By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
But over the Aggies' next 15 games, Cooley caught more than 100 passes. His senior year alone he caught 62 passes and six touchdowns. He could rumble downfield after a catch, too, leaving defensive backs strewn about the ground.
"All of a sudden," Cooley said, "it was, boom, boom, boom, here you go."
In his predraft interview with Washington in 2004, Gibbs remembered Cooley telling him he could run "pretty good" after a catch. The Redskins plucked him in the third round of the draft, the 81st player selected overall. He signed a four-year contract worth about $1.38 million not including a $665,000 signing bonus. The organization envisioned him as a potential H-back, the hybrid fullback-tight end position that is a distinguishing characteristic of a Gibbs offense.
Within months, Cooley and his wife of two years, Angela, were on a plane to Northern Virginia. He started at the H-back position his first season, catching 37 passes and six touchdowns. This year, Cooley pulled in 71 passes and scored seven times. With injuries to David Patten and James Thrash, he emerged as the team's No. 2 receiver behind wideout Santana Moss.
Cooley says he lost track of Collins, his former teammate, after college. "We never really kept in contact," Cooley said. "But I always wanted to call him and be like, 'Yeah, dude. I made it.' "
A year ago, Cooley was the team's nominee for the NFL's Man of the Year award, named after the late Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton. He had spent time reading to children at D.C. recreation centers and libraries. With the help of Angela, he helped buy and distribute 2,500 turkeys and 100,000 pounds of food to families the week before Thanksgiving.
A year later, the high school sweetheart he married two weeks after his 20th birthday is back in Utah.
"How did that go down?" Cooley said. "Ready: Dated for two years. Got engaged. Broke up for six months. Went out on a Tuesday night date. I said, 'I want to see you again.' She said, 'I don't want to be less than what we're going to be.' That was Tuesday. We got married on Saturday."
"I look back now and think, 'Should I have maybe given it a month?' " he said, through a rueful smile. "It wasn't like I came to the NFL and decided, I don't want to be married. There were ups and downs through the whole thing."
Angela returned to Utah late last spring. They were divorced in December. Cooley said they remain friends, that the separation was amicable given the circumstances. "We worked out everything ourselves," he said.
She got the golden Labrador retriever, "which was okay, because I don't think that dog liked me," he said.
After Angela left, he briefly dated Frankie Buglisi, a Redskins cheerleader, who brought her friend and fellow Redskinette Christy Ogilvie to Cooley's welcome-home party last July after a month-long trip out West.
A team official, on condition of anonymity, said an unidentified woman called the team afterward and ratted out Buglisi. The Redskins prohibit any company employee from fraternizing with players, and the Redskinettes have a specific clause to that effect in their contracts.
A short time later, Buglisi's stepfather called Elliot Segal, the morning host of WWDC-FM, and went on the air with the news that Cooley had started dating Ogilvie.
Segal milked the story for three days. "The Redskins. Sex. Cheerleaders. I was in heaven," Segal said, adding, "I hope Chris wasn't upset by any of it."
Before the first game of the season, both cheerleaders were cut from the squad, a job that paid them $75 a game, for violating company policy. Cooley returned to his job, unscathed. "Dude," Cooley said, "I really feel terrible about that, that they lost their jobs."
Cooley is still amused by an item in The Washington Post's Reliable Source column that mistakenly announced he had two children. "Yeah, Timmy's got a basketball game to go to tonight. And Sally's got ballet. It was like a singles ad."
"I'm okay with all that," Cooley said. "It's an entertainment business. With all the money they pay for tickets and jerseys, fans deserve to know some stuff about your life that gets hidden."
Cooley refused to comment about his meeting with Gibbs, saying it was between him and the coach. He would not even acknowledge he and Gibbs spoke. But he said he welcomes the organization's concern.
"Honestly, I felt good that they would come talk to me," he said. "That they cared so much about me. It makes you feel like you're part of a family."
He added, "The only people I'm worried about thinking I'm a madman off the field is the organization. I don't want to be the guy who creates any issues or problems."Well Grounded in Utah
Cooley was born in Powell, Wyo., a mountain hamlet that lies 70 miles south of Billings, Mont. Dennis Havig, an offensive guard in the 1970s with Atlanta, Houston and Green Bay, is the only other NFL player to come out of the town of 5,250. A grandfather on Cooley's mother's side, Wayne Startin, played quarterback at Brigham Young University from 1956 to '58.
Cooley's parents split up when he was 8; his brother Tanner was 4. Nancy Cooley moved the family eight hours south, to Logan, in 1992, when the boys were 10 and 6. She returned to school, earned a teacher's degree and then a masters in Business Education. She now teaches accounting and computer applications at Utah State and Sky View High School in Logan.
"When I look back on it, I know my mom had no money," Cooley said. "But I remember kids being like, 'You always have nice clothes.' Everything she had, she gave to us."
Nancy Cooley purchased a John Elway uniform, which Chris refused to take off as a child. "I would watch a Broncos game until they were losing," he said. "Then I would go outside and make up imaginary teams. I would make rosters and throw to the players and run and catch it myself. All day."
