Deontae Cooper is back. He is smiling, gliding and charging on as if his three knee reconstructions in three years never happened. When and if he finally debuts for UW Aug. 31 against Boise State, an entire university and its fan base will do more than smile back.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE – Deontae Cooper isn’t the face of the football program. That’s Keith Price.
He’s not its returning, 1,400-yard rusher, either. That’s Bishop Sankey.
Yet, make no mistake, Cooper is Washington’s soul, its most beloved and inspirational player.
Not just on the football team. Within the entire UW athletic department of 600-plus student-athletes and 19 head coaches.
And far beyond campus.
Lorenzo Romar took a break from the camp he was running inside Alaska Airlines Arena Monday to watch football practice inside neighboring Husky Stadium. The Huskies’ fixture as men’s basketball coach inquired about only one of the 105 Dawgs practicing on the first day of fall camp.
“How’s Deontae doing?” Romar asked from the south sidelines as everyone’s favorite No. 32 carried the ball a few yards in front of him.
It was Cooper’s first Huskies practice since he tore an anterior cruciate ligament in his knee for the unfathomable third time in three summers, last year.
He enrolled at Washington 3½ years ago. He is on track to graduate next spring. He is 22 years old. But he has yet to appear in a game.
The redshirt junior’s only accomplishments he has to show for his time at UW are three, arduous, seemingly endless rehabilitations from two reconstructions of his left knee and one to his right knee.
Oh, he’s also accomplished this: becoming – from director of athletics Scott Woodward to former Huskies around the world literally down to the equipment guy -- the most popular Husky around.
“Man, I’m telling you,” Romar said to me Monday, “the first time he does well there will be people cryin’ in these stands.”
Indeed, ‘Coop’ could be the Mayor of UW. Or at the very least its student-body president, if he decided to run.
When I mentioned that to him following Monday’s practice, Cooper dropped his head and scoffed out a laugh.
“One thing I love about the University of Washington is how supportive everyone is around campus, as far as academics, trainers, teammates, coaches. You know, even my peers, other athletes from other sports here,” he said.
“It’s pretty special. This is a great place. And I love it.”
The feeling is more than mutual.
“He’s so unique, so special,” Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian says.
When Cooper tore his ACL for the third time last August, Sarkisian admitted he was shaken personally.
“It kind of left me in dismay for a little bit. I was almost baffled by it; how could it happen again?” the coach said.
“I believe this: Of all the guys on the team – we’ve got some great kids, some tough kids – I don’t know that there is anybody that would handle it better than Deontae will.”
Cooper is back slashing across the turf Husky Stadium. He is carrying the ball through practice as a second option at running back with Sankey. He runs, looks, acts and sounds as if this is no big whoop.
His hard work, perseverance and relentlessly positive attitude will carry him through to perhaps the most awaited, most deserved Husky debut ever on Aug. 31 when UW opens against Boise State.
“He’s one of the highest character kids I’ve coached in my lifetime,” said former Huskies running backs coach Joel Thomas.
The veteran of more than a dozen years coaching college football from Purdue to Louisville to Washington is now the running backs coach at Arkansas. Thomas recruited Cooper to UW out of Citrus Hill High School in Perris, Calif., four-plus years ago.
|“He never seems to have an ‘off’ day and is a true inspiration to everyone he touches from children in the community, to the public, to his fellow student-athletes."|
Kim Durand, UW’s associate athletic director for student development, calls Cooper “truly special.”
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I can’t think of a single student-athlete with whom I’ve worked who better epitomizes a positive attitude, mental toughness, and amazing spirit,” Durand said Wednesday. “He never seems to have an ‘off’ day and is a true inspiration to everyone he touches from children in the community, to the public, to his fellow student-athletes.
“He is a leader, an inspiration.”
Liberty Bracken is a UW academic advisor who went on the anthropology class trip to Tahiti with Cooper and 10 other Husky student-athletes that I profiled last month.
“Deontae always has a smile on his face, regardless of what is going on in his life. He is one of the most positive and inspiring people I have ever known,” Bracken said. “Nothing gets him down. The amazing thing is even when we went to Tahiti, the people there did not know about him or his story, but they all gravitated towards him and loved working with him because of his positivity.
“He has touched so many lives during our time there. His energy, leadership, and willingness to share with others brings the best out of people who surround him.”
But Cooper’s not simply charming those adults who are in positions of authority over him.
Justin Jolly is a Huskies student and one of the football team’s managers. If ever a person would know the true character of a player, it’s a peer in age that is around him in all settings for dozens of hours a week, every week about 10 months every year. A person who picks up his socks, washes his uniforms, the works.
“Among all of us managers, the consensus is that D Coop is the nicest guy on the team. He is the only guy on the team that really goes out of his way to remember your name,” Jolly wrote to me in an unsolicited e-mail July, before he knew I was going to write this story.
“My first day of work he saw me in the equipment room with all the other managers and he immediately realized that I was a new face and said, ‘Who's the new (guy)?’ I told him my name once -- and he's remembered ever since.”
