"It's the best investment I can imagine - $5 for a high school diploma, a degree from Mississippi State and a career in the NFL," noted Cooks, who resides in Starkville with his family.
A springboard to a football scholarship in the rugged Southeastern Conference, Cooks got a big boost when Leland defeated Greenville his senior year in the St. Jude Postseason Classic and word spread rapidly that Cooks was a super talented college football prospect.
So it was following a stellar All-American career at Mississippi State University that the gifted Delta athlete became the second pick overall in the first round of the 1982 National Football League Draft.
Then came a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants, a tour of duty with the Mississippi State Athletic Department and an assignment in the Governor's Mansion.
"I'm probably the happiest person anywhere to be selected for the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame," said Cooks, one of the Bulldogs' most decorated football players who played with three NFL teams.
"It means so much to me, to my family, to the town of Leland, and to my school Mississippi State University," added Cooks, who along with his wife, Maggie, and their youngest child Johnie Cooks, Jr., reside in Starkville. The couple has a daughter, Joni, a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis.
"I don't know why Joni had to go to St. Louis but that was her decision," said Cooks with a smile.
"Obviously, we're proud of Johnie," said his wife Maggie before departing for the induction ceremonies. A product of nearby Louisville, Miss., Maggie was a track standout in school.
In addition to Cooks, the 2004 Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame class includes the late Lee Baker, Johnny Brewer, Lindy Callahan, Jack Carlisle, Eddie Khayat, the late Don Owens and Willie Totten.
"That's an outstanding group and I'm honored to be a part of this Class," said Cooks, the Armstrong Middle School football coach for the past two years.
"Willie Totten opened a lot of doors as an African-American quarterback at Mississippi Valley and played on the same team at MVSU with one of the greatest NFL players of all-time, Jerry Rice.
"All of the others to be inducted had great careers and I'm just happy to be in the 2004 class," said Cooks, who played with three pro teams, the Colts, Cleveland Browns and New York Giants.
It all started with his mother's payment of $5 to get his physical.
"All mother ever asked was that I stay out for football. Once out for practice there would be no quitting. That's it," acknowledged Cooks. "Of course, she was always there to make sure you got off to school and did your chores."
A 6-4, 230-pound defender with amazing speed, quickness and agility, Cooks once received a call from Paul "Bear" Bryant (legendary Alabama coach) during his recruitment.
"My brother Otis took the call and I about froze up knowing it was The "Bear", said the first team All-SEC linebacker who helped the Bulldogs beat Bryant's then No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide in a memorable 1980 defensive battle at Jackson's Memorial Stadium.
"We beat most of the SEC teams we played - Auburn, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, Ole Miss - and we beat the Miami Hurricanes and the Washington Huskies," noted Cooks, who played under MSU head coaches Bob Tyler and Emory Bellard two years each.
A sure tackler, Cooks and the Bulldogs closed out the 1980 campaign with five straight wins, a 34-31 decision over the Jim Kelly-led Hurricanes at the Orange Bowl in Miami followed by four SEC triumphs over Auburn (24-21), Alabama (6-3), ending the nation's longest winning streak at the time, LSU (55-31), and capping it off with a 19-14 triumph over Ole Miss in the annual Egg Bowl.
Mississippi State had its way with a number of big-name opponents during the era, knocking off nationally-ranked Miami and turning back the Huskies of the Pac 10 quarterbacked by Warren Moon, who later became an NFL All-pro. The Dogs defeated Auburn with future All-Pro running backs Williams Andrews and James Brooks.
"I think Coach Bellard laid the groundwork for an outstanding program at Mississippi State. He recruited the Delta, the Gulf Coast, the Jackson area, Central Mississippi, and North Mississippi, and I think that's important," said Cooks, who in addition to being recruited by Alabama and Mississippi State, was sought by LSU and Ole Miss.
"I loved my days at Mississippi State," he said. "I wouldn't change my decision if I had it to do all over again," he said. "Mississippi State is my school and will always be my school. I love my school."
Cooks was one of the first to cheer Mississippi State for going out and hiring Sylvester Croom, the first African-American head football coach in the SEC.
"I believe it's an excellent choice and I believe Sylvester will do an outstanding job at Mississippi State, but he's going to have to have the help and support of the entire MSU family."
Cooks said he loves the Starkville community, the people, loves their passion for sports.
"In Starkville, you can see great football on Friday night and great college football on Saturday," he said. "Then on Sunday you can watch the NFL in your home."
The defensive MVP in Mississippi State's shutout win over the Kansas Jayhawks in the 1981 Hall of Fame Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., Cooks was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in the first round. He has had a couple of chances to coach in the NFL, but has expressed his desire to work with the kids instead of life in the fast lane.
Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who has led more than one team to the Super Bowl, has talked with Cooks about serving on an NFL staff, but the Delta born and raised has always turned back to the kids.
"I enjoy working with the young people, everything from showing them the proper stance to emphasizing academics, making sure they have the opportunity to get on the right track," he said.
Cooks lost his mother Minnie Lee in 1993, but she saw him graduate. "She believed in going to school," points out Cooks, who knows the importance of an education.
"My father James was always there, too, but it was my mother who sent us off to school," remembers Cooks, who to this very day believes in standing up for our youth. He's given of his time, his resources, and has worked with our youth in a number of ways not to mention coaching summer league baseball in the community.
Now Johnie and Maggie get the kids off to school, that is their son Johnie Jr., a member of Bill Lee's Starkville Yellowjackets football team.
"Bill Lee is an outstanding coach, an outstanding teacher on and off the field and he does a very good job," said Cooks of the former All-SEC defensive back at Mississippi State.
Cooks is one of nine children, four girls, five boys. Rosie, Thelma, Bobbie and Katie are his sisters and his brothers are Garrett, Otis, Willie, and Rodney.
A role model for our youth, Johnie Cooks is content to "give as much back" as possible and he gives more than his share every day.
NOTES: In addition to the induction of the new Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Class at the Vicksburg Convention Center on 1600 Mulberry Street, the Jackson Touchdown Club will present the Mississippi Amateur Athlete of the Year Award to Eli Manning and the Mississippi Professional Athlete of the Year Award to Steve McNair. The Club will also present Gene May Scholarship Awards to Shawn DuBose of Northwest Rankin, Ryan Maxwell Hoben of Porters Chapel, Leroy Thurman, III, of Madison Central, and Percy Lee Wair of Velma Jackson.
The Central Mississippi Chapter of the National Football foundation and Hall of Fame will present the contribution to Amateur Football Award to Warren Central High School football coach Robert Morgan, former Sturgis Lions standout.
Don Foster, a veteran newspaper writer who is the Sports Editor for the Starkville Daily News, writes a weekly article for Gene's Page. He can be reached by email at email@example.com