Ezra Cooper looked at the 80 women that had assembled at a sandlot field in the spring of 2001. They were there to talk about football – not understanding football so they could share in pigskin joy with their husbands or boyfriends; not powder-puff football or playing the game in their underwear.
“All right ladies,” Cooper said. “Let’s get started.”
From that the D.C. Divas were born. What followed was a group of women playing professional football who, while the Washington Redskins wallowed in dysfunctional losing, produced four undefeated regular seasons in a row, five division titles, two conference championships and one Super Bowl championship.
But what was also born was the bond between coach and player – in this case, women football players – the closeness that turns the coach into something more, a father figure, or, in this case, the big, burly “Papa Bear.”
That’s why more than 150 Divas and former Diva players showed up at the Lomax AME Zion Church in Arlington, Va., Monday to say goodbye to “Papa Bear” – Ezra Cooper, their coach who died Oct. 26 at the age of 39 of a heart attack.
“He was like a Papa Bear for us, literally and figuratively,” said Rich Daniels, the former Washington D.C., television producer and long-time general manager of the Divas. “These women looked at him like a father figure. He would listen to what was going on with their kids, or troubles at work. Some of these women were single mothers, and they looked at him as more than a coach.
“He was a mentor to hundreds of women who had been denied the chance to play,” Daniels said. “His leadership and commitment was the very soul on which one of the most successful teams in the history of the sport was built.”
Gayle Dilla, a financial advisor, played guard, end, tackle and tight end during her time with the Divas. She was a lifetime athlete, a former pro beach volleyball player, recruited by Cooper at a flag football game. “I said I just had a baby, and he said, ‘Hey, you can bring the baby,’” she recalled. “He welcomed me as a mother, which was my first priority, as a female second, a woman trying to play football, and as an athlete.”
He told Dilla he wanted her to wear his number 72 from his playing days. “That was such an incredible honor,” she said. “It meant he trusted that I would bring honor, respect and leadership to that number.”
Dilla spoke at Cooper’s funeral, and revealed that she had been a foster child.
“I wanted people to understand how he touched me and affected me on a different level than a just a football player,” she said. “He was a father figure who guided me. He made us all feel so proud to be part of something so small and yet so big.”
It took a special man to be willing to coach women to play rough, tough, professional tackle football. This was new ground, for the most part. Cooper had played football in high school and at Shepherd College, and now he was going to teach women to play the ultimate macho game. And he would do it for free.
His style produced results. The Divas became one of the most successful teams in women’s football, a perennial playoff team. Cooper retired after the 2008 season to devote more time to his family – he had two young children – but came back in 2011 to be the team’s defensive coordinator.
“He had the ability to not only bring out the best in everyone, but he made every single person feel important,” she said. “We all found a new sense of confidence, which carried far beyond the football field, but he was quick to reel us back in before it became arrogance. We forged lifelong bonds and most of us would say it was the greatest team we had ever been a part of.”
There will be a showing of the documentary “Tough Game, Tougher Women,” about the 2013 international women’s world football championship, at 7 p.m. Nov. 24 at the Cinema Arts Theater to raise money for the Cooper family.
• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com