One night during finals week in June Jolly and Cooper studied in the campus library until 2:30 in the morning. As they were leaving Cooper spotted a woman across the room that he knew. He broke off to talk to his fellow undergrad frazzled and bleary eyed under the crush of finals.
“What really struck me was when she asked how he was, although he was stressed and tired, he replied, ‘Oh I'm great, I'm living a blessed life,’” Jolly said. “That's just the type of kid D is.
“I want every Dawg fan to feel like they know Coop -- because he really is one of the most special people I have ever gotten the chance to know.”
DAD’S WORKOUTS – AND WORK ETHIC
Cooper took a handoff from Price this week and glided across the FieldTurf. It was a ho-hum handoff in a seven-on-seven scrimmage in the first days of August.
To everyone except Cooper, that is.
“No brace. No brace. I’m healthy, I’m going to come out here and act like it – and play like it,” he said, wearing only compression sleeves over the knees.
“Touching the ball and hitting the hole, that was a great feeling. I mean, I was smiling even before I took the handoff, and I was smiling hitting the hole.
“It was a great feeling. I was excited.”
Someone asked him about being in renovated Husky Stadium for the first time.
“I’m just happy to be on the field, man,” he said. “We could be on concrete and I’d be happy.”
See, Cooper doesn’t just feel good. Or even great.
“I feel awesome. Awesome, he said.
Did he truly believe he would be back here yet again, after not one, not two but three knee reconstructions?
“Definitely,” Cooper says, without a hint of hesitation. “One thing I have learned about myself is how hard I work. That’s one thing that I love about myself is my work ethic that my father instilled in me at a young age.
“It still drives me. That is something that I carry, that’s a good trait that I have. And I knew once (the doctor) told me I could rehab from it, I was going to be fine.”
Yet he knows he’s not back yet. The opener is still weeks away. He’s been at this point twice before, so close to finally getting on the field as a Husky – only to have fate cruelly send him back to square one.
“Day one in the books,” he said. “Look forward to tomorrow.”
To know the true Cooper, though, we need to look back. Back to Perris, Calif. That’s where he grew up, in a city of more than 69,000 in Riverside County about an hour east of Los Angeles and an hour north of San Diego.
Willie Cooper, now retired, owned a car-transport company in southern California. He played football at San Jose State when he was his sons’ ages. He then had twins with Sunday Vance, boys named Deontae and Deontrae. They settled into Riverside County.
When Deontae was seven he began playing on the defensive line, at center, running back, quarterback and receiver in Pop Warner ball for the Jurupa Steelers, near Perris. At age 12, his father asked him want he wanted to do when he grew up.
“I want to play in the NFL,” Deontae, who by then had become a running back regularly at Tomas Rivera Middle School in Perris, told his father a decade ago.
‘Coop’ could be the Mayor of UW. Or at the very least its student-body president, if he decided to run.
“You sure?” the father told his twin son.
“Then this is what you need to do.”
Dad gave Deontae workouts.
“And that’s how it started,” Deontae says now.
The workouts weren’t child’s play. They included Deontae strapping a tire – and its rim-- around his waist, repeatedly sprinting up a steep hill next to the family’s home in Perris and jogging down. They also included weight lifting that had the-then 6-foot, 192-pound Cooper bench pressing 345 pounds, power cleaning 315 pounds and squatting 415 by age 18.
“It’s simple: My dad’s not a yeller. He’s not a screamer,” Deontae says. “He’s going to tell you what you need to do – and you’re gonna do it.”
Oh, he’s done it, all right. Here’s a glimpse of what Cooper’s potential can be for UW, should fate finally allow him more than a couple months of full health in his knees:
He is a legend in Riverside County. He not only made the team but played as a freshman for Citrus Hill High School. As a sophomore he romped for 1,212 yards with 18 touchdowns and a whopping averaged of 11.8 yards per carry.
A year later he led all California high schools with 2,948 yards rushing and a colossal 42 scores – including six in one game. In those sophomore and junior seasons Citrus Hill went 28-0 and won the state section championship twice.
“I saw more and more college coaches coming to see me. That’s when I started thinking, ‘I’ve got a chance,’” he said of big-time college football.
He had 2,863 more yards and 34 more touchdowns as a senior. I mean, he created nights kids can’t get on video games: 412 yards rushing and four scores on 60 – 60! -- carries to beat Great Oak; 342 yards on 44 carries with three touchdowns against Heritage; 236 yards and four TDs on just nine carries against archrival Perris High.
He finished with 7,450 yards rushing and 107 touchdowns in his high-school career, second in Inland Empire history only to Toby Gerhart –and Gerhart only left Riverside County to become the 2009 Heisman Trophy runner-up at Stanford. He is now running for the Minnesota Vikings.
He was 38-1 his final three years at Citrus Hill. Cooper was named a high school All-American by PrepStar. Rivals.com rated him the No. 10 running back in the country in the 2010 recruiting class. Three Pac-10 schools offered him scholarships. So did two more from the Big XII Conference.
