Valai told the Iowa City Press-Citizen that "Coach Cooks is a great guy, and I want to be like him one day."
On Sunday, Valai switched his verbal commitment to Wisconsin, just three days after Cooks was formally hired as the Badgers' new defensive backs coach. Valai's decision came at the end of an official visit, his first trip to the UW-Madison campus.
Having Cooks in Madison was a major factor for Valai.
"That was huge right there," he said.
Valai cited many reasons for his decision to commit to the Badgers, the most intriguing of which was the opportunity to play for a coach he models himself after .
"He's a great human being first of all," Valai said of Cooks. "And then the way he worked his butt off to go to the NFL… He's a great person, great human being, played in the league, now he's a college football coach. He's just a great role model."
Valai already shares several characteristics with Cooks. Both are defensive backs. Cooks was a four-year letterwinner and two-year starter at Iowa before moving on to a short career in the NFL. Valai is a 5-foot-9, 191-pound prospect who could play corner or safety at Wisconsin. Cooks landed in the Midwest after growing up in Irving, Texas. Valai was born in Irving, now lives in Euless and attends Colleyville Heritage High School, where he was a standout corner last fall.
Though Valai was drawn to Cooks when the latter was coaching at Minnesota, he preferred the overall Iowa football program to what the Gophers could offer. That all changed with Cooks at Wisconsin.
"It felt like home to me," Valai said of UW. "I was real comfortable when I came up there. Madison is just a great town. Beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Texas. Madison reminded me a lot of Austin. I felt like I fit in real well."
Valai said he enjoyed Wisconsin's "athletic environment that everybody's into it 24/7."
Football game-day atmosphere is months away in January, but Valai was impressed with the fan support he witnessed Saturday, when he attended the Wisconsin men's basketball game against Northwestern.
"The fans (are) just nuts, which that pumped me up," Valai said. "Cause I went to that basketball game and they were going crazy. And the football game is probably about five times as bad so that's why I'm excited."
What swayed Valai to decommit from Iowa in favor of Wisconsin?
"Wisconsin just felt like a way better fit," Valai said. "It felt like a real good fit for me. Everything was just, it just felt perfect. It was that kind of feeling about it."
Valai said he was "amazed" when Cooks called to say that he was now recruiting Valai for the Badgers.
"I just wanted to see how it was," Valai said of visiting Wisconsin. "Coach Cooks is a great guy, Wisconsin is a great school and it just intrigued me a lot."
Valai and Maurice Moore—an Everman, Texas product who also committed to the Badgers on an official visit over the weekend—experienced the Wisconsin program at a unique time. New head coach Bret Bielema added Cooks to his staff Thursday, then hired co-defensive coordinator Dave Doeren Friday. Doeren came to Madison Saturday.
"It was kind of weird, cause Coach Doeren, who just got hired there, he just came in that day too," Valai said. "So we were just hanging out with Coach Doeren, Coach Bielema and Coach Cooks. And (wide receivers) coach (Henry) Mason was there too for a little bit."
With his high school football career in the books, Valai is concentrating on his collegiate future. He is not playing organized basketball for the first time in 10 years, but will compete in track this spring
"Track is just something to get more speed and get ready for football season," Valai said. "That's all I'm getting ready for basically."