Then the relief pitching fell apart and the Tar Heels won 7-6 in 10 innings.

O’Linger plans to start. And for those aghast at the idea that a player who just threw 236 pitches last weekend is going to soon pitch again, consider this: “This is my last hurrah,” O’Linger said. “I’m going to pharmacy school at the University of Florida after this.”

Indeed, O’Linger had a 4.0 grade-point average at Davidson in his most recent semester. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He won’t try to make it in the minor leagues. This is it for his baseball career.

“So given all that, we’re not going to be real conservative if Durin wants to go out there,” Cooke said. “And he always wants to go out there.”

‘Honestly, it’s awesome’

O’Linger was one of the few players left on this Davidson team that was also a part of it when Cooke had his accident. He was a freshman and remembers getting a call about midnight from one of the seniors to fill him in on what happened. He has watched Cooke’s slow, steady progression.

“I’ve seen him at the lowest of lows and now at the highest of highs,” O’Linger said of Cooke. “Honestly, it’s awesome.”

Cooke used a crutch to get around for months. Davidson installed protective netting near the dugout because his reflexes weren’t quick enough to dodge foul balls anymore. He couldn’t hit fly balls to his outfielders for years. He praises his assistant coaches to the high heavens now, saying they have shouldered so much of the burden since the 2012 accident that what is happening now for Davidson baseball is more attributable to them than to him.

cooke-umps
Davidson baseball coach Dick Cooke (second from right) talks with Winthrop coach Tom Riginos (second from left) and two umpires before the start of a 2015 game in Davidson. Bill Kiser Special to The Observer

What bothered Cooke the most on the field – besides the near-constant pain in his right leg that still forces him to get up most nights and take medicine for it -- was that it was a long time before he could pitch batting practice again.

For years, Cooke had thrown every pitch of BP in every practice. It was part of his daily rhythm. He loved doing it. He couldn’t do it again for years -- or could he?

O’Linger spilled the beans on this. He’s a senior, so what could it hurt?

“Coach Cooke was out there throwing BP again a long time before he was supposed to,” O’Linger said. “He found a way to make it work. He’d tell us, ‘Let me know if my wife shows up, though. Because I’m really not supposed to be doing this.’”

The wreck, part 3

Cooke said he still thinks about the wreck “every day.” Sometimes that occurs when he drives by the wreck site, which he often does since I-77 is the only interstate highway near Davidson.

“Every time I drive on that spot, which I have done hundreds of times since the wreck, I try to relive what happened,” Cooke said. “I try to envision getting hit by somebody going 120 at full speed in the back of my car. But I can’t remember. I think my body and my brain are protecting me a little bit.”

Neither the woman who hit Cooke – who is from Clover, S.C. -- nor her family has ever reached out to the Cooke family privately to apologize, the Cookes said.

The legal situation was in limbo for years but is now resolved. The woman – who could not be reached for comment -- was convicted of a felony charge for “serious injury by vehicle.” The Cookes attended her arraignment and various preliminary hearings.

“I try to always make sure I’m there whenever she has something in court just to say, ‘Hey, I’m paying attention,’” Dick Cooke said.

The woman is not in jail, but she is on probation until 2020. Court records show that she is supposed to pay the Cookes restitution in the amount of $26,963.

“We try to not let any bitterness into our lives about it,” Susan Cooke said. “We try to model good behaviors for our kids. I will say all three of our daughters are absolutely militant with their friends about not drinking and driving.”

“I’ve tried to move on,” Dick Cooke said. “But I will say I am enjoying what is happening now at Davidson an awful lot, because if my van had hit those trees a different way, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The accident is far enough removed now that Cooke has returned mostly to his regular life. He can get salty when the Wildcats make a mental error in the field or walk several batters in a row.

But he has a photo that he uses for perspective.

“I’ve got a picture on my phone of the car after the wreck when it was in the junkyard,” Cooke said. “It’s not my screensaver by any stretch, but it’s there. And there have been occasions if I were feeling bad that we missed the cut-off man a couple of times, or whatever, I would go to that, pull it up and say, ‘You know it’s probably OK.’… I don’t go to it every five minutes, but it’s been helpful at times.”

It was also helpful, for the sake of closure, for Cooke and his oldest daughter Alison (a former star volleyball player at Wingate) to go to a local fire department and meet with some of the first responders who helped him that night.

Recalled Cooke: “One of those guys said, ‘Wow. You’re alive!’”

Yes, Cooke is. Alive, well, arguing with umpires - and in the NCAA tournament for the first time.

Maria David contributed.

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