Friday, July 18, 2008

Toiling as a backup tight end for an average Division I football program six years ago, Chris Cooley‘s mind wasn’t focused on playing in the NFL, earning a Pro Bowl selection, starting a popular Web site, depositing a $1.8 million check at a Bank of America drive-through or becoming one of the District’s most popular athletes.

No, standing on the Utah State sideline during a game against Boise State, Cooley’s future was clear. Get his art degree, teach high school and maybe coach football and wrestling.

But then he got his chance - by no doing of his own.

Casey Poppinga, Utah State’s starting tight end, lost two fumbles during the first half. In the locker room, offensive coordinator Bob Cole stormed in and told Cooley, “I’m not dealing with this. You’re in.” He finished the game with only two catches for 23 yards but…

“It was over,” he says.

Yet it was just the beginning. To dominating college opponents for a year-and-a-half. To becoming a Redskins third-round draft pick. To four years of big catches and touchdowns. And to his status as the team’s most popular player.

As the Redskins begin their first training camp Sunday under new coach Jim Zorn, one player he can rely on is Cooley, who has become one of the Redskins’ faces because of his production (231 career catches and 27 touchdowns), contract (his six-year deal starts this season) and personality (approachable for fans, interesting practice-uniform choices and occasional wild haircut).

In a franchise accustomed to roster turnover, coaching turmoil and general tumult, Cooley wants to remain a constant.

“Everything’s been great here,” he says. “I love the area, and the people have been unbelievable to me. With the contract, I can say I’m going to be a part of the Redskins’ organization for a long time. I want to be loyal. I’m not going to be bouncing around and playing in another city in three to four years. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

He doesn’t want to play anywhere else, but Cooley will talk about anything and put whatever’s tasteful on his Web site, His embrace of celebrity has endeared him even more to the team’s fans.

Says Tanner, Cooley’s younger brother: “He’s a young, open guy who doesn’t mind sharing his life.”

And his stories.

The bacon eating contest

“We were in St. Louis, and during breakfast I ate the first piece of bacon. I was like, ‘Oh … My … God!’ and I pushed the rest of the plate away,” Cooley says. “The best bacon of all time. Me and [Brian Kozlowski] go back to the buffet, and he’s like, ‘Bacon eating contest.’ Koz would always want to do these stupid contests, but he never had to play. He would have his fun and then watch me dying on the sidelines. I get a mountain of bacon, and I sit there and eat 39 pieces. It was thick bacon, not the stuff you microwave. I’m dying, and I drag myself to the bus. I’m laying on the floor of the locker room. And then I had the best game of my career up to that point. I graded out at 98 percent. I played awesome.”

Blog madness

Jason Campbell knows the pressure is on to throw to Cooley this season.

“We all know Cooley has a blog now, so I have to get him the ball so he has something to talk about,” Campbell says.

Amongst the sports online community, Cooley’s Web site has become popular because it’s unlike most athletes’ sites - it’s actually interesting.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the list of topics covered on Cooley’s official Web site included a 2008 Beard Growing Contest, a video of him in an interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr., a happy birthday greeting from his brother, a review of a Bubba’s Bar-B-Que in Wyoming, how many hats he purchased on vacation, collecting football cards and selling them on eBay, getting drug tested by the NFL in a Las Vegas casino, and finally, a post titled, “Feels Good To Feel Good.”

“It kind of started with me and a friend, and we have these crazy ideas to do stuff to make extra money,” says Tanner, 22. “We came up with a great one to start a Web site for Chris. But we didn’t want to do what everybody else does and just throw stuff up. We wanted to be completely different.”

Mission accomplished.

Chris and Tanner post pictures and videos and write blog entries. When camp starts, Cooley hopes to put up daily posts. Redskins backup tight end Todd Yoder has even posted a few entries.

