You Really can't say that Marv Cook grew up in the 19th century, but take a look at his hometown of West Branch, Iowa, with its wooden sidewalks, white latticework and village green. It is the mythic American small town as depicted by Mark Twain and Booth Tarkington. "Every kid who grows up here has a nickname." says Dean (Hoot) Gibson, the town barber. Cook's nickname was Finn—not for Huckleberry, but because he couldn't work his mouth around the back half of his first name when he was a small boy. Gibson can look out his windows and picture Finn and his two brothers horsing around on Main Street. "He always had a ball in his hand," says Gibson.
When Republican presidential candidates swarmed over Iowa last winter, they avoided West Branch because it is the birthplace of Herbert Hoover, a Republican who was captain of the ship in hard times. Yet a good advance man should have known about Cook, the Iowa tight end-punter and special-teams star. The candidates could have had a rally on the green, with Cook on the platform representing the traditional American virtues.
Cook is much admired in the Hawk-eye State. Hawkeye coach Hayden Fry calls the 22-year-old Cook his "best big-play man" and best all-around player, and any number of forecasters are calling Cook, a 6'4", 243-pound senior, the best tight end in the nation.
Cook, who sirs and ma'ams his elders and would probably carry your groceries to the car, portrays himself as something less than great. "I'm not fast, I'm not strong, I'm not quick," he says. Heck, he can't figure out how he got the ball in the end zone when he beat Ohio State last season with a 28-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-23 with six seconds left. "I just try to get open," he says.
The fact is, last season Cook got open often enough to earn All-Big Ten honors and set school records for catches (49), receiving yards (803) and average yards per catch (16.4) by a tight end while sharing the position with two other players. For the second straight year he was Iowa's leading tackier on special teams, and when the Hawkeyes' punting game began to founder at midseason, Cook took over that chore, too, and debuted with a 64-yard boomer against Indiana. His next kick bounced out of bounds on the Indiana four. "I got lucky," Cook says.
Cook's coaches are used to his self-deprecation. "You very seldom run across a player that's driven to perfection," says tight-end coach Don Patterson. "Marv's played a lot of great games, but he's still not satisfied."
To explain his perfectionism, Cook offers a favorite quote from a collection of inspirational sayings, entitled. Commitment to Excellence: "Don't measure yourself by what you have accomplished, but by what you should have accomplished with your ability."
It is a philosophy that will neither tolerate nor forgive the brief lapse of concentration, the one bobbled pass, the slight drop-off in intensity. Or the missed class, for that matter: Cook, a business major, was named to the academic All-Big Ten team the last two years as well.
At West Branch High School, Cook earned 14 letters and was ill-state in football, basketball, baseball and track. The Des Moines Register chose him as its 1983 prep athlete of the year, but he wasn't heavily recruited. After all, he wasn't fast, wasn't strong, etc. "Some guys test better than they'll ever play," says Patterson. "Not Marv. But he's got that extra heartbeat."
It wouldn't have mattered if he had been recruited, says Cook. Growing up just 10 miles from Iowa City, took he never considered playing for anyone but the Hawk-eyes. In fact, a Cook's tour of his world wouldn't take you very far from Iowa's Kinnick Stadium. His mother, Marilyn, a nurse in Iowa City (Marv has not seen his father since he was four years old), lives a few blocks from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch. Marv, the youngest of the family, plays golf at the Greenview Golf Club, and he has worked at the same summer job for five years, a $5.50-an-hour backbreaker for the Johnson County Secondary Road Department.