LOS ANGELES – Deontae Cooper appreciated the well wishes, until he resented them. He was thankful for the sympathy, and then he was sick of it.
Washington’s sixth-year senior running back is tired of everyone’s compassion about how unfair his college football career has been, and the implication that his legacy is already written.
“Man, I’m over it,” Cooper said over lunch at Pac-12 Media Days on Thursday. “I’m so over that. It’s gotten to a point where it’s like, let it go. The last time I was hurt was three years ago. I want people to let it go, but you’ve got to make plays first.”
Maybe the impulse to pity Cooper is a coping mechanism for fans that want to guard their expectations for the former prep star against seeing them dashed yet again by injury.
Cooper lost the first three years of his college career to torn ACLs, the first two times in his left leg, the final one in his right. The NCAA has given him those years back, he can even return and play next season if he wants to.
He’s played two healthy years now and made enough of an impact in games and as a leader that UW coach Chris Petersen invited him to be the offense’s representative at the annual gathering of Pac-12 players and coaches in Los Angeles.
Despite the fact that the Huskies have players that were in seventh grade when he arrived on campus – and he’s probably built up some equity in the one bedroom apartment he’s lived in since his second year at UW – Cooper is regarded as one of the more relatable players in the UW locker room.
“That’s so interesting – he blends in with other guys so well,” Petersen said. “You don’t even think of him (as being older). He’s mature, but he relates to the freshmen.”
A first-year player couldn’t ask for a more experienced mentor.
A few freshmen each year at most FBS programs graduate high school early to participate in spring practice. So eager was Cooper to get a jump-start on his college career that he enrolled in the winter, two academic quarters before the rest of his high school class graduated.
When he finally got on the field, Cooper stood out.
UW sports information director Jeff Bechthold has worked for the athletic department since 1991 and for the football team since 2000. At the end of the Huskies’ spring football practices in 2009 he declared that Cooper was the most impressive freshman football player he’d seen at UW, a statement he still stands by.
More impressive than Jake Locker, more dynamic than Reggie Williams.
“In a group of running backs that included Chris Polk, he stood out,” recalled Bechthold on Thursday.
Cooper quickly worked his way up the depth chart, but after breaking free for a 30-yard run in fall camp he was tackled from behind and he came down on his left leg, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus.
It’s a season-ending injury, but not an uncommon one in a sport where large, fast humans run into each other at awkward angles. But the next two tears came in conditioning drills without any contact.
The crazy thing is, in high school Cooper was a workhorse. He never got injured and once had 60 rushing attempts in a single game.
After the third injury, many counseled him to quit, make sure he’d be still be able to walk pain-free when he was older. As a runner whose style was grace and fluidity rather than speed or strength, he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to recapture the ability he’d shown as an 18-year-old.
But Cooper rehabbed his leg, one more time. In 2013, senior season for the rest of his freshman class, Cooper finally got on the field. He played sparingly, initially, and then erupted for 166 yards and two touchdowns in a win at Oregon State.
“That was great,” Cooper said. “It was like ‘I’ve still got it.’ ”
Cooper started two games in 2014 and appears ready to be a solid contributor in UW’s backfield, in which three running backs are expected to share carries this season.
“My competitive edge is at an all-time high. I’m ready, I’m really excited about this season. I’ve got a good feeling. I feel explosive, I feel ready to make great cuts. I’m not indecisive; I feel strong. I’m not doubting myself, running through guys like him,” says Cooper, gesturing to teammate Travis Feeney, a linebacker.
Cooper’s enthusiasm marks a player who is eager to be known for something other than injuries, and still believes that fans can feel excitement for him, rather than sympathy.
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