You can make a movie based on Deontae Cooper’s grit. Even more impressive, however, is his grace.
The Washington running back has been the unluckiest man in the game the past three years, but here he is, without complaint or regret, trusting that his knees won’t fail him a fourth time. After three anterior cruciate ligament tears — two in his right knee, one in his left — Cooper realizes that people watch his every step, praying that they won’t have to wince and whisper “not again.” But once you get over that apprehension, once you see him get through another practice with only the soreness that all his teammates feel, you look at him differently. You still see his gliding running style. You see the grace in action.
And when the eloquent Cooper speaks, you hear the grace in thought and perspective.
And then you pray even harder that this marvelous person will get to play a real football game again.
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Hope is close enough to have a countdown now. Eight days. If Cooper can make it eight more days, he’ll play Aug. 31 against Boise State before 70,000 fans in the much-anticipated reopening of Husky Stadium.
“It’s just going to tell me that I’m back,” Cooper said of the moment. “And I’m over it. The hard times are over. And that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
It’s unrealistic to think Cooper will return and dominate the game as some predicted when he came out of high school. He admits to watching film and seeing “some timid things I do,” and he still hasn’t had what he refers to as “that cut” — a ferocious, hard-planting, defender-ditching change of direction — yet.
But coach Steve Sarkisian says Cooper has been good enough throughout the preseason to join a fully stocked rotation of running backs behind starter Bishop Sankey. Though Sankey will carry the load, Sark expects that Dwayne Washington, Jesse Callier (who is also returning from an ACL tear) and Cooper will play against Boise State.
When Cooper, No. 32, takes a handoff from Keith Price, the applause should be long and the tears unrestrained. Even Sarkisian allows himself to daydream about it.
“I just want his first carry to be one that he gets up off the ground and he’s proud of himself for what’s he’s accomplished to get to that point,” Sarkisian said. “It doesn’t need to be a 50-yard run. It might not be the most glamorous thing. But I want him to get off the ground and be proud of what he’s accomplished, and I want our team to be proud of him because he’s worked extremely hard with a great attitude to get to this point.”
It’s not the hard luck that makes people root for Cooper. It’s his response to it. Grace is the only word.
He’s the happiest star-crossed football lover ever. He will admit to heavy tears last August, when he suffered his third ACL tear. But his perspective is amazing. Whether on crutches, in a bulky brace, sweating through rehab or watching game after game from the sideline, Cooper transfers only positive vibes to those around him.
Of his long road back, he says: “It’s been a rocky road, but at the end of the day, it’s been a blessing at the same time. So, I’m grateful, and I’m happy to be back out here.”
He mentions the medical and training staffers by name and details everything they’ve done for him. He says that, if he plays, it’s their victory, too. He lives by the clichés “hard work pays off” and “things happen for a reason,” except he’s more convincing in how he says them. He could turn his story into an opportunity for self-praise, but he’d rather credit his supporters.
“I’ve definitely learned more about myself going through this, but I’ve also learned that I’m in a great place,” Cooper says. “Just seeing how everybody is supportive of me, it’s a great feeling. It’s great.”
Ask about fear of re-injury, and Cooper is honest about the game he plays. “There’s no fear of tearing the ACL, but there’s a fear of the fact that I can get hurt at any point on my body — hand, shoulder, legs — but that’s a part of playing football. As a football player, you just learn to get past it mentally and make it so there’s no fear.”
Eight days from a long-awaited college debut, Cooper anticipates being viewed as just a normal player again. The longer he stays healthy, the less people will scrutinize his every move.
Cooper isn’t fixated on his first carry as much as he’s thinking about the ones that will come after it.
“It’s going to be a good carry, but at the same time, I’m not going to make it much more than what it is,” Cooper said. “It’s just going to be one carry.
“And that’s the start of a new beginning for me.”
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer