Austin Cook finally reached Normal.
Although he'd tell you the key to beating cancer was never leaving it.
When he was diagnosed with leukemia a few days after passing his physical for golf his sophomore year, Cook's first thought was that he was disappointed he wouldn't be able to play golf.
"I really wanted to play golf that year," Cook said Thursday afternoon, after shooting an 80 during his practice round at Weibring Golf Course, the home course of the Illinois State Redbirds and the site of the 2-day state meet that opens this morning.
"It was real depressing for everybody," fellow senior and teammate Zach Rehmert said. "He worked so hard that summer."
Cook, now a senior, had the first of four surgeries Aug. 5, and his sole goal during his battle was to keep life ordinary.
"I basically tried to stay the same as much as possible," he said. "I knew if I got negative, things would get weird. I just needed to stay positive."
But then, with the touch of a nerve, any chance of routine was derailed.
'I really just wanted to be at school'
How often do you hear that from a teenager? When the alternative and the cold, hard reality is being stuck at home and not being able to walk, homework sounds pretty good.
On Sept. 12, 2011, before he could find out how his close friends scored against Rochelle, Cook and his mother, Kendra, left for Peoria.
"There really wasn't much of a conversation," Cook said. "I didn't really want to talk to anybody."
The next morning doctors removed lymph nodes, bone marrow and other materials. The operation left a 7-inch scar on his abdomen. It also left him unable to walk, a nerve in his right leg damaged during surgery.
"I couldn't pick my leg up myself," Cook remembered. "It was like there was no muscle in there. I couldn't stand on it. I realized there was no way I'd be able to play golf, and they told me I wouldn't be able to play basketball."
There it is again: the desire not to survive a terminal illness, but to simply be a kid and do what kids do.
Cook missed 1½ months of school.
"My parents had to work all the time," he said. "Most of the time, I was home all alone, and I really wanted to be at school."
But his kid brothers, Chris, 13, and Dustin, 16, were none the wiser that their big brother was hurting inside.
"I think they realized that I didn't really have answers and didn't care," he said. "They realized I just wanted to be normal."
Keeping it light
Cook used a crutch to get around during his first month back at school. Posed with the option, he chose to have his third surgery a few days after Christmas.
"I didn't want to still be healing or be restricted," Cook said.
His last surgery was in January, just 4 months after he began chemotherapy Sept. 16. The treatments continued through July 31. They were precautionary, as the doctors declared him cancer-free before he received his first dosage.
His port was removed in June so that he could go on his Make-a-Wish Foundation trip to Florida, where he received passes to parks and got to play golf at the Disney's Palm Golf Course.
It was a far cry from his first wish, but it had to do.
"I wanted custom-made clubs and to play at TPC Sawgrass [near Jacksonville, Fla.]," Cook said, "just to see how many balls I could lose in the water."
Cook said his sense of humor was one of the best weapons he had during his battle. That and watching basketball games, even if he wanted nothing more to lace 'em up himself.
'That's all you need to know about Cookie'
Cook says his right leg is still just 80 percent. Last winter, it was far shy of that when he tried out for the basketball team.
"He was just coming off things and getting his feet back on the ground and getting involved in things," said then first-year Warriors coach Jim Preston, who made the gut-wrenching decision to cut Cook. "It's so difficult as a coach because, as a teacher, I'm in it to help kids. I'm not in it to disappoint kids."
But then Cook became the teacher.
"I think the most remarkable thing – and this goes to the kind of person he is – after tryouts, we had to tell him that he's not at the point in his life that he's physically able to do this." Preston said. "So he asked, 'OK, coach, what do I have to do in order to do this?'"
Cook attended open camps and open gyms this year.
"His reaction was so unique and mature, for his age," Preston said. "I think I learned more than Austin did. He taught me a lot about the human spirit, handling adversity and coping.
"That's all you need to know about Cookie."
Preston obviously needs to again conduct tryouts, but he cryptically has given Cook's family, friends, and all of Sterling something to look forward to this winter.
"How much Austin plays, how many points he scores, it's all immaterial," Preston said. "It's all about the road he's been on and what he's accomplished."
Cook admits his battle was a struggle.
"Some days I felt great, and some days I felt like crap," he said. "But that's when all my friends were there," he said. "One hundred percent of the time, they were there, just being there, just hanging out and doing things together."
He plans to attend Sauk, and isn't sure where he'll go from there or what he'll study.
Every 3 months for the next 10 years, he'll go for checkups to make sure the cancer remains in remission.
He doesn't worry about those appointments. After all, that wouldn't accomplish anything.
"I'm used to it now," Cook sais. "I've been there so many times. I just stay positive."
That's the biggest thing he says he's learned from his battle, and his victory.
"I learned that people take stuff for granted too much," Cook said. "People get down too easily on themselves and get upset when they don't get their way."
Sterling – Austin Cook, sr. 8:30 a.m.; Lucas Campbell, jr., 8:39; Zach Rehmert, sr., 8:48; Trevor Sisson, sr., 8:57, Kyle Sinn, sr., 9:06, Ryan Hurley, jr. 9:15
Rock Falls senior Andrew Tichler – 9:33
Dixon senior Ryan Dixon – 10:27