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‘It is just part of my journey’: Cooper Kupp’s historic road was helped paved by setbacks, successes and surprises

By Dave Cook For The Spokesman-Review

For Cooper Kupp, pivotal performances and pivotal times came first – before the pivotal moments which have cemented him in National Football League history.

Family, friends and fans of Kupp already knew what he could accomplish after a five-year stint at Eastern Washington University, so his heroics in Super Bowl 56 were more validation than a surprise. There’s probably some thankfulness from EWU fans as well, since he spent his collegiate days in Cheney rather than Seattle, Pullman, Eugene or Corvallis – places where from 2013-16 he provided glimpses of the greatness to come.

On Sunday, after Kupp caught the go-ahead touchdown pass – and made four other key plays – during a game-winning drive in the waning minutes of the Los Angeles Rams’ 23-20 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, he explained his unlikely path to Super Bowl glory.

“It is just part of my journey,” Kupp said. “I was supposed to go to Eastern Washington and I met so many great friends and so many guys from my time at Eastern that were standing up there with me at my wedding. Lifelong friendships, even people, just the community in Cheney, Washington, I was just able to make relationships there. It was just a special place for me to be.”

From the Big Sky Conference in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision, to the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, three letters have marked the definitive moments of his career.


He won that in the Super Bowl, he had that distinction in the FCS and he won that accolade in the Big Sky. He won a few MVP honors on Eastern’s team too, but that wasn’t nearly as compelling as the performances and accomplishments at Roos Field and beyond.

“I was surrounded by some really good people, some receivers and coaches that taught me a ton, challenged me and pushed me,” he added from the Super Bowl dais, with his son Cypress Stellar on his lap. “That was just where I was supposed to be so I do not hold any regrets or feel any grudge towards anyone. I am just thankful for the path I have been on.”

Along with his wife, Anna, the Yakima native’s path to NFL glory has been littered with setbacks, successes and surprises. Here are just a few.

Close calls, makes and misses

Kupp ended his high school football career in late 2011 at Albi Stadium in Spokane, when Mead blasted his Davis squad 68-22 in a game that resembled a track meet instead of a gridiron playoff clash. He caught six passes for 87 yards and was 5 of 10 for 76 yards as a fill-in at quarterback.

He left the field that night not knowing where his football career might go. A few months later, during Davis’ run to the WIAA State 4A basketball title, he settled on Eastern Washington (his only other NCAA Division I offer was from Idaho State), and it all became clear.

The lack of interest from bigger programs proved a motivating factor to continually get bigger, faster, stronger and smarter during a redshirt season in 2012. If he had a chip on his shoulder, though, he didn’t let it deter him.

As his EWU career began in 2013, the duo of Kupp and All-America quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. were nearly unstoppable. Kupp caught 93 passes for 21 touchdowns to win the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in FCS, but the two just missed out on a championship appearance that season.

On a fourth-and-2 play with 1:40 left of a playoff semifinal against Towson, they couldn’t connect on a wide-open pass over the middle that would have given EWU a two-score lead. Instead, the Tigers drove the length of the field to end EWU’s season.

After falling short again the next two seasons, Kupp could have left for the NFL but decided to remain in Cheney to play one more season.

That 2016 season offered a chance to play alongside his younger brother, Ketner, a year that also ended in playoff agony. Youngstown State won on a miraculous catch – a pinned ball on the back of an EWU defender on the game’s final play. It was made more gut-wrenching because that defender was Ketner.

Brushes with fame

Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning provided inspiration for Kupp, and those brushes with the NFL legends were pivotal for him in getting to where he is now.

The same could be said of his grandfather, Jake, who was an offensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints, and his father, Craig, who also spent some time in the NFL as a quarterback.

Even his uncle, Jeff, an offensive lineman at Eastern in the 1980s, provided a past connection with his collegiate home.

In December 2013, Kupp couldn’t attend the FCS awards ceremony in Philadelphia to accept his Jerry Rice Award because the Eagles were preparing for a playoff game. In his place, Craig was there to accept, along with Kupp’s mother, Karin.

Kupp’s parents got to meet Rice, and Craig even got to try on the legendary receiver’s Super Bowl ring – a fitting that will surely be repeated with his own son in the coming months. That night, Rice called Kupp in Cheney to congratulate him personally.

Kupp now joins Rice as the only players in NFL history to win the receiving triple crown, be selected as the league’s offensive player of the year and win a Super Bowl. Rice did that over a career; Kupp accomplished it in one season alone.

His grandfather Jake played in New Orleans with Archie Manning, the father of Super Bowl-winning QBs Peyton and Eli.

In the summers, Kupp would attend the Manning Passing Academy, and he got to catch passes from the legends.

The family was there too, of course. Dad Craig was in the stands to videotape every pitch-and-catch, the same type of throw-and-catch sessions father and son had repeatedly conducted through the years in Yakima – even climbing a fence now and then to get to a football field.

Dominance over the Pac-12

Former Washington State head coach Mike Leach would later admit his team had overlooked and underestimated Kupp. But that didn’t come without warning. Oregon State didn’t see it coming.

As a rookie playing in his first game of a career during which he would start all 52 games he played, Kupp and Adams had stellar performances on Aug. 31, 2013. Eastern won 49-46 and became just the fourth team in FCS history to defeat a ranked foe from the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision. Kupp caught five passes for 119 yards and a pair of scores in his EWU debut.

The next year, Eastern nearly knocked off Washington – Jake’s alma mater – thanks to his eight catches for 145 yards and three scores. The Eagles fell 59-52.

In his junior season in 2015 at Oregon, with Adams throwing passes for the Ducks instead of the Eagles, Kupp had a sensational performance in a 61-42 loss with 15 catches for 246 yards and three TDs.

Kupp followed that with an eye-popping 12 catches for 206 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-42 win over Washington State on Sept. 3, 2016. After the game, Leach said, “the best player on the field was Cooper Kupp.” He would later call him the “best receiver in the nation” and that he “was one of the greatest misses of my career.”

In all, Kupp scored 11 touchdowns in four games versus Pac-12 opponents with totals of 40 catches for 716 yards.

There was one other notable performance in his collegiate career that not only showed his immense productivity but also certainly showed the will to win he displayed Sunday at the Super Bowl.

At Northern Colorado on Oct. 24, 2015, he caught a school-record 20 passes for 275 yards. The last of those catches for a drained-but-driven Kupp were good for 31 and 13 yards to set up the Eagles for a deciding field goal.

Eastern won that game 43-41; in similar fashion, he made the same type of clutch plays just over two weeks ago in a 30-27 victory over Tampa Bay.

Again, pivotal performances lead to pivotal moments, and his experiences over the past decade helped pave the way to the most pivotal moment of all.