By Albert Earl
The Truth Contributor
My impression when I saw Zia Cooke the first time was that I knew instantly she was going to be someone special.
Her shiftiness, speed and the ability to finish through contact was simply amazing! What was most remarkable wasn’t that she was demonstrating her unique athletic talents while yet still in the fifth grade; it was the fact that she was doing it on the football field against boys in Toledo’s Mid-City Football League.
It was equally impressive that she was playing a position that didn’t shield her from the real action. Zia was taking snaps at quarterback, playing free safety positions, running options and coming up tackling running backs all while wearing Wonder Woman socks!
For those who may not know, the Mid-City Football League is by far one of the most talent-rich youth football leagues in the state of Ohio. This league has produced some of the greatest football players this city has ever seen, such as two-time Super Bowl Champion and former Pittsburgh Steeler Nate Washington, former Browns QB Deshone Kizer, current Browns offensive tackle James Hudson and former Cincinnati Bearcats and NFL player Michael Warren II.
Watching her play and competing at a high level against boys was phenomenal and I quickly noticed another trait that was far more outstanding than her athleticism. You see, playing effectively as the quarterback, she must have the skills to motivate, direct and re-direct her teammates as well as be an extension of the coach on the field.
A smart coach only trusts this level of responsibility in the hands of a player who exemplifies his vision. That trait my friends is called leadership. That leadership would get tested on one play in the red zone when Zia ran on a run option play and was hit hard losing a few yards.
Instead of lying there Zia bounced right up, went to the huddle, and waited on the coach to call in the next play. She made the choice again to run and gained the yards back. If she got hurt on the last play, those boys would never know it. Zia demonstrated her willingness to do whatever it took to keep the trust of her teammates to lead them to a win. Zia would help lead the Mid-City Colts to the Championship that season, putting the game on ice with a catch for a two-point conversion….and Her Jersey was retired!
A few years later Zia would give up her football gear to focus on her basketball dreams. She had just finished her eighth grade year as a champion with the Junior Lady Rams and was excited about playing the following season for the Rogers Lady Rams, coached by Lamar Smith. The Lady Rams finished their season as runner-up in the Division 2- State Championship Finals and were returning all of their starters.
The eighth-grade class coming in featured not only Zia but multiple future Division I level talented athletes. This projection of talent coming into the program had many supporters who were believing that the Rogers girls’ basketball team could go on a four-year run to the State Final Four.
I will never forget, while at the spring open gym, Zia approached Coach Smith while we were talking and said, “Coach I promise you, before I leave Rogers, we’re going to hang a State Championship banner up there!” as she pointed at the wall where she envisioned it hanging.
Although the coach and I laughed, I recognized at that very moment she was going to fulfill that promise. Unfortunately like all visions, that promise did not come easy for Zia. The first hurdle she and her teammates had to overcome was that half of the girls from her Junior Rams team decided to go play for Notre Dame Academy, the Lady Rams archrivals, and a team that was also loaded with Division I talent.
Then, despite winning their fifth consecutive City League Title, they lost in a huge upset in the Regional Championship game. That loss brought on a lot of unjust criticism about the program and, to make matters worse, the following year Zia’s father was a signature away from sending her to Notre Dame after her grades had slipped.
Zia had a private moment with her dad, (while they were in the attendance office), and she asked him to believe in her and that things would change if he allowed her to continue at Rogers. Her sincerity resonated and Zia would remain a Ram with the opportunity to fulfill her promise.
Her sophomore season had a rocky start with losses to Notre Dame and two losses to City League rival Start High School. However, Zia and her teammates trusted the process and would go on to win the Lady Rams sixth consecutive City League Title avenging the early season losses to Start and, as promised, she remained on the Academic Honor Roll all season.
Although they would lose in the district semifinals that season, Coach Smith, and the fan base, began to see enormous growth in Zia and her teammates. That growth and maturity would be on display during the summer when Zia brought home a Gold Medal representing the USA in 16U FIBA Games.
That growth would also be instrumental in the program when they won their seventh straight City Championship in her junior season and set up the team for an historic state run for the title. However, that goal would be met with adversity when Zia’s grandmother Rosa L. White passed away during the season. Zia made another promise that she would win the State for “Granny.”
Most people would crumble under that kind of pressure, but Zia and The Lady Rams would blow through the sectional, district and regional championships to help Zia reach her first Final Four appearance. Although the Final Four would be difficult, not even Gilmore Academy, future WBA and Michigan All American Naz Hillman could stop the Lady Rams from bringing home the State Title. Zia’s 33 points and 15 rebound performances in the Championship game capped off her season fulfilling the promises she made to her grandmother and Coach Smith!
She remained dedicated and now hanging from the wall right where she pointed is not only the 2018 championship. Next to it is the 2019 State Title, achieving something no other girls or boys’ basketball team has ever done in history of the city, winning back-to back basketball State Tiles. Zia also won her second Gold Medal representing the USA again in the FIBA 17U Games that summer.
A few weeks ago, we watched Zia win her first Division I NCAA National Championship Game when her South Carolina Gamecocks defeated UConn 64 to 49. Zia became the third player in City League History to win a championship at that level joining Truman Claytor who won with Kentucky in 1978 and Erika Haney who won with Notre Dame in 2001.
Zia finished the game with 11 points, 5 rebounds and a smothering defensive performance holding Azzi Fudd to just three points in front of a sold-out crowd and one of the highest television ratings in Women’s Final Four history. Zia was named to the All-Tournament Team for the second consecutive year and fulfilling yet another promise she made to herself to become a collegiate national champion.
Off the court Zia kept her promise while facing a new challenge. She has retained a standard of excellence academically as promised and with the new NCAA policy of “Name, Image and Likeness” that allows college athletes to receive compensation for the use of their name, image and likeness, Zia is now using her platform to promote equity for women athletes.
She recently signed a partnership deal with H&R Block with their ‘A Fair Shot’ campaign that promotes equity in women’s sports by seeking to level the playing field when it comes to women’s sponsorship. Zia is quoted on H&R Block website saying:“H&R Block is standing up for female student athletes by not only supporting us financially but making sure we’re set up for long-term success in understanding the tax implications of the money we’re earning from our name, image, and likeness.”
Her senior year is ahead as Zia Cooke’s resume’ already reads…….
4x City Champion, 4x Sectional Champion, 3x District Champion, 2x Regional Champion, 2x Back2Back State Champion, 2x FIBA Gold Medalist, 3x All State, Ohio Division II player of the Year, McDonalds’ All American, USA Today All American, 2000 points in High School, Scored over 1000 in College, First Team All SEC, 2nd Team All SEC, SEC All Freshman Team, two Final Four Appearance, one National Championship, Activist and still an Honor Roll student.
Leadership, Loyalty and Legacy….and she’s not done yet. She’s just getting started!