Chris Cooley was sitting in an office breakroom in Rockville, a few minutes before the start of his daily radio show on ESPN 980. That morning, the former Redskins tight end had power cleaned 350 pounds inside the Redskins Park weight room — the most he had done since he was in college. After being about 15 pounds over his playing weight in January, he was back down to his normal 250.
“I feel [bleeping] awesome,” he said on a recent afternoon.
NFL assistant coaches who have run into him in recent months have seen what sort of shape he’s in, and asked why he isn’t still playing football. It’s the sort of question that can stick with a just-turned-33-year-old radio host.
Because Cooley never actually retired, not formally, anyhow. He couldn’t imagine playing for a team other than the Redskins, and he didn’t want to play for a bargain rate, so he left the game after the 2012 season and started a media career, just a few hashmarks into his 30s.
The typical sports-radio host, though, has a different health regimen than the typical NFL player. By this January, Cooley didn’t like the way he looked, or the way he felt. So he resumed football-style workouts, running pass routes in the Redskins Park bubble, sprinting 20 or 30 yards while dragging a sled loaded with 45-pound weights, jogging down to the Redskins Park weight room to do a quick set or two during his show’s commercial breaks, benching 315 pounds six times in a row.
Now he’s back in shape, and having non-joking conversations with an out-of-town NFL offensive coordinator about playing in the league. And the 33-year old can’t help but wonder: Could he still do it?
“If I went to camp, I could be anybody’s third tight end, worst case,” he said. “I have no doubt. Any team in the NFL, I could be their third tight end. There’s not a question in my mind.”
But Cooley can see both sides of this column, like any proper radio host should. (Your calls, after the break!) He will tell you that he feels like he can still play, and then without taking a breath he’ll admit that every former player believes that same thing. He will tell you he “absolutely” would listen if a team called, and then acknowledge the idea “seems far-fetched to anybody else.” He will talk about how much fun it would be to get out on that field again, and then explain how much he doesn’t want to tarnish his Redskins legacy.
He will describe his feeling during recent workouts and then admit that “this feeling of greatness can only occur in my life for, what, two more years?” He doesn’t want to beg someone for a chance, but he still imagines “somebody calling me and being like we really, really, REALLY, want you; come play.”
Cooley said he loves his job: breaking down film, calling games from the booth and hosting an afternoon drive show. But there’s a certain thrill that comes with playing football, a jolt of life that apparently does not come with debating it.
In football, “you prepare, and then you achieve something great, and there’s this huge adrenaline rush, this huge excitement,” he said. “And it’s so dumb, because it’s just a game, but there’s a great fulfillment. You finish a radio show, and some days you might think ‘That was an awesome show!’ and then everyone walks out of the studio like ‘All right, see you later.’ … The atmosphere, being a part of a team, trying to achieve something, it’s unattainable outside of professional sports.”
So why did Cooley walk away at the age of 30? He had been cut in training camp before his ninth NFL season, but was brought back during that playoff campaign after an injury to Fred Davis. He said he “truly felt” then that he would struggle to play for anyone but the Redskins, that he was leery of getting cut by another team, and that he had “a visualization of what I should receive financially from another team, which was probably unrealistic.”
Two summers ago, he started his media career, with a contract that included an out in case a football opportunity emerged. Two NFL assistant coaches — including Jay Gruden, then with Cincinnati — later told him they had been interested, but were informed that Cooley was done.
“That was the perception, that I wasn’t going to play anymore, and I didn’t put myself out there,” he said. “I was kind of protecting myself, as well — protecting my emotional psyche — to not let myself down.”
In the meantime, he got engaged, had a daughter, and watched countless hours of football tape for his weekly film breakdowns, which remain among the best segments in local sports radio. That process, he said, increased his love and knowledge of the game. Two seasons in the booth also mostly convinced him that his Redskins legacy wouldn’t be spoiled if he spent time running around in some other color uniform. And so?
“So I’ll just say that I want to” play again, he said on the radio a few weeks back. “There aren’t the competitive challenges and the competitive accomplishments to be achieved in [every] job, the feeling of going crazy because you’ve worked to achieve something. And if you think you only have a couple more [chances], why wouldn’t you do it?”
Cooley is worried that he’ll sound egotistical or crazy when such thoughts get translated into pixels. He also knows he can’t be sure what would happen if he were actually matching up with 260-pound linebackers, instead of with Steve Czaban and Larry Michael.
But if it matters, Antonio Gates is older than Cooley. So is Jason Witten. Heath Miller is just a few months younger. And Cooley doesn’t think he would be a star; just a guy who blocks the edge, picks up a playbook quickly, maybe helps out on special teams, and gets a chance to play football again.
Joe Gibbs used to tell his charges to enjoy every moment, that they could be shuffling bolts on an assembly line somewhere instead of “doing something awesome” like playing football. Cooley thinks he was right.
“I would actually just love to go run around and play,” he said. “Two years ago, had I gone somewhere and it didn’t work out, I would have had my feelings hurt. And now, I think it would just be fun.”
With his show about to start, the 33-year old grabbed a cup of coffee and headed to the studio, fist-bumping Doc Walker, greeting colleagues, not even glancing at the spread of Matchbox pizza. During a break in his show, he was asked whether there’s a greater than 0.0 percent chance that he works out for an NFL team again.
“I think so,” he said. “But that doesn’t depend on me.”
Then he got back on the radio, and started talking about Major League Baseball.