Photo by Brian Giandelone
SUWANEE -- North Gwinnett players have never worried about traveling for holiday basketball. Their post-Christmas tradition has been playing games at the home gymnasium for close to 20 years.
But tournament organizers faced a quandary about its future in August, when they discovered the longtime title sponsor pulled out its financial backing. With the Dec. 28-30 tourney already scheduled for this year, they needed a new sponsor fast to avoid a substantial cost to the booster club and the school.
One phone call by North boys basketball coach Len Garner to a former player immediately took care of the issue.
Tennessee Titans rookie Jared Cook agreed right away to support his alma mater with a bit of philanthropy. From that conversation began the inaugural Jared Cook Holiday Classic, which is slightly more than a week away.
"We were in a panic and he stepped in to help," Garner said.
Just six years ago, Cook was one of the Bulldogs playing in the holiday tourney. Now it bears the NFL player's name.
"It's actually pretty crazy," said Cook, a senior on North's 2003-04 Class AAAAA Elite Eight team. "I never thought I'd have an opportunity to do something like this for my school. This tournament's something that's been going on a long time, so to help them keep that tradition going is awesome."
The other new addition to this year's tournament is completely Cook's idea -- using the event as a fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. Raffle tickets for $1 each will be sold during the tournament for items like a football autographed by the Titans, autographed receiving gloves and framed, signed photos of Cook.
Cook's charitable focus has been on the Komen foundation and breast cancer awareness since his mother Yulinda's fight with the disease last year. She is now cancer-free, having received her last treatment in June.
"I think it's great, it made me feel good that he thought of (the Susan G. Komen donation) on his own, just to give back to something that is so close to his heart," Yulinda Cook said. "That meant a lot. We always told (Cook and his older brother Jason, who played fullback at Ole Miss), after you've gone on, don't forget where you came from. Always go back and give back. We've always tried to instill that in them, to not forget where you came from."
Cook, who won cleats for North's football team with his 41-inch vertical leap at this year's NFL combine, took that advice to heart. The third-round pick played both football and basketball at North, spending his formative years in Suwanee as the high school went through a period of substantial growth.
His older brother Jason, now the chaplain for Ole Miss' football team, was his North teammate in basketball and football.
"The people who don't know the Cook family must have just moved in," Garner said. "Jason and Jared are two fine young men. They represent North Gwinnett very well and their parents were supportive of everything North Gwinnett did, not just their kids. They're just a true North Gwinnett family."
"North Gwinnett High School was really good to our family," Cook's father Carl said. "A lot of the teachers and principals live in the area. It wasn't just a school. It was a community. We'd see people in stores, at the park. It's a lot more like a family. I think it was a very pivotal part in his maturing and growing up."
Because of what North did for his family, Cook said it was a no-brainer to sponsor the long-running holiday basketball tournament. His donation predominantly foots the bill for paying the referees (for 24 games in three days) and providing trophies to teams and individuals.
Carl and Yulinda Cook plan to represent the family at the tournament and though Cook's season is going, he still plans to make an appearance on the Titans' off day. He expects a free day since Tennessee plays on Christmas day.
The tight end is excited to see the tournament live on, hoping the inaugural edition with his name on it is a success in two ways -- on the basketball court and off it with a large donation to support breast cancer research and awareness that honors one of his heroes.
"My mom's the world to me, she's just a fighter," Cook said of Yulinda, who grew up in Leeds, Ala., with Charles Barkley. "She's my inspiration. Her and my dad. My dad was with her every step of the way (during cancer treatments) and they never missed any of our games in college. She was always in the stands, no matter how weak she was. No matter how tired she felt.
"She made it through work and she even got a promotion. She stayed so strong for her family."