Inside Vikings running back Dalvin Cook's emotional season after the death of his father

Dalvin Cook's life changed last December when his father, James, suddenly died. Dalvin continues to grieve while trying to use what he learned from his father as inspiration to forge on as the face of the Vikings. Dylan Buell/Getty Images

MINNESOTA VIKINGS RUNNING back ​​Dalvin Cook woke up on Dec. 29, 2020, to a missed call from his father, James. That's weird, the running back thought about the call that came in before midnight. His dad knew he was asleep and never called that late.

Before Cook had a chance to dial his dad back, another oddly timed call came in from his grandmother Betty, while he was on his way to the Vikings' practice facility. He pulled over to the side of the road and sat in disbelief of the chaotic scene he watched unfold over FaceTime.

Moments before, Betty had found her son James, whom she lived with in Miami, lifeless in his bed. Cook's uncle Roosevelt frantically performed CPR on his brother, who wasn't responding.

Cook waited on the phone with his grandmother as painstaking minutes passed until the paramedics arrived. By then it was too late. At 46 years old, James was dead from complications from diabetes.

Cook watched as they wheeled his father's body out of the home, and he told his grandmother he would call her back. What he had just witnessed wasn't registering. Cook's father, his hero, was gone.

One by one, Cook called his mother, his running backs coach and his brothers and sisters to deliver the news.

Two weeks later, sitting near his father's casket at the wake, Cook pondered the missed phone call. What would their last conversation have been about? It had haunted him for a while. In searching for answers, Cook sought closure.

He sat there for a long time and let his emotions flow. Between sobs, Cook said his goodbye and told his daddy he loved him. He then immediately turned his attention to those he felt a responsibility to protect.

"Once you're the top of the household, everybody looks at you like -- is he going to cry? Is he going to show emotion?" Cook said. "I was trying to be so strong for my brothers and sisters, because they were already so torn apart."

The transformation Cook has undergone in the 10 months since his father died has shaped his identity. Football has always been his outlet, what he calls his "therapy," but this season it carries a larger meaning. He has long been the face of the Vikings' franchise and is the linchpin for a team at a crossroads. Minnesota (3-3) begins the second half of its season Sunday night (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) when it hosts the Dallas Cowboys (6-1).

Yet through all of Cook's grief, that which he has processed and the parts that sneak up when he least expect them, Cook has found a particular strength.

"Now I've got a bigger role," Cook said. "Just looking out for my brothers and sisters and my grandma, too. I just feel like that's my role now in his absence."

JAMES COOK AND Varondria White had six children together: DeAndre Burnett (the only one of the siblings who took his mother's maiden name) is the oldest, followed by Dalvin, Daneshia, James, Jameisha and Jamiya. James Cook also has another son named Demarcus. But it was Dalvin who was the closest to his dad.

"Everywhere my daddy went, I wanted to go," Dalvin said. "I was always up under him, and it was like that when I got older, too. I just always wanted to stay with my dad."

At 13, the running back went to live with his father and grandmother, affectionately known as Miss Betty to those in the community. She was the Little League team mom and made sure none of Cook's high school teammates went without a meal, spending her own money to make hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to hand out to players after games.

Betty and her son traveled together to watch every home game of Dalvin's at Florida State, and then made the trek to see him in the NFL.

James owned a mobile car wash business and loved to blast loud Jamaican music. He could whip up just about anything in the kitchen, his go-to Chinese chicken fried rice was a favorite of Dalvin's. He and his son also enjoyed quiet, simple pleasures.

"Fishing was their life," Betty said. "Even if they weren't catching anything, they were out there."

James exuded patience and a tireless work ethic. Dalvin isn't the only one of the siblings who parlayed those qualities into an athletic career. DeAndre played college basketball at Mississippi and internationally, and the younger James is a running back at Georgia.

"The thing that I took from my dad was when he spoke, people listened," Dalvin said. "You don't have to speak all the time, but when you do talk, your words mean a lot."

After he made his phone calls on the day of his father's death, Cook's teammates quickly descended upon his home. Vikings fullback C.J. Ham was the first to arrive, and he could relate to what Cook was going through after his own mother died in May 2020. Ham sat there and didn't say much, allowing his teammate to process the initial stages of grief before their position coach, Kennedy Polamalu, arrived.

"He was like my hero through everything. ... It's still hard. I'm tough. He made me like this. And I'm just trying to get through it."
Dalvin Cook

Ahead of Minnesota's final game of the season at Detroit, Polamalu knew Cook had a handful of personal goals remaining. He was 82 yards away from reaching 2,000 yards of offense, but Cook was in no shape to prep for the game, much less play that Sunday.

