David Cook noticed something wasn’t quite right with his baby boy, and it went beyond the broad, incessant panic of being a new parent. Something was off about Joseph Cook’s right leg. It was subtle, but it was there.
In a visit with a specialist, the Cooks learned that David’s thought had merit: Joseph was born with a congenital leg defect in which his right leg was shorter than the left one. The doctor said the right leg was fine – its nerves were normal and it was fully functional. In the long term, he said, it might create co-morbid problems in the hips and back, though he wanted to see Joseph grow. But, he said to keep on eye on it, and make sure his primary care physician does, too.
By all accounts, Joseph’s childhood was normal. As early as fifth grade, though, the Cooks began telling Joseph’s teachers that a corrective surgery likely was necessary in the future. In the summer before Joseph started high school at Nash Central – and after Joseph started to develop a slight curvature of his spine in addition to having soreness in his hips and back – Joseph’s specialist said it was time.
They had two choices: Perform a corrective surgery to make the right leg longer, or intentionally stunt the growth in Joseph’s left, healthy leg to make up the difference. For Joseph, it wasn’t even a decision.
“I’m already short enough,” said Joseph, now 5-foot-7 as a freshman. “I didn’t want that to retard the growth in my left leg because if my right leg starts to catch up, I’d have to get surgery again. I’d rather just get it done in my right leg.”
Option A, it was, so the Cooks set a date at Duke University Hospital. The meeting almost was finished when the doctor looked at Joseph.
“He said, ‘Do you have any questions?’ and Joseph said, “Yeah, I got one: Will it affect my speed? Because I’m pretty quick.’” David Cook said, laughing. “Typical kid response.”
An excellent junior golfer, Joseph was breaking 80 on a regular basis. The Cooks set a date to have the surgery last October so Joseph would have most of the fall and all of winter to heal before golf season, only for their insurance company to deny coverage on the procedure. After a fight, the insurance company checked off, but they had to waste nearly two months. Joseph had the surgery Dec. 6, all but ending hopes of playing as a freshman.
He missed the beginning of the season, and the thought of regionals – where he will play Monday – was nonexistent. On a check-up visit, however, the doctor surprised the Cooks and said golf was OK.
“Our expectation was he wasn’t going to play his freshman year, and we accepted that,” David said. “I told him to come back stronger his sophomore year and we’ll work on it from there. When they came home and told us the news, I made (the doctor) put it in writing.”
Fitted with a Taylor Spatial Frame, a halo-like brace for complex orthopedic procedures, Joseph went back to the course. Even though David, who also is Nash Central’s coach, had requested and been granted a cart waiver and would ride alongside his son, there was apprehension on the part of Joseph’s competitors. Everybody could see a bulky, rigid, inflexible brace. Nobody knew what to expect.
The first match at Northgreen was painful for Joseph, who was struggling to walk the long course. By No. 14 or so, other coaches weren’t sure he would make it. But he trudged through it, always refusing help, always insisting on walking and usually refusing to take his painkillers.
He won respect in the process.
“Honestly, at the very beginning I was disappointed he wasn’t going to be able to play, then it went to doubt and then to being worried when he started playing,” Southern Nash coach Scott Collie said. “You’re really proud of a kid like that. Nothing came easy for him this year. He really had to learn to play a different way. He earned a lot of respect from the coaches and other players.”
From that first match at Northgreen, everybody might not have been on his team, but they were on his side.
“Everybody was pulling for him,” Wilson Hunt coach Tommy Barnes said. “Your heart goes out to him when you first saw him, but after a couple matches – guts or whatever you want to call it – you could see he had the motivation to be the best and to outdo any type of disablement. It was an inspiration to everybody.”
While even being there was an accomplishment to his competitors, Joseph had less than zero interest in a participation medal. The Taylor Spatial Frame had robbed him of his distance off the tee – the brace is designed to prevent significant weight shift, the exact process by which power is created on a drive – but he still could hit his irons and fairway drivers well, and the brace was no excuse on the greens.
Joseph shot a 90 on that first day at Northgreen, well above his former average, but certainly within range of a spot at regionals.
“When he played (at Northgreen) and shot a 90, he was frustrated, but we came home and he said, ‘Dad, I’m so happy to play. I didn’t even know I was going to play,’” David said. “Our expectation was just to play once he finally could play, but I can tell you right now, his expectation was to go to regionals.”
As Joseph’s leg gradually grew stronger, his scores fell, too. He soon was back in the 80s and well within the four wild-card spots going into the final match at Birchwood, in Nashville. He didn’t play his best – the course’s back-to-front-sloping greens penalized his aggressiveness – but shot a 91, clinching a regionals spot.
When scores were being tallied, Barnes pulled Joseph aside and shook his hand. He told him it was the most courageous season of golf he had ever seen.
“He never complained and he walked every step,” Barnes said. “I heard him say many times, ‘No, Dad, I’m walking with the guys.’ That right there is a moment. When he finished, he acted like he hadn’t done anything. How can he do it?”
Barnes said the other golfers groaned when they saw Joseph at first because they were worried he would hold up their rounds. On the contrary, Barnes said, it was everybody else who needed to keep up with Joseph.
“Words can’t say what you want to say. You have to see it,” Barnes said. “You see him and say, ‘What a kid.’ If he shows this at 14, 15 years old, what can he do when he’s 25 or 30 with this type of motivation?”
Joseph will play in Monday’s NCHSAA 3-A Eastern Regional at Carolina National Golf Club, in Bolivia. His current average would not qualify him for the state match, but given what he can do with the brace, he’s happy with his game.
“I kind of accepted it,” Joseph said. “Right now I’m just working on aspects of my game; I’m not worried about my score. I’m hoping to come back next year stronger and make all-conference.”
When he first woke up from surgery, the medical staff asked Joseph if he wanted to see his leg. He said he did not.
It was the last bit of apprehension he showed all season.
“Finally, about an hour later when I was ready to see it, I looked at it and it wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a lot worse than that.”
So did everyone else.
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com