As Ohio State coach Urban Meyer revealed Saturday, Buckeyes safety Malik Hooker tried to quit the team seven or eight times his first year in Columbus.
Hooker had been a star athlete since he was a young kid growing up in New Castle, Pa. His mom remembered him once scoring nine touchdowns in a seventh-grade game. He was even better in basketball and by the time he was a senior in high school, he’d won all-state honors in both sports and drew Division I offers to play each in college.
He came to Ohio State as a safety and immediately found himself buried on the depth chart. The Bucks had several veterans, including future NFL players Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell. So Hooker redshirted in 2014.
Last year he played sparingly in 13 games and finished with 10 tackles total on the season.
“I had started to doubt myself a lot,” he said. “I started to think this wasn’t the place for me because I just didn’t fit in.”
He sought refuge in the one place he felt comfortable.
“He came home every weekend and didn’t want to go back,” Angela said. “He would go off on long walks and not come back when he was supposed to. We’d have to go out and find him so we could take him back.”
Malik remembers those times too: “I was like, ‘Man, I’m not going back.’ I’d try to sneak out and my uncle would come find me. I’d try to go to my cousin’s house and my aunt would end up calling my mom or my sister. I tried so many things.”
He said underneath he was “disappointed” in himself, too: “I’m not known as a quitting type of dude.”
That’s what his high school basketball coach Ralph Blundo reminded him of and, back in Columbus, defensive coaches Chris Ash and Luke Fickell did all they could to get him to believe in himself and the program.
But all say the person most involved in keeping Malik a Buckeye was his mom.
“Her exact words were, ‘I don’t know what you’re gonna do, but you’re not coming back here,’” he said. “She told me ‘You’re gonna stick it out and it will end up working out.’”
Mom was right.
Saturday it did.
While there were lots of stars in the Buckeyes season-opening 77-10 romp over Bowling Green at Ohio Stadium — especially quarterback J.T. Barrett, who threw for the OSU-record six touchdowns and ran for another score and H-back Curtis Samuel, who had a combined 261 yards and three TDs – there was no performance more heartwarming than that of Malik Hooker.
The redshirt sophomore intercepted two Bowling Green passes, including one with a highlight reel, one-handed tip and grab while he was falling.
“After the game I went over to him in the locker room and said, ‘You better make sure you give your mother a call,’” Fickell said.” He said, ‘She’s here,” and I said, ‘Then, you better go find her now.’”
Unwavering support from Mom
Angela Dennis said she had her first child at age 17. Malik was the second and after that she had three more.
“I raised all five pretty much on my own,” she said. “I had a rough home life growing up, Both of my parents were addicts. Growing up I was a kid who didn’t know what to do. I had no adult supervision.
“But I promised myself I wouldn’t let my kids be like me when I was their age. I didn’t have a lot of options, but I was going to do everything I could to make sure they did.
“With Malik, I wanted him to reach heights I didn’t get a chance to. I knew he had a great opportunity and that’s why I was going to make sure he didn’t ruin it.”
She did that in a variety of ways Malik said:
“There were times I needed her to tell me to quit being a crybaby and she did that. And there were other times she comforted me. She supported me every way she could.”
After Saturday’s game Fickell talked about what Angela had done:
“I’ve got my own kids and I’m sure there are times when (we) might be a little easier on them sometimes when times are tough.
“No one likes to see their child suffer and that’s how it was with him. I had warned his mom this might happen, but for her to trust us and she did. She stayed strong and helped Malik through it and now it’s paying off.”
Mom holds court
Meyer was so moved by the story of Malik and his mom that he coaxed the Buckeyes’ sports information folks to invite Angela into the media room after the game.
And so for a while, at opposite ends of the room and in a postgame first for the Bucks, a mother and her son were holding court.
“I’m not worried about what she’s saying,” Malik grinned. “Probably 95 percent of the stuff she’s saying is true.”
Angela not only talked about her boy’s rediscovered backbone, but about those skills she knew never had left him. She said over the years she’d seen him make spectacular plays like he did Saturday ‘maybe 1,000 times.”
Malik said Saturday he drew on “fundamentals and technique” to get himself in position to make the picks and when he saw the ball in the air he felt an electricity come through his body.
“It was, ‘Yeah, this is this the play,’” he said. “I knew it was my moment.
“It’s really a blessing what happened today. Not many people get to make their first start and make the plays I did out there. But I know I had a lot of help in this. A lot of people helped get me here.
And no one more so than his mom, who told him time and again:
“Get in this car … now!”