"He cried for a long time," Polamalu said. "He couldn't stop. Mentally, he wasn't going to be able to do anything."

With the help of a friend who was in town visiting, Cook quickly tied up his loose ends in Minnesota and got on a plane for Miami.

He walked through the door of his grandmother's home, where his father's memory lingered, and collapsed into her arms and started crying.

The week was a blur. Hundreds of people passed through Betty's home with food, hugs and support. After the funeral in January, Cook sat down with his grandmother with his mind made up. It wasn't healthy for her to stay in the house where every corner held memories of James.

"He was not going to take 'no' as an answer from me," Betty said. "He never has refused to listen to something that I say, but at that point, he was so determined that I had to get out of that house. I said, 'I don't know, Dalvin,' and he said, 'Ma, I don't want to hear it. You're going.' Like he was the dad. 'You're going.'"

Cook moved his grandmother north to Miami Gardens in July before heading back to Minnesota. But as the season loomed, knowing his biggest fan was gone, Cook struggled to come to grips with how he would go on. He sat on his grandmother's bed, tears welling up in his eyes as his next phase of grief hit.

"Dalvin would call his dad from the locker room while he was getting dressed before every game," Betty said. "And he said to me, 'Ma, what am I going to do now?'"

COOK'S MOTIVATION FOR the 2021 season was to honor his father. He set big goals coming off the best year of his career. But again, life had a different plan.

Since he was drafted 41st overall in 2017, Cook has yet to play a full season because of injuries, and he hurt his ankle in a Week 2 loss at Arizona. It resulted in him sitting out the following week against Seattle, the first game Betty attended this season, and he then missed a win over Detroit.

"This year was kind of frustrating for me going through the ankle, because I told myself before the season that I was going to dedicate the season to my dad, and then I'm not out there playing," Cook said. "I had to come to grips and have a talk with myself. If he was alive, he would tell me to suck it up, just go get healthy and get on the field."

Cook took that advice to heart and approached his rehab with a different mindset. By Week 6, he was back on the field and rushed 29 times for 140 yards and a touchdown in an overtime win at Carolina.

"Before, I would've been frustrated every day, I would have been mad," Cook said. "Now I just approach it where I want to get better this day, and if it allows me to go out there and practice and play, that's what I'm going to do. If it doesn't, I'm just going to go in the training room and get better.

"My dad always told me tough times make people. It can make you or it can break you. I just feel like if I make it through, what's at the end of the road? There's always a brighter day or a brighter moment ahead, and I look forward to those moments and I embrace the tough times."

Cook, who graduated from Florida State this offseason with a degree in interdisciplinary studies and public policy, has played a big role in keeping his family together with frequent check-ins, the way his father would do with all of his children.

"The death of our father has even more so matured his mindset with life," Burnett said. "Going about things the right way, learning how to be patient, and learning how to deal with things that you have no control over. It's given him the mindset that 'I can only focus on the things that I can control.' That's how he attacks his rehab, and that's how he's attacking pretty much everything in life now."

SOME DAYS, COOK holds in what he's feeling better than others. Other times, he'll find himself bursting into tears over FaceTime with his grandmother and older brother.

Photos of Cook and his father cover the walls of his Minnesota home, which he purchased after signing a five-year, $63 million contract in September 2020. There's a pond out back, and Cook was getting ready to put fish in it so he and his father could do one of their favorite activities from the comfort of home.

"That still bothers him that his dad never got to see that house or fish at his house," Betty said.

Every Sunday, Betty's first stop after leaving church is a visit to her son's grave. She goes there and talks to him. That's her way of coping with the grief.

Dalvin said he fished every day during the offseason to do the same. It's how he was able to clear his mind. In the moments when grief strikes hardest, the running back asks the questions familiar to anyone who experiences a tragedy.

"How do I get past it? I have my days," he said. "My grandma always told me that us as men, we think crying makes us soft. Sometimes I need to let tears off, just sit there and look at some of our old pictures or things that bring up old memories to bring me good vibes. That's what makes me happy. Thinking of good times that we had. That's what gets me through."

On Sunday night, when Cook is getting ready to take the field, the running back will use his time before the game to quietly reflect on the calls he used to make and the voice that would always tell him the same thing: "You better run the ball, because I'm watching you."

"That's what helps me through nowadays, just thinking of little stuff that he would tell me," Cook said. "He was like my hero through everything. No matter what he did, he was just a hero to me in my eyes. He was what guided me.

"It's still hard. I'm tough. He made me like this. And I'm just trying to get through it."