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Wednesday, April 17, 2013
ATH Hooker shining despite inexperience

By Josh Moyer

Joe Cowart sat behind his desk last spring and watched as students filed into his classroom. And every day he spotted a certain basketball player, the teacher/football coach always had a comment waiting.

"You look like an athlete who'd make the NFL," Cowart said one day.

That athlete, New Castle (Pa.) High School's Malik Hooker, would just smile and deflect that football talk. Playing on the hardwood was his first love, and how did Cowart know that he would succeed anyway? He hadn't even played football since eighth grade, and he was doing just fine at basketball. (He even made one of Sportscenter's top 10 plays for a dunk last month.)

But Cowart didn't relent and, soon, Hooker's friends joined in the chorus. So, Hooker figured, what did he have to lose? He expected to compete, expected to flash his athleticism -- but he never thought he'd be where is now, holding five offers from as close as in-state schools Penn State and Pittsburgh, with another 2,000 miles away in Arizona.

"Every day I had him in class, he'd give me more and more of a speech. I'd get a new story every day," Hooker said with a laugh. "And I was thinking then that, yeah, I guess it would be nice to play again. But I didn't expect this to happen."

Hooker's coach didn't need to watch him on the court to see he could excel in another sport. He didn't even need to try him out on the gridiron; he just needed to see him walking through those classroom doors every day. Those broad shoulders, those big hands, that gigantic wingspan -- Cowart just knew.

Hooker admitted he probably wasn't as confident as his coach. Some other players told him not to expect big things because he would be so rusty. Hooker gave up football the first time because he didn't feel like he could be the same player he used to be after a broken arm in junior high.

But he used that doubt as motivation. He impressed on-lookers the first time he stepped foot on the field, and those same students who spoke about "rust" instantly changed their tune to applause. College coaches caught on once the season ended. They saw the same thing Cowart did -- a versatile athlete who could play wideout or defensive back.

The 185-pound athlete earned his first offer in January from Buffalo. So he's still early in his recruitment and insisted he held no favorites. He's not even sure yet if he'll play football in college if he grabs a few basketball scholarships -- although he doesn't hold any yet.

"Oh, I'm just taking looks at campuses right now," he said. "I haven't even compared schools to each other yet."

Pitt coach Paul Chryst isn't yet sure if the converted basketball player would fit better on offense or defense. But the Nittany Lions, whom he visited last week, already made their decision: Safety or cornerback.

And Cowart, the first to notice Hooker's ability, didn't put up an argument about his defensive strengths. In Hooker's varsity debut, New Castle's head coach lined him up against against ESPN's No. 25 player in the 2013 class: wideout Robert Foster, who committed to Alabama.

Foster finished with eight catches for 77 yards, but that was the only time all season the four-star recruit averaged less than 10 yards a catch.

"I wasn't nervous," Hooker said. "We all know Robert Foster is a very good football player, but I was just telling my teammates, 'Hey, come play on the level I'm on, and there's no way we can lose this game.' I wanted to be a leader."

Added Cowart: "He had some nice plays in that game, and there were parts of that game where he was the best athlete on the field -- and he's playing against a kid from Alabama."

He enjoyed his first-ever trip to Penn State and tried to gain a sense of what to expect on a daily basis there. He toured the campus, talked to players and said he's looking forward to heading on other trips to see what schools have to offer.

Hooker knows this is just the beginning for him. He's grateful he made it this far -- but he said he's not finished yet.

"There's always something you can do to get better," he said. "I want to get faster, stronger and tougher. Because, if I practice harder, it's going to make people around me better."