After nearly two years off of football, Philadelphia Stars quarterback Case Cookus, 27, was poised to be the back-up for the 2022 season. But all of that changed in Week 3 when QB Bryan Scott went down with a season-ending knee injury. Cookus, a native of Thousand Oaks, California, was thrust into the starting job and led the Stars to the championship game against the Birmingham Stallions where he completed 17-of-29 passes for 222 pass yards and 3 touchdowns, helping Philadelphia clinch a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter.
It looked like the stars were aligned for a Philadelphia victory, but with just minutes left in the game, Cookus was sacked, sustained a broken right leg, and was carted off the field. The Stars eventually lost 33-30.
Today, Cookus opens up about his traumatic injury, the lessons he walked away with from last season, his relationship with head coach Bart Andrus, and what fans can expect from the Philadelphia Stars in 2023.
The 2023 USFL Season kicks off on Saturday, April 15 and Sunday, April 16 with four exciting match ups, including a Sunday afternoon showdown you don’t want to miss between the Michigan Panthers and Houston Gamblers at 12:00 PM ET on NBC and Peacock.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
NBC Sports: I want to pick up where we left off, at last season’s championship game. Because in a way that was the last time the fans saw you. It’s the fourth quarter of the championship game, the Stars are up 23-20 and then you go down with just minutes left in the game. Take me back to that play, what happened?
Case Cookus: The Stallions ended up bringing the pressure off the edge and stepped up and I got tackled from behind. It was an awkward hit and I just kind of landed funky and ended up breaking my leg. I broke my fibula and a piece of my ankle. I ended up having surgery on that about three or four days after. I flew back to LA, had surgery, and I got married five days after I had surgery. I was on a scooter rolling down the aisle. But I definitely didn’t really have a chance to process it until about two or three weeks later.
It happened very fast. I just remember all of a sudden being in the parking lot with my parents [after the game]. It didn’t even feel real at first. Obviously when something like that happens, it’s traumatic, but for me personally, anytime I’ve faced adversity, I’m just like how can we get past this? How can I get back to work? So my mind went straight to rehab, how to get stronger, and how to get my balance back. That’s how I got through the tough parts of it.
I feel bad for my wife. I told her we’d take more pictures later, plus she had to deal with me sitting on the couch for a couple of months not doing anything so she was a trooper through this whole thing. I appreciate her and my family so much for supporting me through that process.
I’m sorry you went through that! You were actually mic’d up when it happened and you immediately said, “Guys I broke my bone, my right leg.” How did you know your bone was broken and what was going through your head in that moment?
Cookus: I heard a crack and a pop. I didn’t know exactly what was wrong, but I had a feeling that something down there was broken. I told the trainer and doctors my leg was broken and they kind of just looked at me, felt the leg and told me I was right.
There wasn’t too much going through my head but just seeing the crowd support and feeling the team’s support was very humbling. Obviously, I wish I could have finished the game with my team but it was cool to see all the love and support from just my teammates and everyone there.
Even through injury, you could see that you’re a leader through and through. Just articulating exactly what you needed in that moment and then making sure your team was focused. Your last words to them before being carted off was “Finish”. How were you able to have the presence of mind to be a leader in that moment when you were in so much pain?
Cookus: Things happen, but things are bigger than one person. If the guys were able to win that game, that is a memory that will go down and they’ll remember forever. I don’t care who it is or who finishes the game. I was sad I didn’t get to finish the game with my teammates–who have become my brothers. We had fought through the whole year to get to that point so I wanted them to remember that it’s about finishing that game, and they can worry about me later. I’ll be fine.
Obviously, we came up a little short, but my focus was just on the guys–letting them know they could do this and that they’re such a good team. I felt like all of them deserve to raise up that trophy. It was a bummer the way it all worked out. But it was just trying to get them to dial in and really try to focus on what they needed to do.
All the viewers see is you getting carted off –what happened afterwards? Where did you go? Did you see the rest of the game?
