Chris Cooley keeps fire burning during NFL lockout
By Mike Wise,
On South King St. in Leesburg, the shop front reads, “The Cooley Gallery.” Kiln-fired vases, bowls and mugs, all signed and bearing a small No. 47 insignia, sit atop a small table in the showroom window. Handmade jewelry and pastoral oil paintings of Wyoming, some the work of a certain Pro Bowl tight end, can also be purchased inside — along with an autographed jersey if you like.
When the owner of the gallery is not here, he is said to be out jogging five miles with his wife to the soundtrack of the first season of “Glee,” the musical dramady on Fox about a high school glee club.
“It’s awesome,” Chris Cooley says. “The last episode of the first season has all these Journey songs and me and Christy just start going.”
As he smiles big at the thought of crooning a cover of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” Cooley disturbingly begins mimicking he and his wife running really, really fast.
First thought? It’s time for an intervention, whereby teammates and family members encircle Chris, tell him how much they love him and to stop already, he’s hurting them and himself. The NFL lockout will one day end, they’ll tell him; it doesn’t have to come to this: pottery, painting, fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies on the gallery tables for his first showing Friday night in Leesburg, “Glee.”
This is a mow-’em-down, rumbling tight end. He’s on the Washington Redskins’ payroll, not Martha Stewart’s.
But it’s not like that.
“I love pottery. I’ve always loved pottery.”
“I love ‘Glee’ too.”
Oh. Never mind.
Working the clay carefully in his meat-hook hands as the wheel rotates in his pottery room at home, Cooley, who looks as if he has been laying dry wall all day in his clay-caked clothes and arms, takes about 20 minutes to form a meticulously round and wide vase. He estimates he has made 350 pieces the past three weeks in anticipation of his first public showing Friday night at the gallery.
“I think I’ve made about 700 pieces since Dec. 3,” he said.
Which if you think about it, is only 149 pieces short of his career-tying 849 receiving yards Cooley piled up in 2010.
Where his connections used to involve downfield receptions from NFL quarterbacks, he now boasts of “firing with” renowned potters – including Tim Sherman, who will be featured at his showing Friday. “I fired with Tim,” he says. “It’s great to fire with people.”
Oh . . . kay.
Cooley estimates he has sold about $50,000 worth of his work and has given away thousands more to charity. He is indeed quite the entrepreneur. Over the holidays, he hit the Redskins team store at the Leesburg outlets. Hard.
“I bought $6,000 worth of my own jerseys,” he says. “I literally took every one, piling them up to my head in my arms. You had to see people in line, looking at me, like, ‘Hey, that’s Cooley. What’s he doing buying his own jersey?’”
Simple: He uses his employee discount to get 40 percent off at the team store. He then signs them and re-sells them at his gallery at the price everyone else would pay. Cha-ching.
The gallery is just a couple of backroads away from the Cooley estate, which beyond all the normal elite athlete amenities — mansion with game room and pool — features that pottery room downstairs, replete with a wall of clay-forming chemicals, a pottery wheel and a $25,000 wooden kiln outside.
“The two questions I get asked the most are, ‘Do you think you can build a bomb with all those chemicals?’ and ‘Do you think you can burn a body in your kiln?’ Which is an absolute yes.”
He actually uses the pottery wheel his father used in high school in Powell, Wyo., where Cooley was born. He began taking the hobby seriously when he broke his ankle during the 2009 season. Last November, on a whim almost, he and Christy walked into downtown Leesburg and leased the first space they saw on S. King St.
“Within a day — which is pretty normal for how spontaneous I am — we were like, ‘We’re going to have an art gallery,’” Cooley said.
This is the mature, fully developed Cooley, seven years removed from when Joe Gibbs plucked his hayseed butt out of Utah State, a head-banging, beer-and-a-shot kid, long ago referred to as “Captain Chaos.”
Married now, a year shy of 30, it’s a different world for 4-7 now — sort of.
“I drink a ton at every opening,” Cooley says. “We go to Safeway, grab some wine and beer, have live music, just have a good old time.”
And nothing personal toward fans or Commissioner Roger Goodell or players’ union chief DeMaurice Smith, but divvying up $9 billion or not, the details of the NFL lockout don’t concern him.
“I don’t care; it just doesn’t affect me right now,” he says. “When I’ll be pissed off is when the third paycheck doesn’t come. I’ll give up one and then have to deal with missing two maybe. But after that, I’ll be like, ‘This is costing me a [expletive]-load of money.’ Hey, if they want to tell us, ‘You have to miss half of training camp,’ great. I’ll be ready.”
Beyond the regular five-mile runs, he says he has stayed in good shape and will continue to work out away from the team. Yes, he would normally be running routes about now with his quarterback next season.
But, Cooley added, “If I can get the neighborhood kids out here and say, ‘Let me tell you about Cover 2,’ I might not miss anything.”
(Actually, he said about 30 Redskins, led by London Fletcher, have pledged to meet at a Northern Virginia high school for their own mini-camp of sorts next Wednesday and Thursday.)
Cooley was an art major in college. And much the same way teammates once supported former NFL lineman Rosey Grier’s foray into needlepoint, Cooley says he has been encouraged to continue to embrace his artistic side by teammates. If the lockout drags on, hey, he’s always got a second job.
Perusing the gallery late Wednesday afternoon, local realtor Annette Schafer sees the framed jersey on the wall and asks, “Are you Cooley?”
“Yes,” Chris nods.
“Where’s that jersey from, somewhere you played?”
“Great. Well, you have some real nice work here.”
Told it is a Redskins jersey, Schafer asks, “Oh, neat. Do you still play?”