CINCINNATI — University of Cincinnati senior safety Bryan Cook admits he's been an underdog his entire life.
That's what has made his path through college football the past five years all the more rewarding.
Cook, a Mount Healthy High School graduate and the Bearcats' third-leading tackler this season, had anything but a traditional route to UC.
He had one scholarship offer – from Howard University – as a high school senior during the 2016 season.
Five years later, Cook was named as a Pro Football Focus College Football Third Team All-America selection for the Bearcats.
Cook is an American Athletic Conference first-team selection and was one of five UC seniors to accept an invitation to the Senior Bowl in February.
"It's definitely a long journey," Cook said. "A lot of ups and downs. It was long. I'm grateful to be here for sure."
Cook has helped the Bearcats (13-0) reach the College Football Playoff semifinal as they play Alabama (12-1) Dec. 31 in Arlington, Texas.
Cook has 87 tackles, five tackles for loss and 10 passes defended this season.
What sets Cook apart is his work ethic, passion for football and preparation for games.
UC safeties coach Colin Hitschler is impressed by Cook's dedication and effort every day in practice. Hitschler has watched Cook intently study film on his opponent, himself and NFL safeties.
"Cook's been a special player this year," Hitschler said. "He replaced two guys that got drafted last year and became a leader instantly. Had a huge game last year against Georgia (in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl) and it carried over into the season. He's a grownup playing college football. He works his butt off. He's in here every morning at 7:30 and stays until 6 p.m. every night. You can't ask for anything more from a senior leader on the team."
Cook's leadership includes experiences of both being a starter this season to two years ago when he watched from the sidelines when he wasn't eligible in 2019 due to the transfer rules.
He played cornerback at Howard University for 21 games from 2017 to 2018. He decided to transfer to the University of Cincinnati but changed to the safety position.
Cook had to sit out 13 games in 2019 due to transfer regulations. But he never stopped learning from his teammates, including former UC safeties James Wiggins and Darrick Forrest – both of whom are now in the NFL.
"The challenges that I faced over the years definitely shaped who I am today," Cook said. "But again, I'm also grateful for them, because now if I just played corner I wouldn't be the same defensive player I am now today."
Cook played in all 10 games in 2020 and made two starts. He had seven solo tackles in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Georgia.
"He's such a heady player, who is always aware of what the opponent is trying to attack and how they're trying to attack us," Hitschler said. "He's a kid that plays really, really hard, so you can't ask for anything more than that."
Cook has enjoyed competing with UC senior safety Ja'von Hicks, a Colerain High School graduate, who played youth football with the former Mount Healthy standout.
"In the moment, you don't really notice because you are still trying to focus on the game plan. But sometimes when you look back, it's like, 'This is a dream that you can think of,'" Cook said.
Cook has a vision that goes beyond football, too.
Cook graduated this past spring with a degree in Digital Media Collaboration with a 3.6 grade-point average. He was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-America Second Team earlier this week.
"I play football – that's what I love," Cook said. "But outside of football I want to help people, so I have other plans besides football I want to do."
Cook has plans for opening an athletics training facility one day for high school student-athletes in order help them prepare for college. He also has a passion for the film industry.
Mount Healthy coach Arvie Crouch said he knew since high school that Cook had the ability to play in the NFL. He's always liked Cook's approach to football and life.
"We're really proud of him here at Mount Healthy and we get to watch him in the highest stage of college football," Crouch said.
"Bryan is just one of the most outstanding kids I've ever met in my life and ever coached and had the privilege of coaching. He's just such a genuine human being."