Cookus: I was able to catch pieces of it. They took me to a little medical room to get an x-ray and confirm what was wrong. The medical team, and everyone was so nice and they took care of me. There were doctors and nurses that we’re all there helping. I think that at one point, there was like five or six people around me.
I ended up taking a shower, getting changed, and then they just put me in a boot, gave me some some crutches and support. From there, I was able to catch kind of the last couple of clips of the game and then shortly after that all the guys started coming in after the game finished.
Going back in time a little bit – You actually started last season as the back up QB to the third overall draft pick, Bryan Scott. He goes down with a season-ending injury in game three. You’re up next in line. Take me back to that moment, you get put in the game. What’s going through your head?
Cookus: It was a funny first play. Coach ended up calling like a post concept. I come in cold off the sideline and end up just bombing a post over the top. It was kind of a weird way to start the game, in this like third and long situation. Then Jordan [Suell] goes up and makes a great play in a post. It happened so fast that I don’t think I even had a chance to really think about it. I just went right into game mode and tried to get the offense going.
On paper, you guys weren’t supposed to be in that championship game. You lose your starting QB in Week 3, you get to the playoffs and you’re facing the Generals, who already beat you twice, but somehow, someway you’re playing for the title. If you were to pick one word to describe last season, what would it be and why?
Cookus: Oh, that’s a that’s a tough question. I think perseverance is a good one. I think overall, at a lot of different positions, guys had to make adjustments. I remember looking at the sideline a few times where we had like three defensive ends. There were guys taking every single rep on defense and on offense. We had three or four different rotations of offensive line. We had our guard Jackson [Brown] come in one game hurt because we didn’t have any offensive lineman left to play and he had to play through a little bit of a lower back injury. There’s stories that you can find of almost every guy playing through something or fighting through–guy’s just persevering through a weird season of different rotations and different guys playing and stepping up.
Now give me one word to describe the Philadelphia Stars.
Cookus: I think fun is the word I like to use. We’re fun to watch. We have a lot of fun while we’re playing football. I think it really describes who we are. I was just talking with some of the guys and I enjoy so much of us as teammates but also the product that we put on the field with lots of points trying to move the ball down the field. We’re also turning the ball over on defense which is great. I think we have one of the most fun special teams to watch whether it’s in the return game or in the kick coverage game. I think fun is really a good word to describe us and I hope people really enjoy watching us.
I love that you chose the word fun. We’ve seen glimpses of the team–from the funny and passionate moments of you guys being mic’d up to hearing your safety, Ahmad Dixon’s touching speech about losing his cousin to gun violence and finding brotherhood among you guys, his teammates. Can you describe what the atmosphere in the Philadelphia Stars locker room is like?
Cookus: I think we have a very close group. We returned a lot of guys. We know a lot of each other and then welcome all the new guys in. It has become kind of a little family we’ve created and I think we all appreciate each other. A lot of us have similar stories. For me, it was kind of like COVID year of football coming out of college and maybe not getting all the NFL looks you wanted and trying to find yourself. Some guys went to Canada, some guys didn’t, and then the USFL pops up and it’s this opportunity to continue what you love to play. One thing that’s kind of the same throughout all the guys is a lot of our guys love football and you can see it in the way they play.
It seems like this is bigger than football–your camaraderie. What do you guys play for?
Cookus: Every guy has his own unique thing that he plays for. But when it comes down to it, it really is the love of the game. Whether you’re on the offensive line and you’ve got a 300-pound guy just banging against your head every play–you’ve got to love what you do. For me, it’s weird, but like, getting hit and this and that… it just, makes me feel like a part of the game. You’ve got to love what you what you do and I think everyone on our team loves exactly what they do.
Did you guys keep in touch during the off season?
Cookus: Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t even imagine how many text messages I got throughout the whole offseason just asking how I was doing. The football team is so unique, because you have guys from the inner cities, different states all over the country, that come together to compete for one goal and win a championship.
Looking back – How have you grown personally and professionally this season?