Nancy was raised in the Mormon church, but chose not to raise her children in Utah's predominant faith. "I didn't give them any church except the Church of Being Nice to Everybody," she said in a telephone interview from Logan this week.
"My kids are my life," she added. "They always have been."
After she and her two boys moved to Logan, their existence was spent shuttling between baseball, wrestling and football games. Tanner, a redshirt freshman, also plays tight end at Utah State, whose stadium lights she can see flickering from her back window.
"I worry about him being out there by himself, but he's got some good people around him," Nancy said of Cooley's new life in Washington. She mentioned Brian Kozlowski and Jim Molinaro, Cooley's two closest friends on the team, and Christy Ogilvie, the former Redskinette he has been dating for five months, and Christy's family.
Neither Nancy nor Ken Cooley, Chris and Tanner's father who remained in Powell, Wyo., have remarried. "My mom did a good job of keeping everything from us and letting us see my dad when we could," Cooley said. "She never talked bad about him."
Ken Cooley declined to elaborate on what drove his ex-wife to Utah with the children. "But it sure hurt when they took off," he said by telephone. "I really liked being a dad. There was a big void. Oh, man, when that happened there wasn't enough whiskey in the house to drink."
Though Nancy raised them, both boys maintain a relationship with their father. Nancy came to Washington for the Cowboys and Giants games this season; Ken saw Chris play the Eagles in November.
"Yeah, it's not like a father-son relationship," Ken said. "It's more like buddies. I like it that way."
"I'm close with him, but he's more like my best friend than a Dad," Cooley said. "I know I missed him growing up."
Ogilvie, who represented the Redskins in the Maxim magazine cheerleader spread the past two seasons, is still featured in the team's calendar, one of which she autographed for Ken.
"To be honest," Cooley's father said, "it wouldn't bother me a bit if he stayed with Christy. Captain of the football team meets captain of the cheerleader team. It's an all-American story, ain't it?"'I'm Not Cutting My Hair'
Mark Brunell, the Redskins starting quarterback, was asked if he could shed some light on Cooley. "On or off the field?" he said, half-smiling.
"Seriously, if the way he acted off the field affected his work, it's one thing," Brunell, 35, said. "But he knows when to work and when to have fun. He's got a good balance. He's a big kid. Before a game, he's acting like my 4-year-old."
Five minutes before the game against the St. Louis Rams last month, Cooley paraded around the team locker room in an outlandish fur derby cap and a red microphone cover over his nose. When he was selected a captain and went to midfield to meet the Rams players prior to the game, on a whim he introduced himself as "Captain Chaos."
The last two homes games Cooley and Kozlowski have rumbled into the FedEx Field parking lot blaring Great White's "Once Bitten, Twice Shy" from their car speakers.
"I mean, it's sports," Cooley said. "Basically, I go from 23 years old to I get to work and I'm 15."
Last September, Cooley recounted, he heard that the Redskinettes were planning to turn their backs on him when his name was announced at the season opener against the Chicago Bears. It was the cheerleaders' way to protest his role in the firing of Buglisi and Ogilvie.
"Stupid high school drama," Cooley's brother Tanner called it. Just the same, Chris was ready. He said he hatched a plan in which he would pretend he was dating another cheerleader by running over to the sideline at FedEx Field and handing her the ball after he scored a touchdown.
"It didn't work out very well," Cooley said. "First, she really didn't take it, so I just kind of tossed it and it hit the ground. Second, there was a penalty on the play, so it was called back. So I had to run back on the field. I almost had to shake my head, 'cause everything happened fast and, like, I'm fine. It doesn't bother me. It's almost rude to say, but I don't care what the rest of the cheerleaders think about me."
Reebok, with whom Cooley has an endorsement contract, has begun printing Captain Chaos T-shirts, he said. "The words are in Superman letters," Cooley said. "They got this picture of me, next to my autograph and my number.
"Hilarious, huh? I've changed from the tight end no one knew to Captain Chaos."
Unprompted, Cooley announces in his living room, "I'm not cutting my hair."
And later: "I think I'm going to get a big Shockey tattoo, dude," referring to Jeremy Shockey, the New York Giants' tight end. "I think I need one. He got a huge one on his arm. I need a big tattoo somewhere."
Captain Chaos may not make the cut. "In 10 years that might be really stupid to me," Cooley said. "A big tattoo, you really got to think what would be cool in 2030."
In 25 years, Cooley plans to be less of a large-living, 23-year-old football player enjoying his life after admittedly getting married too young. He wants it known that he is not some out-of-control, philandering, beer-chugging athlete headed for a personal meltdown, as callers to head-banger radio might suggest.
But until then, he has some damage control to perform.
"You could put in the article that Chris Cooley and Christy Ogilvie will be clearing things up on DC-101 over the summer with 'Elliot in the Morning,' " Cooley said. "Yeah, dude, put that in there."