For the past 30 years, Big Norman has been cutting hair at his barbershop on North 25th Street in Richmond’s East End. And for the past 17, Malcolm Cook has been one of his clients.
Like many young men from that part of town, Cook first sat in Norman Johnson’s barber chair as a little boy.
These days, Cook is a starting linebacker on the University of Virginia’s football team. He has a college degree.
He is an exception.
Johnson knows some who’ve visited him for regular trims have ended up in prison. Others end up in cemeteries.
“It happens that way sometimes,” Johnson said.
Growing up in Richmond’s violent Mosby Court public housing community, Cook understood that each day could be his last.
And that was years before he found out he had a life-threatening heart ailment.
He saw friends struck down by gunfire, friends have their lives destroyed by drug use and others sent to prison for murder.
The mother of one friend became addicted to crack. Another of his friends was her dealer.
Three of his closest friends have died. Two are in jail for violent crimes.
“That was the scary part in Mosby, waking up and knowing the fact that you don’t know if you’re going to live or die this day,” Cook said matter-of-factly, without seeming the least bit detached. “I’ve got nieces and nephews running around out there still to this day. You’re just scared to get that phone call that a stray bullet hit one of them or something like that has happened.”
Yet here is Cook today, now 23, a U.Va. graduate working toward his master’s degree in counseling, and a budding star linebacker on the school’s football team.
Cook made it out of Mosby Court, but he’s never really left.
‘You can be different’
Cook knows he beat the odds by going to U.Va. and securing a bright future.
So far this year, eight people have been killed, and more than a dozen others have been shot in Mosby, a neighborhood of roughly 2,000 people just up the hill from the city jail in the East End.
The culture of violence and crime that pulls in so many of Mosby’s young men never got Cook.
Not that it didn’t try.
Cook said crime in Mosby swallows youngsters before they even know what’s happened. Dangerous and illegal as it may be, no profession in the neighborhood provides more tempting, tangible incentives than the drug game.
Want a new video game system? It’s the drug dealers who can give it to you.
Who’s driving the nice cars around the neighborhood? It’s often the same people behind those wheels.
“Kids in the neighborhood, they wanted that life,” Cook said. “I was one of those kids. I wanted that lifestyle.”
But Cook got a peek around the corner, the chance to see life outside of his neighborhood. It came playing AAU Amateur Athletic Union basketball. Trips around the state and the region opened his eyes. The big Cadillac and the fat stack at the dice game weren’t the apex of what life could offer him.
There was more out there for Malcolm Cook.
The mentors in his life showed him there was more. He grew up without knowing his father, but his mother, Joyce Lewis, took him on a city bus to see sporting events around the city.
His godfather, his AAU basketball coach and his high school coaches all helped steer him toward where he needed to go.
“They showed me that outer life, what can be,” Cook said. “Not just the everyday life of Mosby Court — dope dealing, gambling and shooting dice, all that. As a kid, we were into that. That’s all we’d seen. We’d seen my uncles on the back porches shooting dice and gambling.”
Cook was already blossoming into an exceptional athlete when Robert Johnson noticed him playing recreation league basketball in Mosby. He urged him to join his traveling AAU team.
“A lot of times, AAU gets a bad rap,” said Johnson, now an assistant basketball coach at Virginia Union University. “I just wanted to take him out of his environment and introduce him to a bigger world. My main thing wasn’t winning tournaments. It was just exposing young men to a better environment and a better way.”
With Johnson’s team, Cook played in tournaments in Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida.
“My mom always put it in my head that you can be different,” Cook said. “You don’t have to be like everybody else. Because everybody around me was dying. Getting out of Mosby, you saw better and you wanted that.”
In 10th grade, Cook saw what he wanted.
A shut-down defender on the basketball court, he had begun to emerge as a force on the football field.
Former U.Va. defensive coordinator Jim Reid, who handled recruiting in Richmond for the Cavaliers and then-head coach Mike London, invited him to visit the school and attend a game.
Charlottesville was just 80 miles from home, but it was worlds away from Mosby Court.
Cook saw the white pillars and the green lawns. Young people hustling in a different way — hurrying between classes with books in their arms, not shooting dice and drinking. He saw the crowd an ACC football game draws, heard the cheers.
Morgan Moses and Anthony Harris, two Richmond-area guys playing for the Cavaliers, encouraged him — he could get there, too.
“I made up my mind from that point forward,” Cook said. “This is what I want.”
Nothing comes easy
Cook flew largely under the recruiting radar despite starring for Armstrong High School. After spending his senior year at Fork Union Military Academy, he earned a scholarship offer to play for U.Va.
But things don’t come easy for kids from Mosby Court, and Cook — even as a student at one of the nation’s most prestigious public universities — is still very much a kid from Mosby.
“It was eerie,” recalled London, himself a former Richmond police officer and now the head football coach at Howard University. “During the season he’d come up and say, ‘Coach, one of my boys got shot. One of my boys died.’ It was always something that was coming up. He knew someone in the community who was a victim of something or who had committed something. And he’s like, ‘That’s why I’m here. I gotta get out. I gotta get my family out.’”
And injuries, one to each knee and one to his shoulder, limited him to just 51 snaps his first three seasons. Still, Cook headed into 2016 healthy and ready to live his dream.
Or so he thought.
Instead, he nearly lost it all on a football practice field in Charlottesville.
On Aug. 26, 2016, during a team workout, a searing pain in his chest dropped him to the ground twice. A team trainer sent him to the team doctors, who sent him to the U.Va. hospital emergency room.
Cook was diagnosed with myocarditis. An infection had caused his heart muscle to become inflamed. He could have died that day on the practice field. He might never play football again.
