Aug. 11, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Deontae Cooper stood on the sidelines wearing his number-32 practice jersey but without pads. The rest of the Huskies were in full pads, going at each other on the first two-practice day of preseason camp.
Injured and idled. It's the same place he's been for most of his first two-plus years. It's where he will be for all of the 2012, after he unbelievably tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee for the third time in three years on the first day of fall camp Monday.
Yet the determined, irrepressible running back was still smiling Saturday -- as always.
"Got to," he said into the gleaming sun following Washington's third practice since he'd learned the diagnosis that the unthinkable had happened again, this time to his supposedly "good," right knee.
"I teared up a little bit. It's tough, it's tough. But they said I could go (again next season)," Cooper said in his first public comments since doctors told him his Husky debut won't happen this year, either.
"I'll be all right."
The Huskies have learned by now there is no quit in this 6-foot, 201-pound driver that ran for 7,450 yards while at Citrus Hill High School in Perris, Calif., second in Inland Empire history to 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up Toby Gerhart.
Cooper then, in his words, "gave up a lot in high school" such as his senior prom and the graduation ceremony with his class to enroll at UW early in time for spring practice in 2010. He was the star of the Huskies' spring game that April as a freshman, rushing for more than 100 yards and sending notice he intended to be an immediate factor in coach Steve Sarkisian's rushing offense.
That was before ACL tear number one. Then two. And now, unbelievably, three.
Through it all he has maintained an infectious smile and positive disposition, despite setbacks that would make weaker, less-determined young men pack up and go home. During the first two grueling, seemingly endless knee rehabilitations of nearly a year each, he would joke "I'm still a freshman (athletically). "
That resolve and attitude have made him one of the most popular and respected athletes on the UW campus, let alone the football team.
"He's one of the highest character kids I've coached in my lifetime," said Huskies running backs coach Joel Thomas, a veteran of a dozen years coaching college football from Purdue to Louisville to Washington.
Thomas recruited Cooper out of Citrus Hill High. Now he's guiding him through his third major knee surgery, rehab and idled season in as many years.
Cooper is definitely expecting to be back next season.
"I'm going to rehab hard, like I did the other two. And I'm going to be right," Cooper said, almost scoffing at any doubts he won't. "I'll be in good shape, ready to go next year, definitely.
"Don't sleep on me."
Cooper clarified that the injury happened in the first practice Monday, on a simple, no-contact, handoff drill. He made one cut and didn't even fall to the ground. He initially didn't think it was his knee that tweaked.
"I had so many knee injuries, I said, `It's my calf. I'm going to be fine.' Then, as the days went on I started feeling it my knee. So I told the trainers, `I think it's something serious.' That's when we got the MRI and they told me (Wednesday) it was a slight tear in my ACL."
Since the freak injury, he's been on the sidelines following along on the play sheet and cheering on teammates from behind the offense's huddles.
"To Deontae's credit, he's just an absolute stud about it," Sarkisian said Thursday, hours after he was left in what he called "dismay" by the news. "He's obviously shaken up about it, as anyone would be. That guy is low inside. But why he is so unique and special, why people love him so much: He's back out here today with a smile on his face.
"We'll try to do everything in our power to help him through this process, because it's not an easy one."
Sarkisian also believes Cooper will someday, finally, carry the ball in a game for Washington.
"I do. If anybody can, that guy (will)," the coach said. "He's just a great soul. He will battle again."
Despite his sunny smile and outlook, Cooper admits the watching and knowing he is headed for a third reconstructive knee surgery and rehab it's exactly easy.
"It's still hard. It's hard now, coming out here," he said. "But I'll get over it. As soon as I get this surgery I'll be ready to go. Get working and get right."
Current and former Huskies have expressed disbelief, sympathy and support for Cooper in the last few days. But when asked if he's had a moment of self-pity this week, Cooper shook his head full of braided hair.
"I don't have a `why-me' (moment). It's just unfortunate luck," he said. "I can't be unlucky forever. I'm going to catch a break sooner or later.
"I know how to do this. It's been two years. It's going to be a little bit lighter. It's not as severe on this side as it was the left.
"I'm going to be all right."
INSIDE CAMP: The Huskies were in helmets and shorts in the morning for work on specific game situations and then full pads in the afternoon for what Sarkisian thought was a great, "physical" practice. Jesse Callier scored on a short run in a spirited goal-line drill, and freshman Cyler Miles threw a touchdown pass to Kasen Williams. The smacking scrimmage ended with safety Will Shamburger and defensive lineman Drew Schultz stuffing consecutive running plays inside. That spawned huge roars and back slaps from defensive coaches and teammates. ... Saturday night, 102 players plus team staffers went downtown to CenturyLink Field to watch Jake Locker, Devin Aguilar and their Tennessee Titans play an NFL exhibition against the Seahawks. "It's a great team bonding activity that we like to do every year," Sarkisian said. Last year the team went to a Mariners baseball game and were on the field to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. "It's a little bit of reward. These guys are working their tails off," the coach said. "This has been a physical week of work and guys have been grinding away - the meetings, the studying of stuff. ... It's hopefully a way I can reward them. It's something fun to do so that they continue to enjoy the experience of being here. For a bunch of these guys this will be the first time going to an NFL football game." ... The team is off Sunday and practice next on Monday morning and evening.