Cookus: I think going back to 2022, my first year out of college, I didn’t play football for two years. I didn’t play from 2020 until my first start there in 2022. Being able to get a year of football under my belt helped me so much in my development. I think it showed some flaws in my game and I went back in the offseason and tried to work a lot on my footwork and staying balanced in my throws. You learn by doing and practicing and watching film so being able to look back and watch film and find things to work on is really just how you improve the most.
How are you feeling physically? How is your leg?
Cookus: It’s been feeling really good. I was surprised how fast I was able to come back from [the injury]. I was so thankful to have Dr. Reed, he was the surgeon who did my surgery. He did such a great job on it. I would check in with him all the time. I went to physical therapy in Las Vegas and spent weeks and weeks and weeks working with all of my physical therapists and they worked so hard for me. I’m so thankful that they were able to help me so much to get back. My leg is feeling great.
It was tough at first. It was a very unique thing–nothing I had ever had to come back from before. I had experienced upper body injuries before that are a little easier to deal with because as a throwing athlete, you’re either sore or you’re not. To have an injury to your base and what you throw with as a quarterback, as you throw a lot with your base and your footwork, was a unique challenge for me. I focused a lot on trying to fix that. I still am and I still try to do lots of core and extra things–extra rehab and icing–to make sure I keep the ankle swelling under control.
I’m glad you’re doing much better. Looking ahead to the 2023 season – What can fans expect this season from the Philadelphia Stars?
Cookus: I think offensively, we have a ton of different weapons. We’re really excited about every position group on offense. I think we have a lot of different guys that can create big play touchdowns for us. I looked at our defensive side and they’re a dangerous group of guys. We’ve got a lot of hard workers getting after the quarterback and after the run game. Our linebackers are very fast, from side to side, and then you have our DBs that can go up and get the ball at any moment. I think you’re gonna see an exciting group of guys making a lot of plays.
How will the Philadelphia Stars be different this season?
Cookus: We have a lot of returners, but we added some some pieces, whether it was for depth or for competition for starting spot so it’s exciting to see. I think the base identity of who we are is going to be the same but you’re going to see some more flashes and more consistency across the board. I think at times last year we were a little bit inconsistent so that’s one of the things we’re working on. It’s not year one anymore.
How do you feel about having Detroit, Michigan be the home for the Philadelphia Stars this season?
Cookus: Oh, it’s great. You know, I think we would love to be in Philadelphia. I think the Philly fans are so great. But we got a little bit closer so that’s exciting. Hopefully, we get some Philly fans out here in Detroit supporting us. Ann Arbor is a great city. Everything so far has been awesome. They’ve done a great job of taking care of us and I’m looking forward to finding some nice food spots so I’m trying to do all my research now. I’m excited to spend 10 or so weeks up here.
What match up are you most excited for this season?
Cookus: You know, I get excited for all of them. I definitely would like a shot at some of the teams that we weren’t able to beat last year like the Breakers and the Stallions. Looking back at some of that stuff, I think you always kind of want to beat the teams that you weren’t able to get last year but you can’t get too ahead of it. One week at a time. There’s also a new team in the league. Week 1 will be exciting with the Memphis Showboats.
What’s it like having Bart Andrus as head coach? What’s one thing about him people would be surprised to know?
Cookus: I think there’s probably a lot of different things that people will be surprised about. Coach Bart is a pretty calm guy. I think it’s pretty rare to see him super fired up. I laughed actually the first time I saw him getting on the referees because he doesn’t really get on us too much in the quarterback room or in the offensive meeting rooms. He’s very calm. I forgot what happened that day but something happened and he started getting on the referees and started raising his voice a little bit. I was like wow, I’ve never seen Coach Bart really yell like that before. He’s a very easy guy to play for because of how positive he is through whatever you’re doing.
How would you describe your style of play as a quarterback?
