BY COLE McNANNA // Oct. 3, 2017 //
One former division-three standout turned accredited public speaker came to the Katz Gymnasium to address student-athletes pursuing the dreams he once had.
Aaron Cooksey grew up not far from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and soon grew fond of sports of all kinds.
By the time he got to high school he played football, basketball, and baseball; excelling at all three. His play caught the attention of colleges from all over the nation and from each level of competition.
In his first three years at Hoover High School, Cooksey was never found at a party due to the strict guilty-by-association rules in the athletic department. He took it upon himself as a leader in both the athletic and academic arenas to set the example that you don’t need to party.
His senior year the rules were relaxed a bit but it still took until the wintertime for his teammates to coerce him to join in on the festivities that night. Go figure, the party got busted and police found him after the evacuation subsided.
Despite not even having a drink, he tried going right to his principal Monday morning to share his side of the story. He only expressed how disappointed he was in a role-model like Cooksey making such a decision.
From then on, his sights were straightened and he came to the decision that he wanted to be a two-sport athlete at the next level. One of the offers he had on the table was to nearby Mount Union College and he packed his bags for the 30-minute trek.
However, at the end of one of the last spring practices, Cooksey went out for a route and felt a pop in his knee. He said it was the worst pain he had ever experienced, for about 30 seconds. After he limped off, his knee didn’t swell the way a torn ACL would so he was under the assumption it was only cartilage damage.
That turned out not to be the case, and the torn ACL kept him out of the football season while putting the baseball season in doubt. In that initial defeat of the prognosis, Cooksey turned to his first alcoholic beverage.
While still being prescribed pain-killers from post-surgery, the addition of alcohol (and a lot of it) did not make for a positive concoction. He had his first taste, and he was hooked.
Cooksey pushed on, however, and beat the 6-month recovery target and made it to the diamond for the first practices.
Although that return would not be long-lived as he went to run out a bunt during a drill and re-tore the same ACL trying to take second base.
The second injury to the same knee within a year of each other devastated Cooksey and pushed him to the brink of his addiction. His grades slipped as they no longer determined his eligibility and he noted he spent more time in bars and at other colleges than he did on his own campus.
He rarely thought about the consequences of his driving under the influence and eventually built a tolerance and comfortability with it. However, it wasn’t after much longer that that all changed.
Cooksey met a friend early on in his time at Mount Union, sparking a conversation with Andrea Calderone while still stumbling around on crutches fresh off his first ACL tear. Over their time together, the pair became like family studying eating and hanging out together.
Fast forward to a 21-year old Cooksey and a 20-year old Calderone driving along after lunch. Cooksey had a couple beers but still got behind the wheel, initially making a few wrong turns leading to a small detour from their original destination.
Cooksey turned left onto a road and fell in behind another car going around the 35-MPH speed limit. Cooksey didn’t have much recollection of the conversation that eventually led him to take his eyes off the road to laugh at a joke.
While closing in on the lead car traveling closer to 65 miles per hour Cooksey was soon directly behind them, needing to make a decision. Fearing a child in the backseat, he swerved to the right, off the road, causing his car to flip three times before wrapping around a telephone pole.
Cooksey could remember the distinct noise of shattered glass falling and making contact with other glass or metal all around him. He thought he had been dreaming but soon came to and realized he had to find Andrea.
Cooksey owned up automatically, knowing the police were going to find alcohol and drugs in his system. He eventually blew a 0.16 BAC and soon had to face Calderone’s family in court.
Cooksey described the agony he could see in Mr. Calderone’s face that he still can envision in his head. After all was said and done, Cooksey was to serve four years in jail and lose his license for the rest of his life.
His dream of playing sports until he could become an elementary school teacher was gone as was his best friend from college.
Cooksey eventually left prison and went back to school to finish his degree, something no one can ever take away from him now. He also travels around the country to speak with different athletic programs, relaying his message to the same group he once made up.
The first coach to give him that platform was one who recruited him out of high school when he was at the helm of the Youngstown State football program. Then-Ohio State University Head Coach Jim Tressel reached back out and hooked Cooksey on something more positive.
Since then, he’s been to schools at each division within the NCAA spanning 11 years.
Curry College Athletic Director, Vinnie Eruzione, felt the need to have Cooksey come to Milton to speak to the Colonels. Coaches and players from every team were invited and Eruzione thinks they were quite responsive.
According to his count, approximately 400 student-athletes showed up to what they thought was going to be just another speech.
“What sets him apart, just like last year’s speaker Hudson Taylor, is that they are real-life experiences,” Eruzione noted. “It’s not someone telling you not to do something because they read it wasn’t good. He delivered a message that affects a lot of others, not just you.”
One senior captain of the basketball team, Barak Swarttz, mentioned that it was very important that student-athletes heard his message together.
“Being in the gym with the entire athletic body of the Curry Community was powerful,” Swarttz noted. “We are all leaders across campus and it was important for all of us to be in the room together to hear that story from someone who was once in all of our shoes.”
Junior Sophia Marchant of the softball team echoed Swarttz comments adding there was plenty of common ground.
“It was definitely easier to relate to; him just speaking to athletes since he was an athlete,” Marchant said. “He wasn’t standing behind the podium; he was up close to us and talked to us instead of at us.”
That response was exactly what Cooksey was looking for, and really what he was expecting coming in.
“I love coming up to the New England area, I love Boston, and I have friends up here,” Cooksey said after his speech. “When I’m in Massachusetts then you know what you’re going to get out of students wherever they’re at, there’s a certain level of respect so it’s always good to come into Massachusetts.”
The Colonels respected Cooksey and he gave it right back, sending the message that is still resonating with student-athletes not to get behind the wheel under the influence.
Swarttz, who is also a Resident Assistant on campus, has always been vigilant of friends and very against drunk driving.
“Being someone that is so against drinking and driving, hearing his story just made me want to always be on the lookout for others,” Swarttz explained. “I know there are people my age, younger and older that continue to do that. With that being said, I am going to continue to make as much of an effort to try and prevent and eliminate driving under the influence as much as I can.”
Cooksey ended his presentation dropping the same set of keys that took the life of his best friend. Now, he invites everyone to Drop Your Pride and not drive under the influence.