Last in a seven part series
Chris Cooley strolled through Dulles Town Center on Tuesday as his wife, Angela, shopped for shoes at Nordstrom. Cooley wore a gray baseball cap pulled down tightly, blue shorts and a white T-shirt -- no signs that the 6-foot-3, 265-pounder was a Washington Redskins rookie tight end.
Each time the couple stopped at an aisle to check out a product, it wasn't long before strangers approached to offer help. Cooley and Angela initially were confused about the unsolicited assistance.
"Why are they helping us so much?" Angela asked her husband. "We're not stealing anything."
Cooley was also befuddled until yet another stranger soon approached the couple to solve the mystery.
"Congratulations, Mr. Cooley," the person said.
Cooley, an obscure third-round pick from Utah State, had been named the Redskins' starting H-back for Sunday's season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedEx Field. Even when Cooley was Utah State's star tight end, he was rarely approached by strangers. And the people who stopped Cooley in public to talk football were acquaintances or friends from the town of Logan, Utah.
The attention the 22-year-old has started receiving while doing mundane chores is as much an indication of the significance of being named the starting H-back -- a position that is critical to Coach Joe Gibbs's offense -- as it is an example of the rabid nature of Redskins fans.
"It's been weird like that just to have people recognize me," Cooley said a few days after his shopping trip. "It's been cool. It's different though."
Becoming a starter was Cooley's lofty goal after being selected 81st overall in this year's NFL draft. Cooley was somewhat of an underdog if only because of inexperience. However, Cooley received the nod over Mike Sellers, a fifth-year veteran who entered preseason as the favorite, and Brian Kozlowski, in his 11th season, during perhaps the most competitive battle in training camp. Cooley's toughness and durability appeared to provide the edge over Kozlowski and Sellers, both of whom missed time with nagging injuries. Kozlowski is listed as probable for Sunday's game with a calf ailment.
"We could have made a case for a couple of the other guys," tight ends coach Rennie Simmons said this week, but Cooley "made it through every game and practice and did not miss anything. Knock on wood. If you weigh everything out, he deserves to start."
Tanner Cooley, 18, traces his brother's sturdiness to one-on-one football games between the two in the family's backyard in Logan. "He always killed me," Tanner, a freshman tight end at Utah State, said yesterday. "So I thought he was tough."
They played a quirky, bare-bones football game peppered with hard tackling that started with one brother kicking off to the other. The end zones were at each side of the backyard. There were four downs. After tossing -- or snapping -- the ball to themselves they had the option to run or pass. "It was just like a real game," Tanner remembered, speaking by telephone from Logan, "but with only one person on each side. We kept all the rules."
The games were played intermittently on Sundays during telecasts of Denver Broncos games. Chris and Tanner, avid Broncos fans, got psyched watching their favorite team. After a quarter or two, the brothers would grow restless and go out back to play. During the fall, Chris and Tanner piled leaves to use as imaginary players.
"When the leaves fell off, we'd make a big pile and pretend that was our offensive and defensive line," said Chris Cooley, who grew up idolizing Denver quarterback John Elway. "And I'd play running back and he'd play linebacker and we'd run around the leaves."
The H-back's role in Gibbs's offense is exponentially more complicated than those one-on-one games. Cooley vaulting up the H-back depth chart as a rookie is an impressive feat.
H-back, a hybrid of fullback, tight end and wide receiver, is the second-most challenging position in Gibbs's system after quarterback. Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach-offense, describes the H-back as a "tweener." The player must block like a pure tight end, catch like a wide receiver and act like a fullback going in motion from various spots on the field. Thus, the H-back must combine athleticism with football smarts in order to master pass protection schemes, routes and formations.
At Utah State, Cooley played on special teams, tight end and full back, as well as H-back. His versatility prepared him for the role he plays in Gibbs's offense.
But Cooley was overwhelmed during his first NFL practice, on May 1, because of the responsibility of the position and the phone-book size of the playbook. Cooley studied through that night at his Ashburn hotel to begin deciphering the playbook. It paid off the next day when things slowed down.
Since then, Cooley has studied the playbook daily as if cramming for a bar exam, and watched game film religiously.
At first, Cooley's biggest mental hurdle was learning to recognize blitzes and adjust to running relatively shorter pass routes. But over several months, Cooley has familiarized himself with almost every aspect of Gibbs's system. "I feel so comfortable right now," Cooley said.