Cookus: I like to consider myself a pocket passer but I guess I ran a little more than I was used to last year. The plan is to stay in that pocket a little more and take a few less hits this year. That comes from just being in the offense for one more year. Coach Bart, Coach Marcel Bellefeuille, and I have a good idea of what I do well, but also how to run their offense a little better. I think that’ll help trying to get the ball out. Because when I look at our team, you know, we have such playmakers at running back, tight end, and wide receiver– I’d rather have those guys have the ball in their hands making guys miss than me running around getting tired. I don’t know if I want to run around as much as I did last year, that’s for sure.
You definitely have some wheels – Where does your ability to run the offense and create those explosive plays come from?
Cookus: I’ve played a lot of different offenses now. I had three coordinators in college and bounced around and with a few NFL teams so I’ve learned a few offenses and I think from that you get pieces. You learn what you like and learn how you like to play. What’s great about Coach Bart and Coach Marcel is they want me to play the position, the way I play the position, and then they’ll kind of mold the offense around that. If I don’t like something and they feel like we’re not running it very well, they’ll take it out, we’ll move on, and we’ll find a different way to approach that play. They do such a great job of of taking feedback.
Switching gears – I want to get into the off season. You mentioned you got married in July… on a scooter— what was that like and how are you enjoying married life?
Cookus: Married life’s been great. I work out in the morning then I sit on the couch all day and I make dinner at night so I think I’m doing a pretty good job so far. The offseason for me is a lot of fun. You get to kind of set your own schedule. I like to work out and do my rehab and throwing in the morning and then that way I have the rest of the day to do whatever I need to get done. It’s been a great offseason. I was able to spend a little time with the LA Rams. I got signed over in November so I spent seven weeks there in LA with them and then was able to come back and spend the rest of [the offseason] in Vegas.
What was your experience with the Rams like?
Cookus: It was good. There are a lot of smart people in that building so I was able to absorb a lot of information. Coach Sean McVay, Matthew Stafford, just being around those two guys, was awesome to kind of learn how they do things and how they approach the game. I learned a lot from my time with the Rams.
Looking back at your journey, you’re one of the best QBs in the league right now, you spent some time on the practice squad with the Rams like you just mentioned but at one point in your career, you considered hanging it all up and becoming a firefighter. When you look back to those days, did you ever think you’d be where you are now?
Cookus: That’s tough. I guess no because obviously the USFL wasn’t going on during that time. During that time, I was, 6’2, 175 pounds. I was a little smaller. I wasn’t very highly recruited. I wanted to plan for the future and didn’t want to just risk everything for a future on a scholarship that wasn’t happening. I ended up going to a junior college and doing some testing for the fire department. During that whole process, I was still playing football for my community college and was able to get a scholarship to Northern Arizona University, and it kind of happened so fast that I wasn’t able to even really look back and consider both options. Getting the scholarship offer and having the opportunity to play football at the next level, having my school my school paid for–it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up and I’m so, so thankful that I stuck with it and ended up playing football.
You were supposed to be a Yankees shortstop. How did you end up falling in love with football?
Cookus: For me it happened later. Growing up, baseball was super awesome. Derek Jeter was my idol. I thought he was so cool, he played shortstop. That was the position I played. He was such a good player at the time so I always wanted to play baseball. As I got into high school, I played a little more football and kind of bounced back and forth from wide receiver to quarterback and it was actually my sophomore year, where my high school coach, Coach Brown, and then head coach, Coach Liven, taught me a lot about the position.
One of the things I fell in love with was the fact that you’re never done learning with football. There’s always something else you can learn. One of the great clips I like to watch is Peyton Manning at Tennessee breaking down the simplest pass concept. He broke it down for like two hours–it’s this simple play but there’s always something more you can tweak and learn more from the game.
Did you watch football growing up? Did you have an NFL team that you were a fan of? I know you mentioned Peyton Manning but were there any other NFL players you were a fan of growing up?
