NEW CASTLE —
A day after his big decision, Malik Hooker was in a familiar place.
On a warm summer evening, Hooker was amidst the sounds of feet scrambling on asphalt, the swish of basketballs through nets and the laughter of friends at the local North Hill court — a setting that always has been home.
Basketball always will be Hooker’s first love, which made perhaps the biggest decision of his life Monday night that much harder.
The New Castle High athletic standout made a commitment to play for Ohio State University that evening. Yes, The Ohio State University.
However, his stay in Columbus won’t be to continue his basketball career, which has been impressive in its own right, but instead, as a member of the Buckeyes’ football team.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was 2. That was always my first love,” Hooker said. “It was a very hard decision for me, but I have to think about my family and what to do for my future.”
What’s shocking about Hooker’s recruitment was the fact that he has just one year of varsity football experience. In his “rookie” season as a junior last year, using a combination of agility, ball skills and breakaway speed, Hooker rushed for 257 yards on 27 carries for a 9.5 yards per carry average. He led New Castle in receiving yards with 333 yards on 13 receptions, averaging an incredible 25.6 yards per reception. He scored 11 total touchdowns.
That was enough to get scouts to notice him. Not just local teams like Youngstown and Pitt, but major school powerhouses like Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State.
“Absolutely, it was a surprise,” Red Hurricane coach Joe Cowart said of the slew of recruiters interested in Hooker. “He didn’t play ball as a sophomore. After that junior year, everyone knew he was talented kid. As more and more scouts came into the fold, it was surprising. As a football coach, people say all the time, guys like Hooker and other Division I athletes who have walked the halls of New Castle High School and other WPIAL schools, these are the kids that are easy to recruit. These guys are the no-brainers. Not only Malik, but other kids in the area who are those types of talented kids.”
Hooker’s decision to play football was one he made for his future. He could easily have followed his love of basketball. After all, the 6-foot-2, 175-pounder has made a name for himself on the court. Last year, he helped lead the ’Canes basketball team to an undefeated regular season and a trip to the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals, a 67-63 loss to Lower Merion. Hooker finished with a team-high 19 points, two of which were the result of a dunk in the first half that was featured on ESPN’s Top 10 Plays of the Night. He finished the season with 16.7 points a game, fifth in Lawrence County, with a 62.5 percent free-throw percentage and 20 3-pointers.
Still, his skill set and body makeup leaned to having more success on the football field.
“Even though he’s just a great basketball player —and I don’t doubt he could have been and could still be a great college basketball player — I think his future is brighter with football,” Cowart said. “I think Malik realizes that, and other people near and dear to him really kind of now know. We see that his future is maybe going to brighter as a football player.”
It’s a future that took a lot of soul-searching and talks with his family, friends and coaches to reach. It was one that Hooker didn’t take lightly.
“It was a tough decision. It came down to Ohio State and Pitt. I just sat down with my mom (Angela Dennis), my uncle (John Cox) and my coaches and we just talked it out. We just felt that it was the best decision for me,” Hooker said. “Honestly, after my eighth-grade year, I thought my football career was over. I just felt that it was something that I couldn’t live to keep doing. Football is a fun sport, don’t get me wrong, I’ve just always had a love for basketball. But then, I came up my junior year, my coaches and my uncle kept bugging me to play. I just finally said, ‘why not?’ I came out and did the things I did, and it’s just like now, football is something I can do in my future to help my family and me out.”
Hooker, an honor student, had Cowart as a teacher for a communications class. Hooker points to Cowart’s friendly badgering every day in class that helped convince him to pick up a football again.
“Every day, I’d walk in class and he’d just say ‘ you look like you’re the type of guy who can play football.’ He’d stay stuff like that,” Hooker said. “He’d always just tell me that I look like an athlete, so why not go out and play football?”
Nearly a year later, it was Cowart that was assisting Hooker on recruiting trips and helping him prepare for his future. A trip to Ohio State left a lasting impression.
“We’ve been able to visit a lot of schools and go through the whole recruiting process,” Cowart said. “Ohio State is obviously a marquee program. Luckily for us, we were able to see local kids from our area go there and have success. Guys on their staff have been really receptive of Malik. He’s just really felt comfortable since the start with those guys there. We’re hoping he’s just going to have a great time and progress as an athlete and young man.”
Hooker pointed to a feeling of home as being a major influence in selecting Ohio State. Having a two-time national championship coach in Urban Meyer also helped.
“Not only did I like the campus and everything, I just liked the community I felt that I was around. I liked the coaching staff, that’s probably the best part of the school overall. The coaching staff is probably the best coaches I’ve talked to yet,” he said. “Coach Urban Meyer is a great coach overall. I haven’t talked to him much, but when I did, he gave me great tips — not only in football, but in my personal life.”
Off the field, Hooker plans on majoring in sports management or sports therapy when he begins at the university in 2014. On the field, he is looking forward to living one of his dreams.
“It was always a dream when you sit there and watch college football all the time. It’s just always somebody’s dream to end up playing in front of thousands and thousands of fans,” Hooker said. “It was always a dream to me. I would have never thought this would happen after only playing nine games of high school football.
“I liked Ohio State for awhile. I also liked the University of Southern California, USC, because my favorite player, Reggie Bush, is from there. I was going in between those two teams, I always liked them. I started liking Ohio State more when Terrelle Pryor (a Jeannette product) went there from over this way in Pa. I just thought if he can do that, why can’t another kid from out here do that, you know? It’s just pretty much saying that dreams can come true.”
Coming to a decision before the season started was important to Hooker, who didn’t want to have it drag out and become a distraction.
“I felt that if I would have kept this thing going, it would have started to take my mind off the more importance things like my family. Not only that, but school is starting soon. It would have taken my mind off of stuff like that. I just felt like I needed to limit my time and make my decision,” Hooker said. “My family is just as excited as I am. It took a lot of pressure off my them and off my coach. Now, getting this over with, is just like a relief on everything else. We can move on to more important things.”
Despite being a noted playmaker on offense for the ’Canes, Hooker is slated to play defensive back, particularly safety, for the Buckeyes’ defense.
“Honestly, stuff like that, I don’t really pay attention to. They gave me the opportunity to come and play here, so you just do what they want you to do. You don’t worry about stuff like that, you just do what they ask you to do.”
Along with basketball and football, Hooker also competes in track and field for New Castle. Although there is an added stress level with his commitment with playing multiple sports and a potential for injury, Hooker said he is going to make the most out of his last year in high school.
“Basketball definitely isn’t in question, no matter what,” he said. “This is my senior year, so I want to go out with a bang in basketball. Just because I got offers and stuff like that for football, I just don’t want to give up on the other things. I probably won’t do track, but basketball, I just can’t go out like that. I’ve got some unfinished business I have to do.”
Choosing Wisely: Hooker picked with his head over his heart when he put a career in football ahead of his first love of basketball.
NEW CASTLE —
A day after his big decision, Malik Hooker was in a familiar place.
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