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The Improbable Rise of Case Cookus: from wide receiver to USFL MVP Candidate

Tom Brady. Kurt Warner. Tony Romo. Steve Young. Case Cookus.

At first glance, this appears to be a somewhat random conglomerate of professional QB’s, ranging from the 1980’s to the modern day. But what do all of these signal callers have in common beyond their chosen profession?

They all had unlikely, movie-script-like rises from the backup QB of their respective teams to not only starters, but stars at the gridiron’s cardinal position.

Case Cookus’ story may not be as famous as Warner’s journey from bagging groceries to NFL MVP, or Tom Brady’s rise from the 199th pick in the NFL draft to seven-time league champion - but it is no less riveting.

It’s easy to forget when watching highlights of the 6’4” Cookus - buying time with his legs outside the pocket to throw an incredible touchdown pass - that he started the 2022 USFL season as the backup to number three overall draft pick Bryan Scott. Cookus hadn’t played a snap of football since his record-breaking 2019 season for NAU, and after short stints on the NFL’s Giants, Broncos, Vikings, and Raiders it was beginning to look like professional football opportunities were running dry.

Then, the USFL came calling.

Before we talk about Cookus’ explosion onto the USFL scene, let's flashback to the fall of 2013. Case Cookus is a junior wide receiver at Thousand Oaks High School in California. At 6’1” and roughly 160 pounds, his prospects for Division 1 NCAA football were not looking great. After a conversion to QB for his senior season, Cookus was so lightly recruited that he mulled becoming a firefighter and walking away from the game of football altogether. Luckily for Stars fans, his father and high school coach prompted him to reconsider, so Cookus enrolled at little-known Ventura Community College to prove himself worthy of an opportunity at a Division 1 school.

After a successful greyshirt year that saw Cookus grow a few inches and gain roughly 20 pounds, Cookus became an attractive QB prospect for a number of NCAA teams - with all of his NCAA eligibility intact. Cookus accepted an offer from the Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks, and five years later would depart Flagstaff as one of the greatest players to ever wear the navy & gold.

In his freshman year, Cookus threw for 3,111 yards, 37 touchdowns, and only five interceptions en-route to winning the Jerry Rice Award - given to the best true freshman in all of the FCS. Cookus’ sophomore season was off to an even better start, with the lanky QB throwing 13 touchdowns and only one interception in the teams first four games, but came to an abrupt end when he went down with a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery.

After a grueling rehab process, Cookus would play 14 games over the next two seasons but would end up suffering another shoulder injury that ended his redshirt junior season after only two games. After a second surgery that involved inserting a plate into his collarbone area, Cookus was back rehabbing in hopes of returning for his senior season.

What a return to the field it was for the Lumberjack star’s farewell season.

Cookus threw for 4,095 yards and 31 touchdowns in his final season in Flagstaff, wrapping up his time in the NCAA with 105 touchdowns, 12,057 yards and only 21 interceptions. There was hope for Cookus and his coaches that an NFL team would be enamored with his incredible collegiate run and give him a shot in the upcoming 2020 NFL draft.

The call never came.

After stints with five different NFL franchises from 2020 to 2021, Cookus was drafted by the Philadelphia Stars in the 12th round of the inaugural USFL draft. The man who had overcome every obstacle in his athletic career thus far, perhaps what came next should have come as no surprise.

Cookus won the backup QB job for the opening of the season, but when Scott went down in the middle of game three with an injury, he had his opportunity to show the professional football world exactly what he could do. Cookus would go 4-1 as a starter for the Stars, throwing for 1,331 yards and 12 touchdowns - adding over 200 yards on the ground and a 79 yard touchdown run for good measure.

In spite of the porous defense, Cookus led the Stars to 26 points per game last year - the most in the USFL. The dream season looked like it might get a dream ending when Cookus helped the Stars all the way to the Championship game, leading with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. But then, just as fast as Cookus’ prodigal reign began, it came to a temporary end when he broke his leg with just minutes remaining in the game. He would be carted off and watch as his team gave up their lead, eventually falling 33-30 to the Birmingham Stallions.

Cookus is now rehabbing his leg, but with lengthy tape showing just how big of a difference-maker the gunslinging QB can be when he returns to full health.

What's next for the former undersized wide receiver? Who knows, but one thing has become abundantly clear:

Wherever Case Cookus takes snaps next, you’d better not bet against him.

What did you think of Case’s first season with the Stars? Where do you want to see him next? Join the discussion in the official USFL discord!


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