Chris Cooley's game is more about running over defenders than making artistic catches, but the Washington Redskins' Pro Bowl tight end has always loved art.
Cooley, who has an art degree from Utah State, will host a charity art show in May featuring more than 20 of his paintings, drawings and pottery works. His goal: raising $200,000 to pay for college scholarships for eight local, low-income high school seniors.
The Chris Cooley Education Fund tour kicked off Wednesday at Fairmont Heights High School in Capitol Heights before moving on to Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring. Cooley will visit Eastern and Spingarn in the District as well as Forestville on Thursday before winding up in Virginia on Friday at Gar-Field in Woodbridge, Clarke County in Berryville and Warren County in Front Royal. Cooley is giving $5,000 to each school's academic program, and a senior from each will receive a $25,000 scholarship from the fund.
Cooley told the boisterous Blair seniors, who were accompanied by the school's band and cheerleaders, that he has always loved school and was inspired by his mother, Nancy, a teacher.
"I'm here to talk about education and... how it's helped me get where I am," Cooley said. "This is my opportunity to help others. This is truly what matters to me.
"I was always a good student. When I was younger, my parents got divorced. My mom went back to college; she became a teacher. She's been my biggest role model. I wanted to be a teacher. I thought it was the most awesome thing in the world."
Cooley didn't even play varsity football until his senior year at Logan High School in Utah. He was more successful on the wrestling mat, where he was an All-American, and in the classroom, where he made the National Honor Society. Cooley starred as a senior to earn a football scholarship to his hometown school, but he didn't become a college starter until late in his junior season.
In short, as Cooley told the students, his NFL stardom has been a surprise. So was the e-mail that principal Darryl Williams recently received telling him Blair had been selected by the Redskins Charitable Foundation as one of Cooley's schools.
"I get a whole lot of e-mails about things like this, and I thought it was too good to be true," Williams said.
Despite Blair's high-profile math, science and computer science magnet, college/career information coordinator Lori Kearney said about 90 percent of the 640 seniors would meet Cooley's low-income requirement.
"I thought his speech was really great," said Yelena Johnson, 17, who has been accepted at the University of Miami, where she plans to study psychology. "I really admire him for coming and being such a good influence on us."
Kekura Musa, 18, said he should win the scholarship, which he wants to use to study business at American or Hofstra, because he works hard and does well in school, roots for the Redskins and is a 130-pound champion wrestler, just like Cooley was as a ninth-grader.
And although Cooley majored in art, the winner doesn't have to be an artist - just a serious student.
"It's a demanding job as far as paying attention and learning plays," Cooley said. "I'm not the kind of guy who can just show up on the football field and play. I'm not the fastest guy. I do well because I know what to do. Education has helped me, and I'm excited to try to help these kids."
Cooley said that when he's done with football, he could see himself teaching art and coaching football on the high school level.
But for now, he can best help kids with his message and his money.
"I really want to be involved in the community," Cooley said. "This scholarship program was part of the plan. I'm excited about it. I think it's going to be very cool."