MINNEAPOLIS — When Chris Cook emerged, for the final time, from courtroom 1653 of the Hennepin County Government Center on Thursday, he wasn’t quite sure how to react.
He shuffled toward a window and shook his head, trying to process his good fortune.
He smiled widely, exhaled and then did what came naturally. Amid a pack of well-wishers, Cook turned back and engulfed his defense attorney, David Valentini, in a bear hug.
“Thank you,” Cook said.
“Welcome back to the NFL!” Valentini exclaimed.
On Thursday, following six full days of testimony in a fascinating and sometimes revealing trial, 12 jurors reached a verdict. Cook’s fate was revealed slowly with a line-by-line announcement by the court clerk.
Not guilty on the count of domestic assault by strangulation.
Not guilty on the count of domestic assault in the third degree.
Not guilty on lesser charges of domestic assault with intent to cause fear and domestic assault with intent to cause bodily harm.
One hundred forty-six days since last practicing with the Vikings, Cook felt a sudden surge of relief, joy and vindication. Best of all, he saw a pathway back to a promising football career that had been derailed five months ago by one excessively violent argument with his then-girlfriend, Chantel Baker.
“Man, I can’t tell you how grateful I am this is all over now,” Cook said. “I just want to get back to playing football.”
That wish will soon become a reality, with the Vikings cornerback-turned-defendant given clearance to return to Winter Park in the role he most relishes.
With a statement, the Vikings gave every indication Cook would be welcomed back.
“We have thoroughly considered Chris’ situation and how he has approached this matter,” the statement read. “We will meet with Chris in the near future and believe he deserves the opportunity to rejoin our organization.”
The NFL, with authority to dole out its own punishment, seems unlikely to take action. “We will review the facts,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail, “but we do not expect league discipline in this matter.”
Viewed strictly from a football standpoint, Cook’s acquittal might register as the most significant victory the Vikings have enjoyed in two years. Suddenly, an abysmal secondary has help returning from a big and quick 25-year-old corner who many in the organization believe could quickly become a consistent standout.
Yet Cook will have to again earn the trust of his coaches and teammates, no easy battle after all this.
“I don’t even know what I’m going to say to them,” he said. “Most likely I’ll just show them proof (I can be trusted) instead of talking. … I feel I’m a person that’s very trustworthy. And I know it might take some time to earn the trust of the organization and the fans. But I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
Cook acknowledged a cyclone of emotions spinning through his head.
He seemed contrite, apologizing to his family and to Baker and her family for all he put them through.
He defended his character, asserting he is not the monster he’s been portrayed to be.
He repeatedly referenced the dejection he felt missing 10 games last season, even with the Vikings keeping him on their payroll.
“People said, ‘At least you’re still getting paid,’ but that didn’t make me happy,” Cook said. “Playing football makes me happy. I just felt a void. I didn’t feel like me.”
Since his trial began March 5, Cook had felt his guts twisting, his future suddenly in the hands of 12 jurors who were asked to piece together and evaluate that chaotic night and early morning in October that ended with Cook in custody.
The much-publicized fight left Baker with a perforated eardrum, a bloody nose and a bruised face.
It put Cook behind bars for more than 48 hours and left him facing two felony charges.
It left the Vikings without a budding young cornerback for most of 2011, with no promise Cook would ever return.
Cook’s rescue from that purgatory came Thursday, leaving him thankful and introspective. He insists he has changed.
“This definitely makes me more conscious about the things I do,” he said. “Even though I was conscious about them before, this helped me grow as a man.
“Adversity introduces a man to himself. This was definitely an adverse situation and I learned a lot about myself. I control my destiny. My actions control who I am and what I become in the future.”
Five months after losing control of his future, Cook now has his career back and his life back in his own hands.