“We thought there is a ton of cool [stuff] that happens in my life that would go completely unnoticed,” Chris says. “I have unlimited access to myself, and people are interested. I love to get that feedback, and I love to write it.”

In the first month of the Web site’s existence, Cooley says, the audience was strictly Redskins fans. But when he mentioned the site on his weekly Yahoo diary, which included pictures of his fiancee, that changed.

But the negative reaction to the photos of Christy, a former Redskins cheerleader who has appeared in “Maxim” and in the Redskins’ calendar, stunned everybody involved. Opposing teams’ fans lambasted Cooley’s decision to post the pictures and mocked the young couple’s relationship. Things really got nasty when visitors tried to one-up the previous negative comment.

“It’s almost like the people weren’t reading what I wrote,” Cooley says. “It wasn’t like it was pornography. It’s not like she needs the attention. … Blogs are entertainment, and I’m going put things up to entertain. It should be taken like that. You have to be tough about it and have a tough skin.”

The JV football story

“I was an unbelievable JV football player,” Cooley says. “I had games where I would make 17 catches and get three to four sacks. I was a defensive end and tight end. I was unstoppable. I would have probably been one of the top five players on the varsity, but I had two defensive ends and one tight end in front me that got Division I scholarships. So they didn’t play me.”

Waiting for chances

Cooley spent the first 10 years of his life in Powell, Wyo., but moved to Logan, Utah, with his mom and brother following his parents’ divorce. He played several sports before concentrating on wrestling and football.

Let Nancy Cooley sum up her son’s first three years of high school football.

“He was a guy they put in the last minute, winning or losing.”

That left him to dominate at the junior varsity level while waiting for his shot. The summer before Cooley’s senior year, Nancy says, “He was a great wrestler, and he said, ‘I don’t want to play football.’ Just a little impulse probably.”

Cooley rethought that decision and starred as a defensive end and tight end, catching 46 passes as a Logan High School senior. His production resulted in one scholarship offer - from hometown Utah State. A state champion wrestler (40-0 as a senior), he turned down offers from Arizona and Minnesota to play football for the Aggies.

Again, Cooley had to wait. As a freshman, he started four games at defensive end. As a sophomore, he had three catches. Seven games into his junior season, he had only nine catches.

“All this time I felt like I should have been the starting tight end,” he says.

But Cooley got his shot in the Boise State game and caught 22 passes in the final four games. He wasn’t on the NFL’s radar, though. At Utah State’s junior pro day, one scout showed up.

“He put a fifth-round grade on me, and I thought, ‘That’s crazy. What does that mean?’” Cooley says. “I still didn’t have NFL plans.”

A few weeks later, agents began calling, and Cooley says he didn’t consider the NFL a possibility until July 2003. But he needed a huge senior season, and he delivered with 62 catches for 732 yards. The key game was at Nebraska, when he had six catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. Cooley knew enough about the NFL process that teams would dissect his performance against an elite program like the Cornhuskers.

Cooley says he was given third- and fourth-round grades by the end of 2003. He competed at the Senior Bowl, ran a 4.8 40-yard dash at the combine and a 4.6 at the Aggies’ pro day, with nearly every team in attendance.

On draft day, the Cooleys watched every minute. Chris learned he was drafted in the third round when his family began cheering because he had stepped away from the television. Joe Gibbs then called the house, and before he could identify himself, Tanner put him on hold for five minutes while the family celebrated.

“I was in high school, so all I did was read about the draft - that’s how I spent every day of my life back then,” Tanner says. “When the Redskins took Sean Taylor, we had an idea the Redskins would take Chris at some point.”

The next day, Tanner and Nancy drove to Salt Lake City and Ogden looking for Redskins paraphernalia.

The bank deposit story

“That got blown out of proportion,” Cooley says of revealing he deposited a bonus check via the drive-through teller. “Somehow you have to get that check into your account. The Redskins don’t do automatic deposit. I filled out the slip, and I had to count the dots over. It was a little hard. After taxes, the check was for $1.8 million. When I get my next check, I’ll go to the Bank of America and probably go through the drive-through. They know me very well. They’ll look at the check for a second.”

