Captain Chaos Enjoying the Ride
Saturday, January 7, 2006
Chris Cooley's refrigerator belongs in a dorm room rather than a two-story, four-bedroom home on a winding country road west of Leesburg. It's stocked with one Mountain Dew and maybe 22 bottles of Yeungling beer. His Redskins-issue sweat pants are cut off and adorned with logos of 1980s head-banger bands -- AC/DC, Slayer and Poison among them -- which Cooley proudly drew himself.
There are half-opened Christmas presents and peanut butter cookies with Hershey's kisses on the kitchen counter. A drying Noble fir with large, old-fashioned Christmas lights and ornaments stands in the corner of the living room. Pet-food dishes sit in the garage, competing for space with two all-terrain vehicles.
Reclining on his couch after practice Wednesday, Cooley seemed as surprised as anyone that an unheralded and naive 23-year-old kid from the mountains of Utah had ended up not just starting -- but starring -- for the Washington Redskins in only his second year from Utah State.
In a seminal game against the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 18 -- the game that convinced many Redskins doubters that his team had bona fide playoff potential -- Cooley caught three touchdown passes, quickly immersing himself in the lore of one of the NFL's great rivalries.
"To go from playing at Utah State," Cooley said, "where sometimes we'd have 7,000 for a home game, to coming here and playing Dallas in front of like 100,000? People going wild and I score three touchdowns. It's on TV. Every one I know watches it and calls me."
Cooley leaned back on his sofa. "It's like, 'I'm not gonna complain.' "
Cooley, the player who teammates have dubbed "Captain Chaos," was in fifth grade when Joe Gibbs last took Washington to the playoffs in 1992. Today in Tampa, he will bring his boyish rambunctiousness to something called the H-back position against the Buccaneers. Whether Cooley lines up as a blocking fullback or a sure-handed tight end, he has made sure the "H" does not stand for homogenized.
"He reminds us we're all grown kids," said Joe Salave'a, whose locker room cubicle sits next to Cooley's at the team's practice facility in Ashburn. "He brings you back to what's more important, that we're human beings and you don't always have to be upset about things and take them so serious."
In an age of manufactured sports stars, agent-approved interviews and $300-a-day nutritionists, Cooley is okay with being 23 years old -- even if it means the unfortunate breakup of his marriage, a liaison with not one, but two Redskins cheerleaders, and a series of other youthful indiscretions that led to a summons from Gibbs earlier this season to talk about his off-the-field activities.
When Gibbs called him into his office, running back Clinton Portis remembered Cooley playfully showing up in a bandana and a hoodie, looking like the recalcitrant the organization worried he might be turning into. "What's up?" he said to Gibbs, who privately feared Cooley might be the team's next extreme individualist -- essentially a John Riggins in training.
An Eventful Few Years
When Cooley arrived for his freshman year at Utah State, a senior tight end named Scott Collins befriended him. He told Cooley to start concentrating on school and stop dreaming. "Halfway through my first year, before the scouts came, he said, 'There's one point in your career when you just have to finally accept it; you're not going to make it in the NFL,' " Cooley recalled.
Halfway through Cooley's junior year, the assessment seemed prescient. Cooley had caught five passes and was nowhere to be found on an NFL draft list. "I just figured, 'Another year. I'll hurry and get done with school and be a teacher,' " he said.