The third time was almost the breaking point, not the charm.
Early in 2012’s fall camp, Washington running back Deontae Cooper was directed to pivot. He cut, his calf hurt, he didn’t think much of it.
Cooper had two anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in his left knee the prior two seasons. This felt different, however, so he pushed on through practice.
When the pain didn’t dissipate, Cooper knew he had a problem. He had torn the ACL in his right knee. His season was over for the third time in as many tries.
“I honestly broke down,” Cooper said. “Started crying. Just the fact that it happened again.”
It was a temporary haze for the ebullient Cooper. He’d been through this twice prior. The doctors said it wasn’t as bad as before. There was solace and knowledge to be taken from the prior rehabs, plus joy this was not the end, just another aggravating beginning.
So, here he goes again. Week one of the 2013 fall camp is over. Cooper is still there, walking around high on his toes with his dreadlocks shorn and three wristbands overloading each forearm.
His work in camp is incremental and largely devoid of contact. Yet, that work is enough for now, enough to fend off Cooper’s Washington career
from becoming a story about squashed dreams and lament.
“Until the doctor tells me I can’t do it, I see it as opportunity,” Cooper said. “The more opportunity someone gets, at some point, they’re going to prevail. That’s what I know is going to happen for me.”
NEVER TIRED OF TIRES
He asked and asked again. These were, after all, teenagers, a populace equipped with the decisiveness of a squirrel sprinting into a busy street.
Willie Cooper asked his son Deontae what he wanted to be when he grew up. Football player, Deontae told dad.
Willie asked again later. Deontae stuck to his answer. Football player.
That repetitiveness sent Willie to a local tire shop where he asked for any old tires lying around. He explained his sons – Deontrae, Deontae’s twin, also wanted to pursue football – wanted to be football players, so he was going to set up workout stations in the dusty side yard next to their Perris, Calif., home.
Deontae ran through the multiple tires that sat on the ground. He flipped the big one. Dragged, pushed and pulled the other rubber workout partners. Willie merely turned the outside lights on when dusk arrived, then off when Deontae re-entered the house.
Hill work and soreness were also involved. Deontrae, who is a wide receiver at Colorado State-Pueblo, had enough after the first week. Deontae went back out to the yard each night.
Willie, who owned a car-transport service and is a member of his Teamsters’ local, watched. He thought about the two ACL injuries he had – one in each knee – in high school. He said he was never the same once he arrived at San Jose State to play football.
BACK TO THE HILLS
As a senior at Citrus Hill High School, Deontae Cooper ran for 2,863 yards and 34 touchdowns. He finished with 7,450 yards rushing in his four seasons, despite few carries as a freshman.
Cooper left Citrus Hill early to go to Washington in the spring of 2010. Incumbent Chris Polk was sitting out spring football because of a shoulder injury. Polk’s injury combined with Cooper’s early enrollment to cause the current curiosity about a redshirt junior who has never carried the ball in a game.
Without Polk available in the spring of 2010, Cooper zoomed around the field. He ran around and through teammates for long scores. He had 144 yards on 12 carries in one scrimmage. Coach Steve Sarkisian called him the full package. Then, the first tear.
Cooper missed the season to rehabilitate. In the summer of 2011, he tore it again during non-contact conditioning drills. For the second consecutive year, he would not be a member of fall camp.
He rehabbed all year again. Finally at camp last fall, Cooper said if he tore his ACL five times, he would try to come back. Two days later, Washington announced Cooper’s third ACL tear, this time the first in his right knee.
Willie was watering the trees out back when Deontae called to ask what he was doing. He then told his dad about the third ACL tear. Willie didn’t believe it. After a breath, he advised Deontae that he knew what to do. Go back to the hills. Back to the workouts. Back to the rehab.
“There’s guys out there that hurt their knees, hurt other body parts and they can’t play anymore,” Deontae said. “But the doctors diagnosed me, said we’re going to be able to do the surgery, rehabilitate and come back and play. That’s all I need to hear to go back at it.”
‘IT’S ALL MENTAL’
Cooper began work on strengthening the area around his knee. He sprinted up 54th Street in the University District this summer. Strength coach Ivan Lewis pushed him in the weight room. Cooper worked to sink his hips better when he cuts in order to reduce knee strain.
He also had to get his brain right.
“It’s not a physical thing for me, it’s all mental,” Cooper said. “I feel I’m better in a mental sense. The first time, I was grind, grind, grind, grind. The second time I was cautious. This time, I have nothing to lose. My back is up against the wall. I can’t go anywhere else but up.”
He’s made it through a tender week of fall camp, Cooper’s longest stint in fall practice in three years. Things started gently for him Aug 5. Progressively through the week, his work increased. He’s taken a couple of hits, made several cuts, sweated through drills.
Saturday, he sat out during a designated break for him and the rest of the “ACL guys” who missed last year because tears to one of the four major ligaments in the knee.
Flipping the ball on the sideline in full uniform, Cooper stood with the same thoughts he had when he arrived and put on a startling performance. He wants to go to the NFL.
When he’s done playing, the communications major would like to pull on a nice suit and be a talking head. It’s a plausible future for the perpetually upbeat and talkative Cooper.
For now, just making it through camp would be a milestone for Cooper. He’s less than three weeks from the opener against Boise State. Each day will be filled with cautious hope.
“There’s a lot of skepticism that’s going on because of the three knee injuries and deservedly so,” Cooper said. “If I would have never got hurt, I would question someone who tore their ACL three times, too.
“In all honesty, deep down, I know what I’m capable of. If I would have came here and I didn’t have success early, it may be a little different now. Since I had that success, raw out of high school, it just excites me to see what I can do when I’m mature in this game. Now understanding the game, it’s exciting to see what I can do in the future if I’m healthy.”