The writing is always on the wall in professional sports, particularly in the no-guaranteed-contract National Football League. Indeed, long before he fought back tears and his voice quivered at his farewell news conference, Chris Cooley knew how the NFL worked.
One day, you’re a rumbling mass of humanity, seeing the ball into your large, soft hands, cradling that leather and mowing over smaller, weaker men, who clutch at your heels after being felled by essentially a beer truck with a broken parking brake. Back then, the Pro Bowl life beckoned, and middle-aged couples from places such as Hagerstown and Leesburg and Bowie wore matching Washington Redskins No. 47 jerseys and howled “Cooooo-leeee,” and life was grand.
The next day, you’re cut. Someone younger, more athletic and cheaper takes your job. Happens every day in America, in professions that pay a pittance of what an elite athlete makes.
“I spent two years with this staff and was hurt for most of it,” Cooley said early Tuesday evening from his home, trying to take Coach Mike Shanahan and the Redskins off the hook for letting go the team’s longest-tenured player.
“It wasn’t their fault I wasn’t the player I wanted to be. Do I think I can be that player again? Of course I think that. But they have to do what they think is the best for them. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. I really had an awesome time.”
Still, a zeitgeist moment passed Tuesday for Washington football fans, when arguably their favorite player during Daniel Snyder’s time as owner announced he was no longer a Redskin.
“This organization has changed my life, in every way, for the better — and I appreciate it,” he had said earlier, his eyes misting during a makeshift news conference that lasted a few minutes at the team’s training complex in Ashburn. “It’s been a good ride. It’s been a pleasure.”
No, Chris, it was our pleasure. We got to see you catch more passes than any tight end in team history, more than Clint Didier and Donnie Warren combined. From 2004 on, you had more receptions than all but four players since the team was founded in 1932: Art Monk, Gary Clark, Charley Taylor, Santana Moss. That’s it. That’s the list.
Yes, Cooley was due $3.8 million this season on a team that suddenly had a logjam at his position. But the Redskins should have had the decency to release him weeks ago, when he would have had more than a sliver of time to catch on elsewhere.
It would have been the right and proper thing to do for the most responsible player on the roster during an irresponsible decade in franchise history.
For every bad move, every moment of utter chaos in Ashburn — for every Albert Haynesworth, Adam Archuleta and all the other bad actors, for every impulsive free agent buy, draft pick or Jim Zorn hire that Snyder regretted, for every tight end or offensive lineman suspended because of a positive drug test — Cooley became the one, true thing fans could rely on every Sunday.
Before he broke his foot during a game in 2009, he never missed a practice. Before Fred Davis took his job last season while Cooley was coming back from knee surgery, he started 101 straight games.
He never popped off, saying his talents would be more valued on a better team. He never slammed the organization for its dysfunction during the prime of his career. In fact, if you sauntered up to Cooley and tried to extract dirt, you would find a hopeful guy who hid any disenchantment he might be feeling because he knew things were always going to get better and he would one day win more than one playoff game in Washington.
Even on the day they dumped him, Cooley wouldn’t ask the obvious: “Why didn’t they let me go sooner?” Instead, when I asked him what he wanted to say that he couldn’t get out in those, swallow-hard moments at his news conference, he thought hard for a couple moments before he spoke:
“I want to express, finally, that the fans in this area deserve a team that wins,” Cooley said. “They deserve this team to be a playoff team and a Super Bowl team. The fans genuinely care. I wanted this team to be a playoff team. I wanted to be part of this team that won.
“My goal isn’t just to win a Super Bowl. I have no interest in going somewhere just because they’re going to win football games. My goal in my career — my final goal — was to win with the Washington Redskins. So that’s the only real disappointment of my career is that I could never win here.”
He kept going, with feeling: “So many people deserved it and wanted it — as much as people hate to say it, an owner that wants it more than anyone else.
“It’s frustrating that it didn’t happen. But that’s the only thing I was left without. Other than that . . . I mean, come on, dude, I was an art major from Logan, Utah, and now I have everything I could ever want. I am very appreciative.”
He won’t tell you that he knew a couple of days ago that the team actually wanted him to wait till Friday to reveal the news so his release could be announced with the rest of the final cuts, but that he couldn’t stomach the charade that long because of what this place and these fans meant to him. But someone close to him told me that.
He won’t tell you that he knew his days were numbered last spring, when Shanahan started comparing second-year tight end Niles Paul to Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe.
He won’t tell you the Redskins barely let him run a route in the preseason even though he was perfectly healthy. He won’t dispute Shanahan’s statement that he released Cooley now so he could start somewhere else, even though any sane football observer would question it.
No. That’s not Cooley, who didn’t even have an agent until he got ahold of David Dunn late Tuesday afternoon.
“For the first time in my life, I get to decide to do what I want to do,” he said.
He just turned 30 in July, but Cooley made us all feel a little older yesterday. I still remember him at an Italian restaurant in Reston with Mike Sellers his rookie year: So nervous, anxious, he could barely put two sentences together.
When he was 23, he once opened his refrigerator to ask me what I wanted to drink: Other than one Mountain Dew, the fridge held almost two cases cases of Yuengling beer. Captain Chaos, his teammates used to call him.
Come on, dude, who else sang “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” onstage with Journey in Las Vegas? Who else blasted Great White and Third Eye Blind from his truck’s speakers as he entered FedEx Field on game day? Who else posted a picture of the playbook on his Web site, but accidentally exposed his genitals in the process? Cooley put the “social” in social media.
That’s right, the art major from Logan, Utah – the best damn tight end in team history.
“It’s not a retirement — it’s not a funeral, I’m not dying,” Cooley said before we hung up.
No, but the Redskins lost a piece of themselves Tuesday afternoon. Cooley was on the verge of crying because he was losing them. It should have been the other way around.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/wise.