"Coop, let's go," University of Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said to Deontae Cooper as the running back stood on the sideline waiting for his chance to get into the game.
Coop, let's go.
Moments later, Cooper took a second-quarter handoff from Keith Price, and slammed into a pile of purple and white for a 1-yard gain. And when the stadium PA announcer called out the ball carrier, 71,963 responded like Cooper had taken it to the house.
It was a nondescript play that was part of a ho-hum stat line for Cooper, who carried six times for 8 yards in Washington's 38-6 victory over Boise State, but it was also such a big moment that Price admitted had him on the verge of tears.
"Man, it was awesome," the senior quarterback said. "It was awesome. Seeing all the things that he went through, then seeing him get that first carry, man, it almost brought a tear to my eye. If I wasn't on the field, I'd have probably cried."
Price and anyone else who has been around the program for the past few years knows how big those six carries were for Cooper, because they were the first six of a Husky career that started with so much promise in 2010. Back then, Cooper was one of Washington's top recruits, a player so talented that many thought he would push Chris Polk for the starting job as a true freshman. But Cooper tore the ACL in his left knee during fall camp that year, costing him a chance at that breakout freshman season. The next summer, while preparing for his comeback season, Cooper tore the same ACL, meaning another lost year. And just when it seemed he had endured all the misfortune any young athlete could have thrown his way, Cooper tore the ACL in his right knee preparing for the 2012 season. Three years, three ACL tears, three seasons in which college football glory was replaced by grueling rehab.
But on Saturday night, Cooper finally made his much-delayed Husky debut. Oh, and he happened to do it on a night when his team was opening its new stadium while drubbing a ranked opponent in front of a sellout crowd. It would have been a dream scenario if Cooper could have even dreamed that big.
"What I dreamed about didn't match up," Cooper said. "Brand new stadium, it was sold out today. It was a blessing."
Despite all the setbacks, despite plenty of people on the outside wondering if Cooper should just give up on football, he never doubted this day would come. It would have been easy for Cooper to decide that maybe his knees weren't meant for this sport, nobody would have blamed him if he had just walked away after surgery number two or three, but he never wavered. He knew someday he would play for the Huskies, and on a warm summer evening, someday finally came for Cooper.
"I knew it would come eventually," he said. "When, where, how, I didn't know. I knew I had worked hard and it would come eventually. I was going to stay on my continual grind and eventually get there."
And while his quarterback might have been fighting back emotions when Cooper came into the game for that second-quarter series, Cooper got that out of the way earlier in the game.
"My emotions kicked in when we went out there for the kickoff," he said. "I kind of got teary-eyed. When I got my first carry, all I was thinking was, 'Let's take this to the house.'"
Cooper was knocking off some considerable rust, and according to Sarkisian, the line didn't open up a ton of running lanes for the junior, so Cooper never took it to the house. For his long-term confidence, however, what might have been more important than taking it to the house was taking it on the knee.
Cooper noted that teammate Princeton Fuimaono dished out some harder hits in practice this fall than any he took Saturday night, but one moment that stood out in the game was when Broncos cornerback Donte Deayon, who by chance played against Cooper when the two were prep standouts in Southern California, came off the edge and hit Cooper low in the right leg.
"At that point I was like, 'OK, OK, I'm good.' It felt good," Cooper said.
The whole night felt good not just for Cooper, but his teammates, coaches, and anyone who knows his story of perseverance. After years of surgery, rehab and setbacks, Cooper finally heard his coach call his name.
Coop, let's go.
"It reminded me I love this game," Cooper said. "Coming out here, playing with teammates, college atmosphere. It was a blessing to be able to take part in something like this for the first time in three years.
Herald Writer John Boyle: email@example.com.
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