Senior quarterback Case Cookus strapped up his pads for his final game for NAU against Idaho Saturday. Before the game began, the emotions that this was his last game had not kicked in yet.
“It is a little weird,” Cookus said. “I keep using that word because I don’t really know how to feel. It has been such a big part of my life and it’s that bittersweet feeling.”
During the last game of the star quarterback's career, he left everything he had on the field. He threw for a career-high 450 passing yards in a game and threw for three touchdowns. Unfortunately, the Lumberjacks fell short in overtime 60-53.
After the game, Cookus reflected on the long career that led him to where he is now.
“Every once and a while, you are able to look back on where you come from and appreciate the journey that you've gone through," Cookus said. "Mine had been with a lot of ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Cookus’ football career started when he was in fifth grade. His first year playing, he was moved up to compete with the older kids because his father was friends with one of the coaches. That year, his team made it to the semi-finals. From then on, he went to Thousand Oaks Highschool in Thousand Oaks, California and was named the Ventura County High School Football All-Star Game’s MVP. Cookus then attended Ventura College where he gray-shirted until transferring to NAU in 2015.
While at NAU, Cookus showcased many of his talents and achieved multiple awards. In 2015, Cookus was named STATS FCS National Freshman of the Year and the Jerry Rice Award. In 2017, he was nationally ranked No. 10 in completions per game with 22.9, passing yards with 3,413 and passing yards per game with 282.4.
In his final season, Cookus was able to break two school records. Cookus holds the record for most touchdowns by any NAU quarterback with 105. He broke the previous record, 94, with a 94-yard touchdown pass against Weber State University. The game is a memory that he will cherish for the rest of his life and he couldn’t believe it happened the way it had.
“At first, I really couldn’t believe it. I thought [Weber State] was going to break it up,” Cookus said. “I saw through the line that he [was] taking off and I thought to myself ‘oh my gosh.’ I started sprinting down and I was just in shock because that was the last way I expected it to happen.”
In addition, Cookus holds the most passing yards in program history with 12,082. He is the fourth quarterback in Big Sky Conference history to throw 12,000 or more yards.
The many accolades Cookus received were also accompanied by times of struggle. In 2016 after playing four games, Cookus was ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury. During the 2018 season, Cookus only played in two games, due to a broken collarbone, which was another season-ending injury. These unfortunate situations did not keep the star quarterback down for long.
“At the start, [the injury] is just a bummer, it just sucks,” Cookus said. “But once you get past those couple of weeks where you are out of surgery and start doing the rehab, positivity was my biggest thing.”
During the tough days, he was able to lean on the program and the people around him.
“The support staff here at NAU was really awesome,” Cookus said. “From the coaches to the training staff, all of my teammates were there supporting me.”
Even though the broken records and accomplishments are what the fans and the media credit, Cookus’ teammates look up to him for his leadership skills.
True freshman receiver Hendrix Johnson’s first year has been a successful one, making the Jerry Rice Watch List and being awarded FCS National Freshman of the Year. Coming into his first year at NAU, Hendrix said that as the season progressed, he had felt more comfortable in the program. He attributed a lot of the success he had this season to his quarterback said he has learned how to become a better leader for his team.
Johnson was not the only person coming into their first season at NAU. Cookus made first-year head coach Chris Ball's decision to come to NAU a little easier.
“Before I took the job, I talked to [Cookus] on the phone, and he was one of the reasons I took the job,” Ball said. “He is a great leader, a great football player, a great person and NAU was lucky to of had and experienced him.”
Alongside Cookus, senior running back Joe Logan was another leader for the Lumberjacks offense. Sharing the Walkup Skydome for the last four years, Logan experienced who Cookus was firsthand as he lined up next to him on the field.
“I learned so much from him just because he is so smart about the game,” Logan said. “Case was more of the mindset leader. People [listen to] him when it comes to knowing when to focus and I was able to help him out."
During his time at NAU, Cookus' football career was never lacking a fan base. He said that his parents, along with his grandparents, were always at his games. He could only count on one hand the number of times that his family wasn’t in the stands cheering him on.
After Cookus’ five years in the program came to an end, the appreciation he feels for NAU football will stay with him forever.
“I want to say thank you to NAU. They were the only school that offered me, which meant a lot,” Cookus said. “This has been a second home for me.”
The next step for Cookus is to move back to California. He said it is his time to be patient and if the combines come around, he will be ready.
Even though Cookus will leave NAU, he will be remembered as arguably the best quarterback to wear a Lumberjacks uniform. He gave NAU everything he had — including a shoulder and collarbone — and has set an example in the program for future players to follow.