Player Profile: Stephen Cooper
Stephen Cooper started his football career as an all-star High School Quarterback in his hometown of Wareham, MA, where he led Wareham HS to a Division 4 Super Bowl title. Upon graduating, he enrolled at the University of Maine as a QB, but later switched to defense and became an instant star. He won Rookie of the Year his freshman year (1999), and in his senior year was voted Top Defensive Player in New England. He was also honored by the AP as a member of the NCAA Division I First Defensive All-American Team. Coop was a four-year starter, and led the team in tackles his last three years. Coop was the first member of his family to graduate from college, and he was primed and ready to enter the 2003 NFL Draft.
And then he made a rookie mistake. One week after being named New England’s Top Defensive Player in November 2002, Coop was caught with a large amount of steroid pills in his duffle bag during a traffic stop of a car in which he was a passenger. Although possession of steroids was not a violation of NCAA rules, Coop pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense. This series of events caused his stock to plummet in the NFL draft, and he went undrafted. Nonetheless, the San Diego Chargers took a chance on Coop and signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2003. Early in 2004, Coop went in for the injured Randall Godfrey, led the team with nine tackles, and earned the Chargers Alumni’s Player of the Week award. Cooper continued to pick up steam in 2005 and 2006, and on August 25, 2006, A.J. Smith signed Cooper to a $15 million, five-year contract extension running through the 2011 season, saying “Stephen is one of our young, fast-rising players…He’s a hard worker, he’s tough and he is physical.”
In 2007, Cooper really started to bust out. He started all 16 games, racked up 108 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INTs and 2 FFs. As the Chargers high-level of play earned them a spot in the playoffs, Coop led the team with 12 tackles in the Wild Card win over the Titans at the Q on January 6.
It was then on to Indianapolis for the AFC Divisional Round, where Coop saved his best for last, racking up 15 solo and 18 total tackles. In the third quarter, with 3:57 on the clock, on 2nd & 8, Kenton Keith got the handoff from Peyton Manning and was tackled and spun around by Cooper, denying him the first down. Announcer Greg Gumbel said, “We spoke with Stephen Cooper just the other day; what an intense young man he is on game day.” Dan Dierdorf concurred, “He’s the signal caller on their defense, and – uh-oh, look at this; Indy is catching San Diego on a substitution. Offsides, #54, he did not get on the defensive side of the ball. 1st & goal, Indy.” Yep. That was Coop – preventing Indy’s first down with a great play, and then giving them first down with a penalty. Remember Rex Grossman’s Super Bowl Year: Good Rex, Bad Rex? Cooper can be like that.
Nonetheless, the Chargers – and Coop – continued to fight. With the Colts trailing 28-24 and 2:10 left in the game, Manning was driving downfield. On 2nd & goal, Cooper broke up Manning’s pass to Joseph Addai in the end zone brilliantly. “That was textbook by Stephen Cooper, reaching around and batting it down!” Gumbel exclaimed. “Good Coop” saved the touchdown. On third down, Manning’s pass to Addai was tipped by Shaun Phillips and fell incomplete. Then, with 2:06 on the clock, the game – and the Chargers’ playoff life – was on the line. It was 4th & goal, and Indy was going for the win. “Anybody with a horseshoe, you hit!” exhorted Shaun Phillips to his defense, “Anybody with a horseshoe!” Cooper prowled the goal line like a caged animal. Manning dropped back to pass. And then, like a bat out of hell, the Chargers pass rush pressured Manning into a bad throw. The pass fell harmlessly to the turf, and the Chargers took over on downs. Cooper ran joyfully downfield, jumping – skipping, even! – pumping his fists in pure exhilaration. On the Colts sidelines, Dungy threw his headset to the ground in defeated frustration. The TV cameras caught a thrilling slow-motion shot of every single person on the Chargers’ sidelines – coaches, trainers, players – throwing their hands up in victory as Stephen Cooper and the Chargers defense held the Colts on that incredible goal-line stand, delivering a thrilling playoff victory to the Charger Faithful. (Norv recently delighted in shoving this victory in Dungy’s face after Indy’s former head coach called Turner out on national TV for San Diego’s slow start this year.)
As the 2008 season approached, the Chargers and Cooper were dealt a blow when he was suspended without pay for the first four games of the season for testing positive for ephedra. Cooper accepted the suspension, stating, “I regret that I mistakenly took a stimulant that I did not realize at the time was banned by the NFL. I support the NFL’s anti-doping policies, and … I apologize to the NFL, my team, my coaches, and to my fans.” Coach Norv Turner stood by Coop stating, “Obviously we’re disappointed, just as I know Stephen is. Coop made a mistake and now must deal with the consequences. It’s unfortunate, but we’ll deal with it and move on.” “Bad Coop” had made an appearance.
But how would “Good Coop” respond? In 2008, Cooper played at an extremely high level. Despite missing the first four games, he led the team in tackles (98 total, 72 solo), and racked up 1.5 sacks and 4 INTs (a career high). In Week 14 against Oakland on Thursday Night Football, Cooper intercepted a career-high two passes, the first Charger to do so since Donnie Edwards in 2004.
