Betty Cook has four sons of her own, but through the years she has opened her heart and home to a few more.
Count Miami Central senior receiver Da’Vante Phillips as one.
“The way I look at it, they’re all leaving here, and they’re all going to end up somewhere better,” said Cook, whose biological son, Dalvin Cook, won the Mr. Florida Football Award last season and is now a freshman running back at defending national champion Florida State.
“I believe in prayer,” she said. “God has always provided for me, and my boys and I know he will never fail me.”
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The power of prayer and the pull of football have helped Phillips, a 6-2, 204-pound consensus four-star recruit, survive what has been a rough childhood.
He was 9 when his parents’ financial struggles forced him and his brothers to move in with their godparents. Four years later, his father went to prison. Then, a year and a half ago, right before he sat down to watch Alabama and Notre Dame play in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, he got a phone call.
“It was my godsister,” Phillips said. “She was crying. She said, ‘Your mom got shot in the chest in a drive-by over by 54th Street. She’s dead.”
Phillips dropped the phone and ran out of his house sobbing.
One of the first phone calls he got moments later was from Cook who told him, “I know I’m not your biological mom, but I’m here for you.”
Phillips, who was always close with Dalvin, who led Central to three state titles in four years, moved into Betty’s home soon after.
“She treats me the same as if I was her son,” Phillips said.
Said Cook: “He has his moments. But I think a lot of that is because of all the things he’s been through. I understand his situation with his mom being killed. For the most part, he’s a good kid.”
Central coach Roland Smith said the same thing. He took over at Central last year and watched Phillips follow the lead of Cook and fellow star running back Joseph Yearby. This year, Smith has challenged Phillips to take on a leading role. Together, with Cook’s youngest son, senior receiver Anthony Jones, and a defense that returns nine starters the Rockets should once again be a force in Class 6A.
“What’s kept Da’Vante in line is this field right here,” Smith said. “He knows this is his last ride, and we didn’t get the ball to him as much as he would have liked last year because we had Dalvin and Joe.
“But Da’Vante can be a leader. He has that Michael Irvin mentality where he wants the ball. I’m quite sure this year he could finish with over 1,000 yards. Because he’s going to get the ball.”
Phillips, who had 47 catches for 872 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior, said his goal as a senior is to lead Central to a national title.
“People are doubting us, saying we’re not going to do what we did because some of the players left,” Phillips said. “But they can say that when I leave. I’m not going to accept that, accept a team losing.
“I don’t know how it feels to lose. I don’t know what it feels not to go to Orlando.”
Daytona Beach Mainland, ranked two spots behind the No. 1-ranked Rockets in the state preseason Class 6A poll, could be Central’s biggest hurdle on the road back to state. Last year, Phillips shredded Mainland for 211 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-15 state semifinal win.
“Whoever they put on me next time, they better put two more players,” Phillips said. “Double-teamed or not, I’m hungry.”
As for college, Cook said Phillips and Jones already have made plans on reuniting with Dalvin at FSU. But Phillips said “that’s not a lock.”
He said he plans on taking official visits to Ohio State, Alabama, LSU, Auburn and one other school. The Miami Hurricanes, he said, are also in the mix.
He hopes to finalize a top five by the end of September and enroll in college in January.
“I’m looking to play from the get-go,” Phillips said. “I’ve always been a starter. I want the coaches to let me know I’ll be playing on the field as a true freshman. So that will be the final factor.”