Cooper isn’t a supremely talented jock at the expense of all else. He finished high school with a grade-point average of 3.5. He was so accomplished academically he was able to graduate six months early in 2010 so he could enroll at UW for spring quarter that year.
“I gave up a lot,” he said, thinking back to the high-school prom he didn’t attend, the celebrations and final, basking days with his Citrus Hill senior classmates that spring of 2010.
“But hard work pays off. I worked hard in high school. And I feel like I am going to do the same here.”
“I’LL BE ALL RIGHT”
He starred in spring practice in April 2010. Cooper carried the ball 13 times and scored a touchdown in the 2010 spring game. It appeared the Huskies had their future replacement for Chris Polk ready to contribute as a true freshman.
Then, three weeks before the opener, Cooper was cutting upfield during practice and felt a pop in his left knee. His ACL was shredded, as were his thoughts of being an instant star at Washington.
For nine months he fiendishly dedicated himself to the grueling days of knee rehabilitation. He did it with a smile and determination that caught the attention of Woodward.
The Huskies’ AD would make a point to check in on Cooper far beyond the lights of games and practices that season. Each time he’d come away supremely impressed by the kid’s attitude and fortitude.
“Have you seen Deontae Cooper?” Woodward told me one spring day outside the training room in 2011. “He’s been getting after it. He’s primed for a huge year.”
That August, with Cooper on the field wearing a brace on that repaired left knee and emerging again to be a force in UW’s backfield, it buckled again. He had re-torn his ACL.
Nine more months of thankless rehabilitation. Nine more months of smiles and determination.
“I’m still a freshman, eligibility-wise,” he joked with a huge grin in the early spring of 2012, as we passed in a hallway beneath Alaska Airlines Arena.
Last August Cooper was pushing for carries with Jesse Callier and Sankey in the opener against San Diego State. On the first day of fall camp he took a handoff in a drill on quarterback-running back exchanges. The only defender was air. He didn’t even fall to the ground.
Yet Cooper felt a tweak in his right leg – his good, never-before-injured one -- when he made his only plant on the synthetic grass of East Field.
He immediately told Sarkisian nonchalantly, “Oh, I think I’ve tweaked my calf.”
An MRI exam two nights later, after some swelling had subsided, confirmed the unfathomable: A third ACL tear in as many summers.
Four days after that he was still smiling while on crutches and in a leg brace -- yet again.
“Got to,” he said 12 months ago. “I teared up a little bit. It’s tough, it’s tough. But they said I could go (again in 2013).
“I’ll be all right.”
Current and former Huskies from around the world -- Napoleon Kaufman, Isaiah Thomas, Spencer Hawes, and Quincy Pondexter, among them -- sent Cooper immediate, online messages of disbelief, support and prayer.
Since then, he’s been up at 6 a.m. for strength and conditioning workouts with strength coach Ivan Lewis. He’s hit the training room for therapy on the knee. He’s rehabbed together with Callier, who ripped up his knee in last season’s opener.
Cooper went to yoga to work on flexibility in his legs and in his hips, to lessen the burden on his knees. Then would get back to Dad’s workouts he first did in Perris: running up and down the hill next to his off-campus place on Northeast 54th Street near the UW campus.
“Physically, there’s no doubt I am ready,” he said. “I know I’ve put in the work to be strong and to get back. For me, it’s a mental thing.”
I like Cooper’s odds in anything having to do with mind and attitude, don’t you?
THE LONG-AWAITED DEBUT
Has he had any why-me moments?
“I mean, I’m a great believer,” Cooper said. “I’ve never really had a why-me moment. I know that things happen for a reason. Maybe I was used to help my teammate Jesse get through this.
“But I never said, ‘Why me?’ This injury is really overrated, to be honest.”
Ha! That’s easy for him to say.
Three knee reconstructions in three years?
“It’s easy for Adrian Peterson to say, after what he did,” Cooper replied.
The Minnesota Vikings superstar came back in less than nine months from ACL surgery last year -- then super-humanely rushed for more than 2,000 yards to win the 2012 NFL Most Valuable Player award.
Peterson did more than all that. He also gave Cooper renewed hope, on top of the bushel this Husky already had.
“I mean, I feel like that was definitely, definitely a new-found motivation and energy that brought life into me, after I saw what he did,” Cooper said.
On Aug. 31 Willie Cooper will be inside Husky Stadium for Deontae’s first game as a Husky – fate (finally) willing. So will his mother, his step mother, Crystal, and perhaps his twin, who is now a wide receiver at Division-II Colorado State-Pueblo. CSU-Pueblo’s first game is Sept. 7, so Deontrae is expected to make it.
“Definitely, they are all going to be here for my debut,” Deontae said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
If you are watching that Saturday night against Boise State and see No. 32 in purple finally carry the ball in a game, do what Romar recommends.
Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.
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