Jamaica native Crooks thrives at OT

When the Jamaican four-man bobsled team showed up in Calgary, Alberta, for the 1988 Winter Olympics, it captured the hearts of millions and inspired the Walt Disney film, “Cool Runnings.” Now, another of Jamaica’s native sons is looking to become a fan favorite as well, albeit on the gridiron.

Offensive tackle Delando Crooks (Atlanta/Carver) is new to the game of football. Like his bobsled brethren, the tropical island nation he used to call home did not give him a background for his new sport.

“Jamaica is not a traditional football nation,” said Crooks, who’ll be a senior next year. “We’ve got soccer. That is pretty much it. And cricket.”

Luckily, for football fans, rather than becoming a cricket bowler Crooks did decide to give football a try. Credit Carver coach Darren Myles with seeing the potential in Crooks.

“Coach Myles is responsible for Delando’s growth as a football player,” said Troy Vaccianna, Crooks’ uncle, who added that when Delando started out, he was roughly 5-foot-10 and 280 pounds. “He couldn’t even make it across the field. But since then it has been hard work and dedication. Delando doesn’t even drink soda or juice anymore. He will just have a sandwich and a bottle of water; that is how dedicated he is.”

The transformation has been remarkable. Crooks, now a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tackle, was recently selected for Rising Seniors. The weeklong event in Atlanta, which culminates with the Georgia Junior Bowl, features the best up-and-coming players in the state of Georgia.

And now major colleges have let Crooks know that they would love to have him on their squad.

“I have offers from Georgia, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Virginia Tech, the University of Alabama Birmingham and Southern Miss,” Crooks said.

The road to those offers has been a tough one for the young man.

Crooks emigrated with his mother from Jamaica when he was a child. Tragically, his mother passed away five years ago and Crooks went to live with his uncle.

Vaccianna’s son Travis played football, and Crooks soon followed suit, seeing as how the two were inseparable. Travis Vaccianna would wake up his cousin at 5 a.m. daily to go work out. While Crooks had natural ability hidden inside, Travis was “a self-made athlete” according to Myles. The example Travis set for Crooks paid off, and Crooks worked his way onto the field.

He has a vivid memory of the first time he suited up with helmet and full pads.

“It was hard to breathe,” Crooks said. “The first time I got hit, I kind of liked that feeling so I came back and I started hitting back. That is how it went. I like run blocking -- just getting pancakes. Getting up and leaving a defensive lineman or linebacker lying on the floor; that is the fun part about it.”

His determination isn’t limited to the gridiron. Crooks knows his mother wanted a better life for him, and he plans to make her proud.

“Delando is an honor roll student,” Vaccianna said. “He takes classes at Georgia State University, doing dual enrollment while in high school. He is on pace to graduate in December. He will be the first kid in recent memory to make early enrollment coming out of Carver High School.”

As for where he might enroll, it gets trickier. Crooks admits to knowing very little about the colleges recruiting him.

“I am learning more about them, trying to figure the whole thing out,” said Crooks, who attended games this past season at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Georgia State. “I am just trying to go somewhere that I can get my education.”

By many accounts Crooks did well when in the Rising Seniors program in late December, taking on some of the best FBS-level defensive players in the state -- despite the distraction of learning that his grandmother was very ill.

“When he reported for the Rising Seniors camp, that same day he found out that his grandmother was not going to make it. He went through that whole week with a heavy heart,” Vaccianna said. “She just passed two days ago. But he will be all right. He is a strong kid.”

Crooks would need all of that strength to adjust to facing off against some of the best players in the state.

“At first I was kind of shocked, but as the practices went on I kind of got used to it,” he said. “I got my confidence up to where I could play the way I needed to play against the opposing side.”

As Crooks’ confidence increases, expect the attention from college coaches to do the same.