As long as he can remember, the ball has been in Cooper Kupp’s hands.
It started with Nerf basketball in the living room, with easy alley-oops tossed from father to toddler. Youth baseball saw him through the hot Yakima summers – until he found another field of dreams.
“I was 9 years old, and a football team was practicing in the outfield, so I went over and checked it out,” said Kupp, now a wide receiver at Eastern Washington.
Seven games into his redshirt freshman year at Eastern Washington, Kupp has 33 catches for 595 yards and nine touchdowns, or better than a score on every fourth reception. He’s on the watch list for the Jerry Rice Award that goes to the top freshman in the Football Championship Subdivision.
In his first game in almost two years, Kupp took the field Aug. 31 at Oregon State and took the Beavers apart, catching five balls for 119 yards and two scores in the Eagles’ first win against a Pac-12 school.
And he’s on the honor roll.
Said Eastern receivers coach Junior Adams, “He’s a very special young man.”
So is Kupp’s family. Grandfather Jake Kupp was an offensive lineman in the National Football League for 10 years, half of them as a captain for the New Orleans Saints. Cooper’s father, Craig, played two years in the NFL as a tight end after starring at Pacific Lutheran. That’s where he met Karin – Cooper’s mother – who played soccer at PLU. Karin’s father, Tom Gilmer, is a member of the PLU Hall of Fame as a quarterback and a record-setting punter in the 1950s. Cooper’s great-uncle, Jeff Kupp, was an offensive lineman at Eastern from 1982-84 during the transition from NAIA to Division I.
The gene pool was just right, but his parents didn’t push him in.
“I’m privileged to have athletic parents and grandparents from both sides of the family,” Kupp said. “But they never forced anything on me. It was just something that I loved.”
Mostly, that was football. By the fifth grade, Kupp dreamed of nothing else. The ball would be in his hands, he visualized, as a running back at Southern Cal.
“It’s what I wanted to do the rest of my life, play football,” said Kupp, the oldest of four children.
But real life intervened. By Kupp’s freshman year at Davis High in Yakima, he stood all of 5 feet, 4 inches, and weighed about 115 pounds. Then he broke his shoulder, costing him a basketball season as well.
“I was pretty frail at that point,” said Kupp, who credits his family and Davis coach Jay Dumas for getting him through the rough spots.
Later, Kupp enjoyed his biggest team success in basketball, where a group that had played together since the fifth grade capped their careers with the State 4A championship in 2012.
“We weren’t the biggest-name players, but we all just played so well together,” said Kupp, who still dreamed of football glory.
A perfect 4.0 grade-point average attracted interest from Brown of the Ivy League, but in the end, Kupp wanted to play close to home.
He also liked the “family attitude” among the Eastern players and coaches, as well as coach Beau Baldwin’s open-door policy that was open to more than X’s and O’s.
“The coaches aren’t asking you about football all the time, they’re asking, ‘How is your family?’ ” Kupp said.
Despite growing to 6-0 and 180 pounds and a senior season that included 60 catches for 1,059 yards and 18 touchdowns, Kupp was overlooked by most schools.
“People thought he wasn’t fast enough,” Adams said. “But you look at his film and you see him separating from guys. His work ethic is phenomenal, and he has excellent hands.”
His grasp of the game is even better, thanks partly to help from Dumas that Kupp says was “college-level coaching in high school.”
“He not only helped me on the field, but taught me how to watch film and understand the intricacies of the game,” Kupp said. “To have that knowledge coming in to college was a big help.”
So was his redshirt year in 2012, when Kupp saw firsthand the results of what Adams had created with Brandon Kaufman, Nick Edwards, Greg Herd and others.
“I did everything I could to learn from these guys,” Kupp said.
The decision to redshirt Kupp spoke less to his ability than the Eagles’ depth at wide receiver. “He could have easily played,” Adams said.
But for the first time he could remember, the ball was out of Kupp’s hands. Last year, he watched the Montana game from the stands as EWU won 32-26 at Roos Field.
“I remember halfway through the season, thinking, I just want to play,” said Kupp, whose high school football career ended in November 2011 with a playoff loss to Mead on the same red field.
This year Kupp was the Eagles’ top receiver in spring ball, then burst on the scene at Oregon State. More big games followed, including an 11-catch, 168-yard effort last week against Southern Utah. Kupp has scored at least once in every game.
“He has been as consistent as any young player I have seen,” Baldwin said. “That is a tribute to his mental toughness.”
At Sam Houston State last month, the 20-year-old Kupp showed both. Late in the second quarter, he caught a short sideline pass from Adams, then juked the defender with a stutter step and ended up with a 59-yard score.
The play drew gasps and cheers from the stands and the press box, mostly because it looked so smooth. It wasn’t.
“I hear about it all the time, but everybody likes a good story,” said Kupp, who promptly obliges.
The Eagles’ up-tempo offense left him “gassed,” especially on a hot, humid Texas afternoon, he explained. “I had nothing left, so I acted like I was going to cut back, and he ended up falling for it.”
Kupp ended up in the end zone, the ball still in his hands.