By the time Minnesota Vikings star Dalvin Cook decided to play high school football in 2011, a long-standing legacy had already been formed in the running back room at Miami Central High School in Florida.
Cook, a sophomore at the time, opted to play little league football for the Scott Lake Vikings (how’s that for some foreshadowing?) as a ninth-grader over joining the varsity squad. Some guy named Devonta Freeman was "going to get the ball every play," Cook recalled.
And he did. Freeman, the Atlanta Falcons' Pro Bowler, touched the ball about 30 times a game in high school. He led the Rockets to the Class 6A state championship as a senior in 2010 during a season in which he rushed for 2,208 yards and 26 touchdowns before going on to Florida State.
Cook watched closely as Freeman transitioned his success from the high school to college level. That’s the guy he wanted to emulate.
“He set the standard,” Cook said. “I wanted to do everything he did times two. Go in there and try to shatter all the records.”
Separated by three years, Cook and Freeman never played together. Not in high school or college, although Cook also played at Florida State. On Sunday, they will get the closest they’ve ever been to sharing a field when the Vikings host the Falcons in Week 1 (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
“It’s like a brotherhood,” Freeman said. “I’ve got brothers all around the league, but specifically Dalvin and I kind of grew up together, went to the same high school, college. We shared the same dreams, and that was to make it to the NFL. First of all, it started with just winning the [state] championship in high school. Every step, Dalvin followed. Only thing is he didn’t win the [national title] at Florida State, but it’s cool. He had a tremendous college career. And now he’s in the NFL doing great things. It’s big.”
For nearly a decade, Cook and Freeman -- who grew up 10 minutes apart -- have been tied by their success in football, most of which occurred in two of the same places. While Freeman went on to win a national championship as a Seminole, Cook shattered his mentor’s records in both rushing yards (4,464) and touchdowns (46) at Florida State.
Freeman, 27, played an important role in getting Cook to Florida State in the first place. Originally committed to play at Florida, Cook's playing time in Gainesville, where Fred Taylor’s son Kelvin was already the lead running back, were unclear. Cook didn’t want to put himself in a situation that wasn’t going to pan out the way he had hoped. When faced with a tough decision, Cook turned to his mentor.
“Seeing a person that came from the same situation as you and going to do it, that’s what pretty much solidified everything with me,” Cook said. “It was a trust thing with me … [Freeman] solidified everything. I went on my visit, he was my host. It was pretty much the same setup that he had when I came in. Everything was just set up for me to go be successful. I just had to go do it. He created the blueprint for me.”
Cook and Freeman are looking for fresh starts in 2019 after injuries (knee and groin for Freeman, hamstring for Cook) put a damper on their 2018 seasons.
During Cook’s rookie season (also cut short due to an ACL tear in Week 4), he kept his mind in the game by watching players he admired. Seeing what made Freeman so successful in his second Pro Bowl season inspired Cook.
“Just really finishing runs,” Cook said. “I watched that the year before he got hurt. At the beginning of games he’ll put his head down and finish runs and make safeties feel his presence early in the game so when he sets runs up at the end of the game, they never know what he’s going to do. That’s what I learned from him watching him play. I never really told him that but just seeing how he sets games up and keep defenses off-balance for the end of the game.”
There aren’t divided allegiances back home when it comes to these two, so don’t expect to see "Team Dalvin" or "Team Devonta" posters at U.S. Bank Stadium. Along with Texans running back Duke Johnson Jr. and their former high school teammate Joe Yearby, Freeman and Cook are carrying on a legacy as two of the best to come out of south Florida.
For Cook, having Freeman show him the way when he was coming up through the ranks and continuing to be an entrusted voice is invaluable.
“I call him when I want to know something or when I want a point of view on something or just something that I want to hear from him. Somebody who’s been in the league, seen a lot of defenses and pretty much played against every team in the league,” Cook said. “That’s a guy that I have right in my back pocket that I can call.”