Damion Cook, an NFL veteran and head Atholton football coach, died at age 36 after a heart attack on Friday.
Bruce Cummings, Cook's assistant coach at Atholton, confirmed that Cook died at his home on Friday morning after returning from a trip to visit his parents in Florida.
Cook played 26 games in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions as an offensive lineman from 2002 to 2008.
A Nashville native and Randallstown resident, Cook played at Bethune Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., and led the Wildcats to an appearance in the 1998 Heritage Bowl. He was signed by the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2001. Cook had a memorable appearance in the HBO documentary series, Hard Knocks, when he impersonated Ray Lewis during the Ravens rookie skit.
He made his NFL debut with the Ravens in 2002, playing in 13 games with Baltimore over the next three seasons before catching on with the Cleveland Browns. He started six games at guard for Cleveland in 2004, then after a four-year hiatus, started four games for the Detroit Lions in 2008.
Cook also logged time in the Canadian Football League, the Arena Football League and the United Football League before becoming a strength and conditioning coach in Michigan from 2011 to 2013.
In the summer of 2013, Cook became a mental health counselor at the Homewood School in Ellicott City, which led to the Atholton football head coaching position. After winning only one game in 2013, Cook led the Raiders to a 3-7 record in 2014 and was beloved by his players and fellow coaches.
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"Damion was someone who genuinely cared about student athletes. He wanted to use football as a tool to help at-risk youth," said Cummings, who met Cook two years ago when both were assistant coaches at Centennial, and hopes to continue leading the Atholton program in Cook's memory. "We're going to take that message and let his spirit guide us."
Casey Kelly, who earned first team all county honors as a senior last fall after recording only 13 tackles as a junior, said that playing for Cook pushed him to the next level.
"He had the best attitude. He was always really lively, always loud, always making jokes," Kelly said. "He was one of those guys that you enjoy being around no matter what you're doing. Workouts, practice, games; you just wanted to be around the guy because he was such a great person. He was one of the greatest people I've ever met. He really changed me into who I am today."
In the wake of the news, the Atholton athletics community shared its grief on Twitter.
"I've never met a more kind hearted and funny person in my life," tweeted girls basketball player Chelsea Mitchell. "Gave me so much knowledge You will truly be missed Love you
Having played the game at its highest level allowed Cook to keep things in perspective when coaching high school, he said.
"One thing I know is that I can't let this game take control of me. You've got to have fun with it and take the good with the bad," he said after a 13-12 win at Mt. Hebron on Oct. 25. "You're out here doing a thing that you enjoy doing, you're passionate about it. We're just out here trying to make these boys men. We just have fun out here. If something bad happens, you move on to the next play."
Cook leaves behind a wife, JaNiece, and three children.