'I Get Done What Needs to Be Done'
Cooley arrives each day at Redskins Park by 6:30 a.m., a half-hour before other rookies are scheduled to report for a weightlifting session. After pumping iron for an hour, Cooley watches film for another 60 minutes before the rest of the team starts its day with meetings. Cooley attends a special teams meeting from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., because the tight end is on every special teams unit. The rest of Cooley's day at Redskins Park generally comprises of a team meeting, an offensive meeting, a walkthrough workout and a film session. After practice, Cooley heads home, where he watches more film for another hour.
Cooley has the requisite athleticism to play H-back, but believes that his drive and work ethic are the reasons he will be an NFL starter on opening day.
"This is my life for six months," Cooley said at Redskins Park, carrying his playbook and a DVD player for a breakdown on Tampa Bay's defensive schemes. "I'm not the fastest guy ever and I'm not the strongest guy ever. But I get done what needs to be done."
Cooley has physical gifts -- good hands and an ability to break tackles for extra yards. With those qualities, Utah State built its offense around Cooley, and last season he became one of the NCAA's most prolific tight ends, with 62 catches for 732 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Wideouts Darnerien McCants and Laveranues Coles, known for their sure hands, have been impressed with Cooley's pass-catching ability.
"He has great hands," Coles said yesterday. "That's why they use him a lot in the offense."
McCants added, "You don't ever see him drop the ball."
After catches, Cooley is as difficult to bring down. "He'll bounce off people," Gibbs said, "and make things happen."
On Washington's opening drive last week against the Falcons, the Redskins had the ball on first-and-10 at Atlanta's 15-yard line. After a short pass from Mark Brunell, Cooley broke a tackle by Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking and used his shoulder to bowl over Cory Hall as if the safety was Chris's hapless brother. Cooley was finally pushed out of bounds by middle linebacker Chris Draft after a 10-yard gain. The Redskins scored on the next play for a 7-0 lead.
"He takes pride in that," Simmons said of Cooley's yards after catches. "One of the first things he told me was, 'Hey, I never let one guy get me down. It's going to take more than one guy to get me down.' And he's backing it up on the field. He did it on the college level. It's another thing coming in the NFL and doing it. But he's done it."
Cooley -- a star wrestler at Logan High who started the sport at age 4 -- was voted as Utah State's hardest hitter last season. But Cooley's blocking has been a weakness in the NFL so far largely because he wasn't asked to do much of it in college. Cooley faces a challenge against the NFL's powerful defensive ends, starting with Tampa Bay's right defensive end Simeon Rice. Cooley hasn't yet been able to transfer his power fending off defenders after catches to blocking opponents.
"It feels so different when I'm blocking, but you deliver a blow the same as if you're going to run somebody over," said Cooley, who lives in Hamilton, Va., a small town just west of Leesburg, because the open land is a reminder of Logan. "You just have to stay in front of him. What I've done lately that's really helped me is I'll pick a spot on someone's shirt and find where I'm going to put my hands."
The Moment Arrives
Early in preseason, it looked as if Cooley would start his rookie season as a reserve. But becoming a starter turned out to be so anticlimactic that Cooley never received an announcement from Washington's coaching staff. The most auspicious sign occurred last week when he practiced with the first team. Then Cooley started in the final exhibition game last week at FedEx Field against Atlanta. Cooley caught two passes for 21 yards in the 27-0 victory.
Based on last week, Cooley had an inkling he would start this Sunday, but found out after practice Monday from B.J. Blanchard, the longtime secretary at Redskins Park. As Cooley walked through the hallway, she game him a heads-up that reporters needed to talk to him after Gibbs responded to a question about who would start at tight end. If there was any doubt, the tight end's mother, Nancy Cooley, sent him an e-mail Monday night with a link from the Redskins' and a newspaper's Web sites quoting Gibbs that her son would "probably start."
Despite his passion for football, Cooley had attended only one NFL game before joining the Redskins, when he was 11. On Sept. 12, 1993, he took a one-hour flight with his father, Ken Cooley, from Cody, Wyo., to Denver. The Cooleys were among 75,074 spectators at Mile High Stadium as the Broncos defeated the San Diego Chargers, 34-17. Ken Cooley recalls arriving early so his son could get autographs from players who passed through the tunnel to warm up.
"It was," Chris Cooley said, "the most awesome thing ever."