Former Bengals quarterback Greg Cook dies at 65

Greg Cook, a Bengals quarterback whose immense talent was never fully realized because of a shoulder injury suffered in his third professional game, has died at the age of 65 after being hospitalized with pneumonia.

The Bengals selected Cook with the fifth overall pick in the 1969 NFL draft and instantly fell in love with his arm, proclaiming him the starter and releasing their starting quarterback from the previous year. Paul Brown, the Hall of Famer who at the time was the Bengals’ head coach and general manager, said, “We believe this young man is the best quarterback prospect in the country.”

Cincinnati started that season 3-0 with Cook leading the way, but in the third win, over eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City, Cook suffered a serious shoulder injury. He played through the shoulder pain for much of the remainder of that season, but by the end of the year his shoulder was so badly damaged that he would miss the next three seasons, then return to play just one more game before retiring for good.

“I tore my rotator cuff and we didn’t know it at the time because we didn’t have the medical attention that you have today,” Cook recalled years later.

Amazingly, Cook led the league in passer rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt and yards per completion as a rookie playing through a torn rotator cuff. But by the time the season was over and doctors operated, there was little they could do. The relatively primitive surgical procedure used for such injuries in the 1960s required cutting through muscles, which only damaged Cook’s shoulder further.

“Greg was the single most talented player we’ve ever had with the Bengals,” Bengals president Mike Brown said in a statement released by the team today. “His career was tragically short due to the injury. Had he been able to stay healthy, I believe he would have been the player of his era in the NFL.”

In his book Greatest Quarterbacks, Peter King rated Cook as one of the 50 best players ever to play the position, even though Cook played in just 12 professional games. Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman called Cook’s rookie year one of the greatest individual seasons any quarterback has ever had, and Bill Walsh, the Bengals’ offensive coach at the time, said years later that Cook could have been the greatest quarterback ever. NFL Network ranked Cook as the greatest one-shot wonder professional football has ever seen.

29 responses to “Former Bengals quarterback Greg Cook dies at 65

  1. Is it disingenuous for the Bengals to talk about a “tragedy” when it was their doctors who let the kid shred himself?

    … and PFT – cause of death? 65 is pretty damn young.

  2. I saw an interview with Bill Walsh in his later years and they asked him who is the most gifted QB he ever coached and of course I was expecting it to be Montana, but no – it was Greg Cook. Greg Cook? I am way to young to remember him, but the way Walsh talked about him I figured he must have been extremely talented because Walsh coached some great ones.

    Too bad his career was cut short and now his life. RIP

    @7thlombardiontheway – What a loser, no prospects in life. The Bengals are a division rival but so what tool.

  3. dikshuttle says:
    Jan 27, 2012 12:31 PM
    Is it disingenuous for the Bengals to talk about a “tragedy” when it was their doctors who let the kid shred himself?

    … and PFT – cause of death? 65 is pretty damn young.


    Doctors didn’t have the medical technology back then that they have today. They miss things. Go look up the name Ray Fosse who career was also ruined by a shoulder injury.

  4. @7thlombardiontheway

    Shouldn’t you be in hiding after the way your team got Tebowed?


    As I recall from the story on Cook, that was the medical practice of the time for that type of injury – not sure how the Bengals would have been responsible. Similar situation to Gale Sayers career being cut short by an injury that would have been a blip on the radar in today’s NFL.

  5. Just a side note:
    After Cook’s injury, the Bengals turned to Virgil Carter. Smart guy, but small and nowhere near the arm strength of Cook. Assistant Coach Bill Walsh developed a short, quick passing game to utilize Carter’s strengths: accuracy and decision making. The “West Coast” offense had it’s start in Cincinnati.

  6. lemmam,
    He played at the University of Cincinnati.

    I’m way too young to remember him but my dad always tells me how good he was. Hearing Bill Walsh and Sam Wyche’s opinions of him says it all though. Those guys coached some GREAT qb’s, so to say that Cook is the best (talent) they’ve ever coached really does say something.

  7. Condolences to his family….nineroutsider: I too remember that interview guy was something…RIP.

  8. His injury was one of the pivotal moments in NFL history.

    But for his injury, would Walsh have had to create the ‘Cincinnati’ offense to best utilize the talents of the brilliant but noodle-armed Virgil Carter?

    Would the best QB in the AFC Central in the 1970s, Ken Anderson (definitively not Bradshaw) have had the great career he had?

  9. @ packattack1967 says:

    The Natural

    That is about right. I remember NFL Films did an expose on him, and NFL Network did a thing about the best quarterback that never was. He could have been something, but because of the lack of MRI’s and other medical procedures that are routine today he played through the pain and ended up ruining any chance he had of a career. Paul Brown, Bill Walsh, Bob Trumpy and others called him the greatest they’d ever seen.


  10. I remember that we hated Kansas City after that game. I’m a Cowboys fan now and I still have distaste for the Chiefs. Think about it. 2nd year expansion team, the Bengals, start the season winning 3 in a row, equaling their entire total for the previous year, all because of Cook. No rookie QB in the history of the game can make that claim. Watching the Bengals and listening on the radio the rest of the year was painful. Flash in the pan took longer than his career. Too bad. He was sooooooooo good.

  11. R.I.P. Greg Cook. Gone far too soon. . .

    My uncle saw Greg Cook play that season in person and has been saying for years that he was the single greatest talent ever to play the position.

    Once I learned that Bill Walsh and Paul Brown thought the same thing I cursed the primitive state of medicine in 1969-70 and wondered what might have been.

    And yet Cook himself refused to succumb to self-pity. He soldiered-on for three more years before retiring. After football, he found fulfillment in painting, and as an artist he realized a bona fide second act to his life.

    When asked about his career, he was never bitter, and he refused to feel sorry for himself. Former teammates like Bob Trumpy were in awe of Cook’s strength and courage in dealing with his injury both during his career and after it was over.

    R.I.P. Greg Cook, a man whose life was the epitome of humility, resilience, and grace.

  12. From a Steeler fan: Greg Cook was a tremendous talent, and as one poster noted, had he stayed healthy, Pittsburgh would not have won four Super Bowls in the 70’s. Our sympathy to Greg’s family, friends, and to the Bengal Nation.

  13. Greg was a great man. He may not have showed his bitterness, but he was broken.

    He was a severe alcoholic and I am sure you will find out that, that is ultimately what did him in. He had pneumonia, but his body shut down and his kidneys failed when he checked into the hospital. A sad story. A man that’s life was shattered by a horrible injury and he never really got over it.

    Everybody that knew him loved him but also thought what a shame. He was so talented and so charismatic, but had some demons he never truly got over. What a great guy, a sad story, and I hope he rests in peace!

    We love you Gregory Lynn Cook, and will never forget you.

  14. I recall a classic game, post-injury, in the Astrodome that was one of the greatest 31 point ties (pre-sudden death rules) ever played – Cook was a QB god! So much promise in those expansion years for Bengals – RIP

  15. Mods really should consider banning some people from commenting. Laughing at someone, anyone who’s just died has no place in decent society.

    Greg Cook was a very, very special talent. RIP

  16. How can a sports news outlet do a story on Greg Cook and not point out that he was the UPI [b][u]American Football League Rookie of the Year[/u][/b] in 1969?

    And he wasn’t selected in the “NFL” draft, he was selected in the AFL-NFL Common Draft.

  17. I have been a Bengals’ fan for 42 years. Last night I learned of the passing of the greatest quarterback in Bengals’ history. Greg Cook could do most anything. Drafting Cook in the first round of the draft, Paul Brown said that Cook was the best prospect in the country. A very young offensive genius called Bill Walsh began to mold Cook into the greatest of all time. During the 1969 season Paul Brown called Cook the next Otto Graham. I cried last night at the thought that a small part of Greg when he realized that the final end had come dreamed of what should have been. Perhaps not. I hope not. We have no destiny to keep. We have neither glory nor defeat to meet. We strive to live our lives and in so doing leave a personal indelible mark on history and on others. Through his art and a right arm that exploded in professional football for one memorable year, Greg did that.

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