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Putting in His Nickel’s Worth : Toi Cook’s leadership and his play in passing situations have helped Carolina reach today’s NFC championship game

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Toi Cook is not the type to flash his Super Bowl ring.

“Except when I go to the airport and I’m trying to upgrade,” he explained. “Or when I want to get a table at an L.A. restaurant, like the Ivy.”

But seriously, folks, Cook understands the value of the jewelry. He spent seven years with New Orleans--seven long years when even the Saints’ best teams found a way to lose in the playoffs--before taking a pay cut to join San Francisco’s 1994-95 title march.

“When we went to the Super Bowl, Kathie Lee Gifford sang the national anthem,” he said. “I would have preferred Vanessa Williams, but Kathie Lee was great. It brought tears to my eyes.”

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Cook breaks into a warbling, operatic voice.

“This . . . is . . . the . . . NFL.”

Now the 10-year veteran finds himself as a role player, a nickel back, on another team with title hopes. The surprising Carolina Panthers face the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship game today at Lambeau Field and Cook has been telling teammates all they have to do is get him to the Super Bowl.

“I tell these guys that I know how to win,” he said. “There’s something nebulous, something intangible about it. I know what it takes.”

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This tale of success--and Cook weaves it well--stretches all the way back to Montclair Prep. The private campus, an unassuming cluster of buildings along busy Sepulveda Boulevard in Van Nuys, has built a fierce winning tradition over the years.

“It’s something the younger kids come in here and learn,” said Howard Abrams, the basketball coach. “Toi was very confident. He knew the hard work it took to prepare himself.”

At Montclair, Cook played on basketball and baseball teams that won Southern Section Small Schools titles. The football teams made the playoffs every year--the Mounties played 8-man football during his sophomore and junior years, then switched to 11-man.

Recruited by Stanford, Cook played on Cardinal teams that struggled through several rebuilding years before reaching the 1986 Gator Bowl against Clemson. The 5-foot-11, 188-pound cornerback made a fourth-quarter interception in a comeback bid that fell short, 27-21. The following spring, playing baseball, he scored the winning run in the championship game of the College World Series.

“Maybe it’s the ability to recognize situations and react appropriately,” he said, adding: “I know how to pick my teams.”

The hot streak continued into the NFL where, in Cook’s rookie season, the Saints made the playoffs for the first time in their history. His best year came in 1992, when he had 63 tackles and led the team with six interceptions. By then, the playoffs were almost an annual rite in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, so were first-round losses.

“I got frustrated,” he said. “I got more frustrated when they asked me to take a pay cut.”

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That’s when he jumped to the 49ers, accepting the minimum of $162,000 and a reserve role in exchange for the opportunity to play for what he calls “a dream team.”

“The first time New Orleans came to town, I was saying ‘If we do this or we do that, we’re gonna win,’ ” Cook recalled. “The other guys laughed. They said, ‘Man, they’re the Saints. We’re the Niners. It doesn’t matter if there’s an earthquake and a chasm opens up down the middle of the field, we’re still going to win.’ ”

That confidence propelled San Francisco to a 49-26 victory over San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX. Cook got an interception in that game and, subsequently, a hunk of gold with five marquise-cut diamonds to slip on his finger every once in a while.

The following season proved to be a letdown as a torn rotator cuff landed him on the 49ers’ injured reserve list. He became a free agent over the summer, trying out with the Denver Broncos before signing with Carolina.

“The positive of Toi--and one of the reasons he’s here--is that he’s very smart,” Coach Dom Capers said. “It becomes a situation where you have a guy that can play corner, nickel, dime and safety.”

Primarily a third cornerback on passing downs, the veteran has averaged only 20 to 30 snaps a game this season. Yet he leads Carolina’s defensive backs with four sacks and has made 34 tackles and three interceptions.

Along the way, the Panthers have rolled to a 13-4 record, winning the NFC West with a mix of players that includes young quarterback Kerry Collins and veterans such as Kevin Greene and Eric Davis, who also came from the 49ers.

“After the Dallas game, all the young guys were geeked,” Cook said. “Eric and I were kind of trippin’. That’s the thing about playing for the Niners. We’re so jaded.”

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That might be Cook’s most important contribution to the Panthers. He can share with rookies the benefit of his playoff experience.

“The veterans are like sheep dogs, trying to guide the young players in the right direction,” he said. “The young guys think you have to give a Herculean effort. But it’s not about running down the field, jumping 12 feet in the air and picking the ball off. What’s going to win is when you make the tackle on third and five.

“You’re really hyperventilating because you’re so excited. The crowd is screaming. The uniforms seem cleaner. Even the helmets seem shinier.”

Just like those Super Bowl rings.


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