From Some Offseason Redskins, Some On-Target Advice

Thursday, April 30, 2009

High school students who play sports are often encouraged to find inspirational figures in their own homes, schools and neighborhoods instead of blindly idolizing the athletes they see on TV. The popular teacher who never misses a day of school or the doting mother who works two jobs provides a more identifiable role model than some fleet stud a kid knows only through SportsCenter highlights.

Then again, it's hard not to get a little dreamy-eyed when Redskins tight end Chris Cooley and two teammates saunter into your school, as Cooley and company did at the Heritage High auditorium last Thursday morning for a 4th & Life High School Football Forum for players from seven Loudoun County high schools.

"A lot of us are awestruck seeing NFL players here," Park View sophomore Nick Braddock said.

The 4th & Life program is part of the Redskins Charitable Foundation, designed to teach high school football players "what it takes to be successful both on the field and in the classroom by emphasizing the importance of both academic and athletic performance," according to a release from the team.

Safety Reed Doughty, fullback Jonathan Evans and former Redskins linebacker Ken Harvey, who served as emcee, all had wisdom to share, but it was Cooley who evoked the most craned necks and "there-he-is" murmurs among the 350 or so players on hand, many of them in their game jerseys.

What makes Cooley such an effective speaker to high school groups is his unfiltered honesty. Yes, he says all the right things about working hard and studying and not over-relying on athletics -- the three main talking points for pro jocks -- but he also lets slip some truths that spur I-can't-believe-he-said-that eye rolls from adults and knowing chuckles from his rapt audience.

Cooley's candidness doesn't dilute his message; it enhances it. In his opening remarks and during a lengthy question-and-answer session with all four Redskins, Cooley called out his former high school coach by name for putting him on the junior varsity team as a junior, recalled how he had helped shield a Redskins teammate who was urinating on the sideline only to have that player be distracted and pee on some bystanders, and made reference to receiving painkilling injections before games. He quickly tacked on a "Don't get shot up; it's bad" disclaimer at the end of that admission, apparently remembering that these were high school athletes that he was addressing.

Cooley, a two-time All-Pro, spoke of being a late bloomer at his Utah high school, where he also wrestled and played baseball, and at Utah State, the only college to offer him a scholarship. He was able to connect with the Loudoun players because much of what he said related to all levels of football, not just his:

"If you want to be on a football team, you have to be able to trust the guy that's playing next to you, so you learn that. You learn great friendship. . . . I would suggest playing three sports, if you can. I thought it helped me so much, not only in being a good athlete but being competitive. As much as you can do as far as sports go, do it. Wrestling and baseball helped me a ton."

"It was inspirational, the fact that Chris Cooley now plays in the NFL and he didn't even start on varsity when he was a junior," Heritage sophomore Nick Cochran said. "So I thought that was cool."

Doughty had his moments, as well. He told about how he attended a Colorado high school with fewer than 100 students in his graduating class and about how, with his 4.0 grade-point average, he had more academic opportunities than athletic. He attended Northern Colorado, Division II at the time, and plays with a hearing aid in each ear, a fact that never came up at the forum.

"If you really want something, it's got to come [from] within," Doughty said. "People can push you along, push you along, but the second they stop pushing, you're going to be standing still."

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