NORFOLK - Breana Cook had only a brief role in All-American: Homecoming, the CW Network drama about two athletes' journey to the fictional Bringston University.
But Cook sees part of his journey in protagonist Simone Hicks, a tennis player from Beverly Hills who attends the prestigious Historically Black College and University.
Cook is from Long Beach, Calif., and left the West Coast to accept a tennis scholarship in Norfolk. And like Hicks, he's climbing the tennis ladder in an attempt to earn his degree.
Cook appeared in an episode as tennis player Cortina Westgate in the series' current second season.
“I see many similarities. Literally almost everything,” Cook said, bursting into laughter before a recent tennis practice at NSU. "You have HBCU, a tennis player from California who goes across the country and climbs from the bottom to the top."
Cook found out about the show after seeing an Instagram ad about being an extra. She was originally cast as Hicks' double.
“But they didn't know I was left-handed. So they made me play right-handed," Cook said. "They asked me if I'd ever played right-handed before, and I said no. They were surprised at how well I play with my right hand.
"So they contacted me before I went back to school to play the role of Cortina and that's what happened. It was surreal. It was a dream come true because as a kid I really wanted to be an actor. So I could see myself doing it."
Teammate Niya Grant was one of the many Spartans who saw Cook's acting debut.
"I thought it was cool to see someone I know and talk to every day on such a big platform," she said. "But I think it was kind of funny how they did it because I know [Cook] is a great tennis player. And they made her look so bad on the show. It was a joke with the team. But I think it was pretty cool and a good deal for her.
Cook's introduction to tennis came late.
Her parents, Lila Cockrell and Brian Cook, introduced her to many other sports, including swimming, gymnastics and soccer.
"I gravitated toward tennis because there was a group of African-American kids in my neighborhood that played," said Cook, who was 11 when she started. "I said, 'Oh, I'll try it.' And I ended up loving it.”
But she soon realized that she did not have the same experiences as other girls her age.
"I knew I was way behind everyone else," she said. "Most of the other kids started when they were about 3 years old. So I thought, 'How do I catch up? ". But I put work and everything into it, and I was able to catch up.'
She won the under-16 divisions of both the Fabian Grassini Tennis Academy/City of Tustin Open Winter Classic in 2018 and the Match Tough Tennis Academy Winter Junior Open in 2019. She was one of 13 players from Southern California to qualify for National Summer 2020 ITA Championships at Texas A&M.
Cook also played on the ITA Summer Circuit, which was created to provide incoming freshmen and current college players with tournament competition during the summer months. She advanced to the quarterfinals.
Her goal was to play Division I tennis for UCLA or Pepperdine, but only the Division II and III programs attracted interest.
Breana Cook, a tennis player from Norfolk, California, had a minor role in All-American: Homecoming, a drama on the CW Network that chronicles two athletes' journey to the fictional Bringston University. She saw a lot of herself in this role.https://t.co/8g83hwB9tr pic.twitter.com/29LL0Fr4Sw— Larry Rubama (@LHRubama)25. april 2023
But she got a call from then-Norfolk State coach Larry Holmes, who was the 2021 MEAC Coach of the Year. He asked her if she had come to play for the Spartans.
Cook admits she knew nothing about NSU but liked the idea.
"My parents were a little skeptical about me leaving California for another part of the country," said Cook, who was ranked 289th nationally as a senior by California Connections Academy and 48th in California by the Tennis Recruitment Network. "But when we visited, they felt more comfortable. As soon as I got here, I immediately loved it and committed to it."
The sophomore is 1.5m tall and has 3-10 points this season as she moved up from No. 5 in singles to No. 3. She also played a match at 2nd and 1st place. He is number 5 in doubles. -5, plays mostly at number 2 and 3.
Norfolk newly qualified tennis coach Donald Raspberry is impressed.
"He's a really good player with a lot of potential," he said. "I think with more training and a little more commitment on her part, I think she could be a really good conference player. She's got the tools, she's got the attitude, she's coachable and she knows how to play.
He hopes to make an impact when the Spartans play at the MEAC Championships starting Thursday in Cary, North Carolina.
Cook also makes a difference off the field.
According to a survey by NIL matching platformOpen doors, men receive 77% of name, image and likeness (NIL) contracts awarded to college athletes, while women receive only 23%. But Cook can proudly say she is one of them.
She has registered on many NIL platforms but has not received any offer. Then she found a platform called PlayBooked that connects student athletes with sponsors and advocacy opportunities.
She is also involved in H&R Block's "A Fair Shot" program, which kicked off the second year of the NIL campaign focusing on diversity and inclusion. This year, they more than doubled their program, including signing 18 black athletes from 16 colleges across the country, including seven HBCU athletes.
“It definitely helped me with my college expenses,” Cook said. "I am now covered by a scholarship - academically and sportingly. But it definitely helped with external expenses like going home, because it's not cheap."
Cook is nowhere near the top of the NIL ladder. That honor goes to LSU basketball player Angel Reese, whose NIL rating went from $371,000 to $1.3 million during the Tigers' NCAA Tournament Championship, according to On3.
"I want it for me," Cook said as she burst into laughter. "That would be great. But I feel like it's just the beginning. I feel like it's opening up opportunities. I feel like [female athletes] are starting to get more recognition. So hopefully after this, other companies will chime in and I can continue to create a platform for others in HBCU.
She said a strong social media presence and a well-defined personal brand were key, which could create opportunities for athletes to connect with the business world.
“Being a tennis player, an HBCU athlete and a woman is very important,” she said. “I love being able to be his face. And I want to be an inspiration to others to show what is possible. People think that attending an HBCU will not give you as much recognition and exposure, but it is possible. You just have to put yourself out there.”
Larry Rubama, 757-575-6449,email@example.comFollow @LHRubama on Twitter.