Oakton High free safety Chad Cooper acknowledges his football prospects improved between his junior and senior seasons, mostly because he gained 14 pounds, grew half an inch and began receiving advice from the Washington Redskin living in his basement.
The basement tenant was linebacker Derek Smith, who rented the space in the Cooper's house in Herndon for about six months last year. Smith first met the family through a mutual friend soon after he was drafted by the Redskins in 1997, and would often go hunting with Tom Cooper, Chad's father. Smith then had the family pet-sit his pit bull when he left town for road games.
When he moved back to Washington in the summer of 1998, he did not have a place to live. Tom Cooper offered to rent him the basement until he found a place and Smith lived there through the end of last season. And in that time, he practically became a member of the family.
"I think Derek was kind of lonely living by himself," Tom Cooper said. "People think NFL players lead glamorous lives, but Derek is not like that. He comes from a large family and he missed having people around. It can be pretty boring when all you have is a TV and four walls. But his living with us enriched our lives."
Said Derek Smith: "Tom and I met through a mutual hunting friend. At first we just went hunting. . . . When I needed a place, they offered to rent me their basement and I took it. They are a great family and Chad became like my little brother."
The "little brother" is actually a 6-foot-3, 215-pound bona fide blue-chip football recruit. After fielding more than 27 scholarship offers, Cooper finally gave an unofficial commitment to Virginia Tech last week.
But he still takes the field for Oakton home games by running under the tunnel of gold and red flags held by cheerleaders. And he still takes a second to look into the stands to see if his parents are sitting next to the 6-2, 239-pound NFL linebacker who moved out of the house when he got married last February.
"Derek still calls once or twice a week, just to see how things are going," said Connie Cooper, Chad's mother. "But he will not tell us about the Redskins game until we tell him about Chad's game first."
Usually, the Cougars' games go well. Cooper, who in addition to safety plays linebacker and fullback, anchors a strong defense for Oakton (3-4). Last season, he led the team with 123 tackles as the Cougars finished 10-2 and won their first Virginia AAA Division 6 playoff game.
His football games aside, some of the games that meant the most to him last year included Parchessi and bow-and-arrow shooting contests with Smith and the rest of the family.
"Derek has not won a Parchessi game yet," Chad Cooper said. "He is a super-competitive guy, and when he loses it really ticks him off."
Smith agreed, but not without a counter.
"I have not won in Parchessi, but I dominate the shooting contests," he said.
There were rubber-band shooting "wars" in the basement, with Tom Cooper and Smith on one team and Chad and his younger sister, Megan, a sophomore at Oakton, on the other.
"Those were so vicious that I did not dare go into the basement," Connie Cooper said.
But Smith also took an interest in Chad Cooper's football career. At first, he answered general questions about techniques and plays. Then he joined Tom, who played at Virginia Tech from 1974 to 1976, and Chad when they watched the home videos Tom took of Oakton games. Soon, he was giving Chad advice on specific plays.
Smith even attended two Friday night Oakton games last year.
"I just wanted to show up and root for him and encourage him," Smith said. "He can definitely play in college and maybe beyond, but he is not a punk about it. He is just a nice, quiet kid. Going to see him play was not a big deal."
To Chad Cooper, it certainly was.
"There is no possible way I could tell you how much it meant to me," he said. "Derek is like the older brother I never had. He really helped me with football and a lot of other things. But his going to my games was unbelievable. I could not believe he took that much of an interest in me."
Smith said he was treated like a member of the family. But the family knew that Smith would not want much attention about his living arrangement, so they didn't tell many people about their basement tenant.
One of the few people Chad Cooper told was classmate Lance Tolman, a Cougars lineman.
"Man, I thought that was really cool," Tolman said. "After I found out, I would always ask him questions about what Derek said about the Redskins practice that day, or what he said about our game films. I got to meet him once, and he was a really nice guy. It is a big thing to have a Redskin living with you."
And a bigger thing to have a Redskin help you through the college recruiting process, which Smith did for Cooper. Cooper said Smith helped him "visualize" playing in college by telling him what recruiters and recruiting visits were like and what to expect playing in college--and perhaps beyond.
Some of those hints hit home for Cooper when he attended Smith's wedding and met Pat Tillman, a 5-11, 192-pound safety for the Arizona Cardinals and a teammate of Smith's at Arizona State.
"Pat and I talked about football for a while since we play the same position," Cooper said. "And it was interesting because I was bigger than he was. I never thought about playing in college but Derek helped me realize I could do it."
Others had no doubts, however.
Said Oakton Coach Pete Bendorf: "If you put 100 kids in a room and asked which was the football player, probably no one would pick out Chad. But he is a really hard hitter and a very hard worker. Anything we ask him to do, he does."
"Chad is a very good football player now, but most people think he will be great at the next level," said Mark Bendorf, head coach at Robinson and brother of the Oakton coach. "He has a great nose for the ball and makes a lot of plays, plus he is a good hitter. I have met him a few times through camps and through my brother and you could not ask for a nicer, more polite kid."
The NFL player agrees that Cooper's career is promising. He also said it's a good thing he and his "little brother" weren't really related.
"Chad can do really well at the next level," Smith said. "And he is a really nice kid. If he really were my little brother, I would have had to beat him up a few times just to keep him in line. But since he is not, I only threatened to. I will enjoy keeping up with him at the next level and beyond. Basically he is just a nice, fun kid to be around."