The 2008 Season came down to an epic Week 17 winner-take-all showdown at the Q against the Denver Broncos. As the Chargers defense was announced, Cooper roared out of the tunnel, threw back his shoulders, thrust his head to the sky and spewed water out of his mouth like an angry bull-fountain. The crowd at the Q howled “Cooop!” in approval.
NFL Films had Coop miked up for the game. He paced the sidelines, urging on his teammates. “Come on, 1-7!” he shouted to Rivers. “Go get you some!” Just then, Rivers went deep for Vincent Jackson, who laid out and caught a gorgeous pass. On the sidelines, Coop leapt for joy, pointed at the field, and shouted over his shoulder to his teammates, “He’s a beast! He’s a beast!” Coop then swung around to gaze at the field in wide-eyed wonderment and pride at his team’s explosive offense.
When the Chargers defense took the field, the microphone caught Coop trash-talking to Denver’s O-line: “All day long! I’m right here, all day long! You can’t block me one-on-one!” As the Chargers piled up the points, Coop stood on sidelines bench, swinging a towel in the air, shouting to his offense, “Come on! They can’t do nothing with you! Nothing!” As the clock ticked down to the decisive 52-21 win, Coop jumped up and down joyfully, and then helped dump the Gatorade on Norv. He ran onto the field and met Antonio Gates, where both of them pantomimed a boxing championship belt, shouting, “We’re the AFC West champs! We’re the champs!!”
In 2009, Cooper hit the ground running, and played in Iron Man mode all year. He started all 16 games, played more snaps (940) than any other player on the team, forced 3 fumbles, and led the defense in tackles (102) for the third consecutive season. He was voted to the USA Today 17th Annual All-Joe team, which honors “the overlooked, the overachievers, the hard-working Joes of the NFL.” Coop’s elevated level of play began Week 1 at Oakland, earning him the Game Ball for a season-high 16-tackle effort. That night, ESPN posted on its website, “Stephen Cooper gets the gold star on defense in Monday night’s 24-20 win at Oakland, as he racked up 13 solo tackles [16 TT] and forced a fumble. Cooper looks to be ready to join the elite class [among linebackers] … Tonight’s performance was quite impressive.”
His next Game Ball came in Week 14 at Dallas, where Jim Nance and Phil Simms were calling the game. In the 3rd quarter, with 9:49 on clock, on 3rd & 6, Dallas was backed up into their own end zone. Coop knocked down Tony Romo’s pass to Jason Witten, which forced a punt by the Cowboys. In the 4th quarter, Felix Jones had the ball punched out by Coop. The ball was recovered by Jones, but for a 5-yard loss. “Stephen Cooper was the one who stripped him!” said Nance. Simms responded, “Stephen Cooper – we’ve said his name a few times today – fights through the block, holds his ground and just reaches in and knocks it out.” 2nd & 15. Romo’s next pass was batted down by… guess who? Cooooop! The next pass on 3rd & 15 was incomplete, and the Chargers forced the Cowboys to punt. As Jerry Jones threw a fit in the owner’s box, Dean Spanos pumped his fist on the sidelines, and the Chargers beat the Cowboys, 20-17.
Later in the 2009 Season, the Chargers voted Coop their Most Inspirational Player.
This year, Coop has 33 tackles, 1 sack and a forced fumble. Early this year, the New York Times listed their Top 10 NFL Inside Linebackers. While Coop didn’t make the list, the article stated, “Consider him No. 11.”
Although the Chargers have started out slow again this year, Cooper and the team have not lost faith. After a Week 5 loss at Oakland put the Chargers at 2-3, Cooper said, “I’d like to go play them in another game right now, I’m so mad. But we’re not worried. There’s no panic button being pushed.” Asked about the coaching, Coop responded that it was the players’ responsibility to get the job done on the field. “Norv and our coaches always do a great job preparing us, but they aren’t the guys who execute the plays. When we don’t execute, we feel like we let them down. But we don’t point fingers. We hold each other up. We know we’re a talented team. We know once we get this ball rolling, we’re going to do fine.”
The ball is indeed rolling after back-to-back wins against the Titans and Texans. Late in the fourth quarter at Houston, after the Chargers stopped a final Texans drive, Coop was seen gleefully scampering up the field. He didn’t need the chain measurement to tell him the Texans were done. The Chargers held on for a 29-23 victory.
The Chargers website lists Cooper’s personal victories as well. He mentored his troubled nephew when the boy’s mother sent him from Wareham to live with Coop. He opened up his San Diego home and enrolled his nephew at Mt. Carmel High School. His nephew settled into his new environment, improved his grades, and even helped his school’s football team get to the playoffs last year. Cooper has three children, four siblings and often returns to Wareham to spend time with his family. Cooper is still a local hero in Wareham for his high school quarterbacking prowess, and in 2006 his High School retired his former No. 4 jersey. Cooper proudly attended the ceremony. When his playing career finally comes to a close – hopefully with a Chargers Super Bowl ring – Coop would like to become a teacher and a coach. He’d like to pass on all he has learned in life, and teach others about how he triumphed over his mistakes to become an inspirational team leader. You know, how “Good Coop” beat “Bad Coop.”