After six years as a Husky, running back Deontae Cooper announced his transfer to San Jose State on Sunday. “I love this place so much," he says of UW. "It’s been so good to me."
I will truly miss Deontae. I watched his first spring training years ago and remarked that he was so quick and so smooth, I envisioned great things from him. And we did get great things from Deontae. He epitomized the concepts of hard work, dedication, and inspiration. Good luck to him. To me, he is a Husky legend.
— Greg Smith, Husky fan from Orting
The thing that has made Deontae Cooper so beloved to so many Husky fans over the past six years — his inspirational story of perseverance — is the exact thing he is running from now.
“I’m trying to escape this feel-good story,” he said during an interview Monday morning on the University of Washington campus. “It’s never going to leave me here.”
A day after announcing that he will transfer to San Jose State for his seventh — and final — year of eligibility, the 23-year-old running back is wearing a black UW hat and a purple Huskies football workout shirt and trying to explain his reluctant departure from UW.
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“I love this place so much. It’s been so good to me,” he said.
This place, this program, will always be special to him. He uses that word often — special — because he means it but also because it’s an easy word to use to try to describe a process that wasn’t easy for him.
To move forward, to move past the injuries that, fair or not, have defined his time at UW, he realized he would have to move on.
“Coach (Steve Sarkisian) brought me into something special, and I didn’t even know it,” he said. “I knew nothing about UW before I came here. But, man, he brought me into something special, and having these thoughts of, ‘OK, I need to leave to chase this dream,’ it’s like, ‘Do I really want to leave the people, the fans?’
“But this is the right route for me. I had to do it. But I definitely didn’t want to.”
By now, you know the back story: Cooper arrived in January 2010 as one of the prized recruits in Sarkisian’s first full recruiting class at UW. One recruiting service had tabbed him as the 10th-best running back in the nation, and he was so impressive in his first spring for the Huskies that some around the program still consider him on the short list of the most talented freshmen since the Don James era.
Then the injuries hit, one after another: the torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee in August 2010, then another the next year in the same knee and yet another in his right knee the year after that.
During his perpetual rehabilitation, strangers wrote him supportive letters and posted appreciative messages on his Facebook page. He gave talks to high-school classes about not giving up. He found solace, and service, in that, in being an inspirational story for others.
But what he wants now is to be a success story. He hasn’t given up on that, but he came to the realization midway through last season that his opportunities to chase that dream were dwindling at UW.
A team captain, he entered the 2015 season expecting to compete for a starting role. Before the season, he had been chosen to represent the UW offense at the Pac-12 media days in Los Angeles, and he was optimistic coming off a productive offseason. Instead the offense, the youngest in UW history, essentially started over, and freshman Myles Gaskin emerged with a record-breaking season out of the backfield.
Cooper said he was happy for Gaskin — they had grown close, having trained together over the summer — but he also felt he could’ve done more himself to help the team.
In 2013, his first healthy season, Cooper had 43 carries. He had 63 carries in 2014, but in a crowded backfield he finished with just 16 carries in 2015. He averaged 6.1 yards on those 16 carries and scored one touchdown against Oregon State.
“It is what it is now,” he said. “I’m just excited about the new opportunity I’m going to get now. But wherever I go, I’m going to wear my purple and gold proudly.”
Cooper is on track to earn his master’s degree in intercollegiate athletic leadership program in June, and he plans to move to San Jose shortly after that. As a graduate transfer, will be eligible to play for the Spartans next fall.
San Jose State graduated its leading rusher from 2015 and returns most of its offensive line, making it an attractive landing spot for Cooper. Coaches there promised him a chance to compete for the starting job.
He’s optimistic, and he’s motivated as he moves forward and, he hopes, moves past the narrative that seemed to hold him back here.
“I want to get back to that athlete that I was,” he said. “And when I get the ball in my hands … I’m going to show that. I’m confident in that. I’ve put a lot of time into this, and I care about it, and it’s going to show itself.”