By RJ Young
FOX Sports USFL Writer
The New Jersey Generals, who had already beaten the Stars twice this season, including in the previous week's regular-season finale, had just taken a 14-10 lead in the fourth quarter thanks to a 78-yard punt return by league MVP KaVontae Turpin.
Stars coach Bart Andrus was running out of time. He’d lost the league’s cornerback in Channing Stribling to an ankle injury and his starting running back Matt Colburn — the USFL Sportsman of the Year — to a knee injury for the remainder of the game.
For a series, he was even without his starting quarterback, Case Cookus.
Officials needed to remind coaches and players that their behavior after plays was bordering on unsportsmanlike conduct. That’s when Cookus asserted himself.
"Guys let’s keep it clean, man," he told his teammates in the huddle. "I don’t care if someone punched me in the face. They aren’t going to be here next week. We are."
He said those words as the Stars trailed the Generals, and they would prove prophetic when Maurice Alexander's 87-yard punt return touchdown vaulted the Stars into the USFL Championship Game. But even more than that, the words were a perfect example of Cookus’ attitude toward the game.
"I don't know where it comes from," Cookus told me on "The Number One Ranked Show." "It's probably just a little competitive edge that I get when I stepped between those lines. Because when I step off the field, I don't care if you hit me 15 times [in a game], we’ll shake hands and we'll go out and hang out together.
"But as soon as you cross those lines, it's fair game … That's one thing about me whether it's you know, ping pong, pickup basketball or professional football, I'm gonna try very hard."
And he’ll hit you in the face — [Les Grossman voice] — really friggin' hard.
Following a freshman year at Northern Arizona in which Cookus won the Jerry Rice Award — FCS’s National Freshman of the Year Award — and a sophomore year limited due to injury, Cookus was behind center for the Lumberjacks when he ear-holed a Montana defender while blocking for one of his teammates.
The hit was illegal. Cookus was hit with a targeting penalty and ejected.
"It’s funny now," he said, "but it wasn’t funny then."
Targeting had just been adopted by the NCAA rulebook in 2008, and Cookus is thought to be the first quarterback in the sport’s history to be ejected for targeting.
"Initially," Cookus said, "I thought it was for taunting or things like that. And then they said it was for targeting, and I was shocked. They threw me out [of the game] and the fans were throwing beers and snowballs and everything at me. Montana is a tough place to play at."
He laughs it off now, but it’s those instances and stories that have kept him fighting to keep alive his dream of playing professional football. Cookus has spent time with the NFL's New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings, Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders, as well as in the Canadian Football League.
But because he came out of college during the beginning of the pandemic, he never got a chance to fully engage in a professional setting in the NFL.
"I think coming out the year I did, the COVID year, not having a pro day, not having this and that," he said. "So, it was hard for me to learn how to be a pro over Zoom. When you go to those mini camps, you're around other rookies and you kind of get to learn together.
"And when you're doing it over Zoom, you kind of had to take your lumps, and you can't tell what you're doing wrong because it's over computer."
The USFL gave him a chance not only to learn but, after an unfortunate injury to starting quarterback Bryan Scott, to play.
It gave Cookus the chance to lead a professional team to a championship game in front of his parents and his fiancée, Tyler.
Before playing in the USFL, Cookus’ last game as a starter in a meaningful game was at Northern Arizona, a 60-53 loss to Idaho in which he passed for 450 yards and three TDs.
"It always makes me a little bit emotional," he said. "I had one of the best games of my career and I'm sitting there I'm like, ‘Man, is this the way I'm gonna go out?’
"Now, just to be able to play again and appreciate the game. I think I have a newfound appreciation for not playing for almost two years. So just the opportunity now, playing for a championship. It’s so exciting to have my fiancée and my mom and dad will be there (at the USFL title game). I just can't wait. I’m super excited for it."
Now, Cookus a great championship game.
RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast "The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young." Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to "The RJ Young Show" on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.