New experiences, same guy

The asphalt road isn’t marked with lane markers, and it’s just narrow enough that drivers have to remain aware of cars coming from the other direction. Newlyweds Chris and Christy Cooley don’t live in the middle of nowhere, but it’s darn close. The immaculate five-bedroom house outside Leesburg has been home for less than a year. Earlier this week, construction continued on a swimming pool.

Inside, the Cooleys’ three dogs (George, Dale Earnhardt and Chip) and two cats (Lilly and Daisy) scamper about as Chris gives a tour. Upstairs, a room is dedicated to his art supplies. On the main floor is a poker room and in the basement is a wine cellar and hang-out room that features game balls, jerseys and Cooley’s Utah State helmet. And there’s an elevator.

“It was way bigger than what we were looking at, and it wasn’t even on the market, but the owner thought it would be perfect for us and we loved it,” says Cooley, who married Christy in May.

Cooley owns two other properties: a home in Ashburn where his mother lives (she moved to the area two years ago and teaches business classes at Briar Woods High School) and a house in Hamilton, which his new in-laws occupy.

Cooley bought the Hamilton residence in 2004 with his first wife. The split was subject to negative coverage that came via the gossip circles when he went through a divorce late in 2005.

“I shouldn’t have been married,” he says. “I got married when I was 20, almost on a whim. We had been broken up, got back together and were married three days later. It never worked. We were never happy together.”

The on-field results were far better for Cooley. As a rookie, he became part of the offense right away and caught 37 passes. The popular “Cooooley” chant became common after every catch, even on the road.

“Right from the start, Chris showed us he would be a heckuva player,” tight ends coach Rennie Simmons says. “As time went on that year, we started to figure out more ways to get him the ball because he was proving to be a winner in the red area and win a lot of other situations.”

Simmons is 40 years older than Cooley and admits, “Chris beats to a different drum. Being different is just his nature. He’s not trying to put on a show. It’s just the way he is.”

The fans love him. Cooley connected with Washington’s passionate fanbase almost immediately.

Many of the fans shouting his name sport his No. 47 jersey, which is the team’s top seller so far this season. It finished second last year only to the No. 21 of Taylor, who died in November.

“I think showing energy is a lot of it,” Cooley says. “I play extremely hard and show excitement in a good way. And I don’t try to do it - it’s just how I am.”

Following his rookie year, seasons of 71, 57 and 66 catches have established Cooley has one of Campbell’s go-to targets, a versatile player who lines up all over the field and plays nearly every offensive snap. He hasn’t missed a game or practice. Last year, he was the intended receiver a team-high 102 times.

At 6-foot-3, 249 pounds, he earned a Pro Bowl selection last season by using speed that makes him a tough cover for linebackers and strength that gives him an advantage over defensive backs. And he can run.

“His skills are amazing,” Yoder says. “He’s going to fit right into anything we’re doing and this offense has a lot of chances for individuals to showcase their talents.”

Says Zorn: “He’s going to catch the ball. We just have to find ways to use him.”

In the new passing game, his third system in five years, Cooley says he will catch the ball close to the line of scrimmage more often in addition to going downfield. His yards-after-catch average fell from 7.9 to 4.3 because he was asked to go downfield so often.

“They want to take advantage of what I do best, and they feel that’s running with the ball,” he says.

New coach. New system. New marriage. New house. New Web site. It’s been an eventful offseason for Cooley.

But his family and friends say he’s the same old Chris.

“He’s just a normal guy - honest and still so down to earth,” Nancy Cooley says. “He really knows the fans are huge in his profession, and he respects them. We’ll be hanging out, and he’ll get done signing, and he’ll say, ‘That’s why I’m playing.’ He’s that kind of people person.”

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