His recovery began simply enough. Cook had to rest his heart, let it heal.
Once that happened, the work to get back to the football field was grueling. The heart condition had sapped his stamina. Cook, a powerful Division I athlete, found himself out of breath walking up a flight of stairs.
Eventually, he could exercise, first on a stationary bike, then walking laps, then on a treadmill, then on an elliptical machine and then swimming. By winter, he was running again.
Kelli Pugh, the trainer who was by his side the day he collapsed on the practice field — the same trainer who had pushed, pulled and prodded him through the rehab of his knees and shoulder — told him he was now fully recovered. The inflammation that occurred in his heart should not reoccur. Medically, he was cleared to return to football.
It wasn’t her job to decide whether he would do that, Pugh said.
“Our role is just to reassure him that he is safe and that it’s OK for him to do anything he wants to do,” Pugh said. “Malcolm had to come to that decision on his own.”
Playing through the fear
Cook did want to play. He had spent his season of recovery on the sidelines, signaling in the defensive calls for new U.Va. coach Bronco Mendenhall, studying and learning the ins and outs of the 3-4 defense. So in the fall, he strapped the pads back on.
Only he wasn’t the same player.
It took about two weeks of spring practice before Mendenhall and outside linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga had seen enough. Cook’s play was tentative, he was holding back. They had a blunt conversation with him, one that didn’t center on everything he’d overcome, but rather on the moment he was living in now.
“I told him, ‘If you’re going to play like that, you’re never going to play for me,’” Poppinga said. “If you’re going to be tentative, if you’re not going to play physical, if you’re always gonna be worried about getting hurt, then this game’s probably not for you anymore.”
At college, Cook had reached a safe space where the daily specter of death that hung over his old neighborhood seemed far away. Now, the fear crept back inside.
This time, it wasn’t the fear of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time or the fear of losing everything as a bystander to a dispute.
Now, the threat came from within. It was Cook’s own body that had betrayed him.
“In a way, Mosby prepared me for that,” he said. “It’s any given day you can go out there and die. When the heart thing hit, it was scary, but I started going through in my head, ‘You could’ve died this time, this time, that time or this time.’”
Now, that haunting feeling was back and Cook’s coaches had challenged him to fight it.
Mendenhall and Poppinga have had similar conversations with players before, and some of them chose to walk away from football. They didn’t know how Cook would react.
“The next day he showed up and he’s really not turned back since then,” Poppinga said. “Ever since that conversation, he’s been a totally different player. He’s the guy that we need, athletically and physically, at that linebacker position.”
This season, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Cook starts at outside linebacker. In the Cavaliers’ season-opening win over the College of William & Mary he recorded a team-high 13 tackles and his first career sack. He followed that up with five tackles in Virginia’s loss to Indiana University.
Doing it for family
Cook still goes back to Mosby often, every other week in the summer. He still gets his hair cut by Big Norman, still loves to eat at his favorite restaurant, DaVinci, a few blocks away.
Mostly, though, he goes back for family. His mother still lives in the same apartment where she’s lived for more than 30 years. These days, she doesn’t bother running when she hears gunfire. Instead, Cook said, she stands in front of her home and screams, “I’m fed up.”
Cook said he uses most of the money from his Pell grant — the federal financial aid designed to help kids without the means to pay for school get a college education — to pay his mother’s rent.
After all, he can recall being at home when the only food in the house was “two packs of noodles.” His mother split the noodles among her four children, then sat hungry, watching them eat.
“Everything I do, I do for my family,” he said. “It’s really a struggle back there. They have nothing. We came from nothing, so I’m trying to make it to something, so I can give them something.”
His coaches know that’s the main force that has driven Cook to overcome so much.
“I think that’s one of his whys,” Poppinga said. “We say, ‘What is your why? What keeps you going? What makes you get up in the morning? What makes you want to come to practice and play well?’ I think his family is his main why.”
Cook wants to make it to the NFL, wants to earn the kind of paychecks that will “put his mom in a house on the hill,” as his Instagram bio used to read.
“That’s my goal, man,” Cook said. “I want to get my mom out of the projects. I can’t stand that she’s still there.”
Yet Cook said he wouldn’t be where he is without the tough-love lessons he learned in Mosby.
“Mosby showed me how to live life,” he said.
Cook believes things have gotten worse in Mosby since he was a kid.
“It comes to a point where kids can’t go outside and play like they want to play and be kids,” he said, shaking his head. “It was different when I was little. You had your typical drug dealers and everyone out there, but when something was going down, they’d say, ‘Get in the house.’ Now, they’re just shooting in broad daylight, without a care in the world for who’s out there.”
In his old neighborhood, he’s now a rare example for the next generation to look up to.
“He’s done good,” Big Norman said. “He’s a good role model.”
Sitting on a bench a few feet away from Big Norman, 44-year-old Richie Brown said the neighborhood is proud of Cook.
“It’s a success story,” Brown said. “I’m proud of him, to see him do it. You don’t see too many kids from this area coming up like that, especially from Mosby.”
In the early evening, as the sun set on a football field near Mosby Court, Cook’s high school basketball coach, Darryl Watts, watched that next generation practice football.
“I told him, ‘Every chance you get, you’ve got to let the kids know, not only at Armstrong, but at Mosby recreation, that if you can do it, they can do it as well,’” Watts said. “I’m looking at kids right now in our football program as they practice. Not too long ago, that was Malcolm.”
Malcolm Cook grew up knowing any day could be his last. A frightening medical condition reminded him that reality will never be too far behind him.
But Cook also knows his next day could be his best.