NSW hooker Damien Cook dressed in a NSW Blues outfit as a child, and today in his official uniform. (Supplied photos: Graham and Ann Cook, NRL.com)
Every birthday in June, a young football-mad Damien Cook would get a new State of Origin Blues jersey and wear it out for the next 12 months.
But this year is different — he got a real one.
When the Souths Sydney Rabbitohs hooker was told he would make his debut in the number 9 jersey for the NSW Blues in the State of Origin, he called his parents, Graham and Ann.
He said he had made the team, and then there was silence.
It is not that Cook did not want to keep talking, he was just so overcome with emotion.
“He couldn’t talk. His fiancé took the phone off him and talked for him,” Graham Cook said.
“He’s worked very hard to get where he is and it’s been a hard road.”
A hard road with numerous forks, speed bumps, dead ends and cars in front of him.
Until now, Cook’s career has been best summarised with the cliché ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’.
Aged 26 and only now getting the opportunity to play in rugby league’s showpiece event, his career is an exhibition of persistence.
Cook’s parents Graham and Ann will travel to Melbourne to watch their son play. (Supplied: Graham and Ann Cook)
Cook’s long journey to Origin
Cook moved from his home town of Helensburgh to Penrith for rugby league before trying to get game time with the St George Illawarra Dragons’ feeder club.
He was told he was behind Mitch Rein and Cameron King for the starting hooker role, but could stay on and train with the team.
It led to a few games at fullback and a contracted year with the Dragons’ first grade side as the occasional injury replacement before being let go.
He then moved to the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, where he was the third-choice hooker behind Michael Ennis and Michael Lichaa.
After some promising injury replacement stints at the Bulldogs, Cook caught the eye of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, where he was again playing second fiddle, this time to now-Dragons hooker Cameron McInnes.
After McInnes was signed to the Dragons, he was set to finally take over the number 9 jersey when the club announced the recruitment of NSW Blues hooker Robbie Farrah.
“Away from football, his strength is his persistence,” cousin and Illawarra Junior Rugby League spokesman Luke Potter said.
“He knew he had the ability to do something and that’s why he persisted for so long.
“People think he’s only played a few first grade games this year and he’s suddenly into Origin, but he’s been plying his trade professionally since he was 18.”
Parents’ holiday interrupted for Melbourne detour
As the parents of four sporting children, Mr and Ms Cook have never been able to take a holiday in winter, and 2018 was meant to be the year they could.
They had packed the caravan and headed north to Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast.
“My husband said he thought it was Damien’s year and I was reluctant to come on holidays, but we made the call that if we stayed at home he won’t get called up, but if we go away he will,” Ms Cook said.
Sure enough, he did get that call from Blues coach Brad Fittler.
The holiday was put on hold and the Cooks booked themselves flights to Victoria for Wednesday night’s game at the MCG.
Since being appointed the Rabbitoh’s starting hooker, Cook’s career has exploded. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
“I am so excited and now we’re packing to go to Melbourne. There’s a bit of anxiety now too but I have always got a bit anxious before he plays,” Ms Cook said.
“Since [Rabbitohs coach] Anthony Seibold gave him the 9 jersey this year, that in itself gave him confidence because he’s always been trying to fight for that jersey.
“He’s a very humble boy and at home we’re not allowed to talk football, but I get so excited, so he tries to keep the lid on us as well.”