Cookus: The Rams weren’t in LA at that time so I didn’t really have a favorite team which is funny because I liked defenses more when I was a kid. I liked watching the Bears play when Brian Urlacher and Matt Forte were on the team. It was a lot of fun to watch them. But I never really had a favorite football team growing up.
Obviously I wish the Rams were there when I was growing up because it would have been fun. The [current] Rams facility is actually five minutes from my my house that I grew up in. I called my parents when I signed and was like, “Hey, I’m moving back home.” So I actually stayed in my parents house for a few weeks again this offseason. It was a lot of fun growing up not really having a team because I was able to just watch a lot of different teams and I never got my heart broken by my favorite team losing in the championship.
You went to Northern Arizona where you played really great football for the Lumberjacks in between a broken collarbone and some complications that kept you sidelined for a bit. What did you learn from your time there?
Cookus: One of the things is just learning from different people. I had three different coordinators, a bunch of different coaches that came through the program, two different head coaches. Everyone wants their offense and their style of coaching to come through and to be able to get that done you need to know how to communicate and be able to understand what people want. The faster you get on the same page, the easier football becomes. If you’re butting heads, you’re arguing, or you’re upset, you know, nothing is going to get done.
Can you talk about how COVID really affected NFL dreams for you and a lot of people that graduated during the time frame?
Cookus: I think unexpected is definitely the word. The world was just unsure, not really knowing what to do, or how to do it. I think my pro day got canceled three days before. Going in and just being able to get signed to the Giants, I was happy with the opportunity. I tried to learn an offense over FaceTime and Zoom. It was very difficult and that was something I had to learn the hard way where it was like, hey, if you’re going to be a pro and take all this time to do this, you’ve really got to take it amongst yourself to try to get it done.
Learning different offenses, the difficulties that Zoom kind of created was very hard for your first example of NFL. A lot of guys get to go to rookie minicamp and make their mistakes and learn from those out on the field. It was something that a lot of guys, like myself didn’t get to do [during the peak of] COVID.
You’ve had great NFL opportunities with the Giants, Vikings, Broncos, Raiders, we already talked about the Rams, and also the Elks in the Canadian Football league. I can imagine it’s heartbreaking when you get so close and the situation doesn’t unfold the way you want it to – how do you stay motivated?
Cookus: One thing I like to try to think of is the positive steps forward. My first year, I get cut and don’t really end up playing much football at all that year. The next year, I signed with a couple of different teams, still getting cut. I ended up signing with a CFL team and just worked my way up to making a team at least. The next year, again, I get cut by a couple of teams, but then the USFL comes as an opportunity.
I think that opportunity to play again and make the squad but also contribute to the team–everything’s been trending in the right direction. I think even with getting cut, I’ve learned from all those opportunities. Although, you look back and you go, you’ve been cut from five different teams, you’ve been on six or seven different teams. The positive part is the right direction and I feel like my career still going in the right direction.
How has the USFL given you a new appreciation and love for football?
Cookus: I think they gave a lot of guys like me the opportunity to play football again. Whether it’s guys that were close to hanging it up or fresh out of college and weren’t getting the most looks in the NFL, the opportunity to play football and play this game and to get paid for it is an opportunity. Not a lot of people get to do something they love and get paid to do it. It’s awesome and I’m so thankful that they started this league and it’s super exciting.
Alright, it’s time for some rapid fire. Finish this sentence. I’m not ready for game day without…
How do you take your coffee?
Cookus: If it’s cold I like a little cream and some vanilla sweetener but if it’s warm, nothing.
Game-day hype song?
Cookus: I don’t have one. Whatever the guys are listening to.
If football had walk up songs, what would yours be?
Cookus: Probably a good country song. That or a rock song, I need to do some research.
You’re singing karaoke for your life. What song are you picking?
Cookus: I’m going to have to sing every word right?
Cookus: “Drive” by Alan Jackson. I can do that one all the way through.
What TV show are you binging?
Cookus: I’m usually always binging “The Office” but right now I’m watching “The Mandalorian.” That’s a great show. I would recommend that to everyone.
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