You pull into the driveway of the stone mansion off a gravel road in Leesburg at 6:59 a.m. Wednesday morning. The garage is open. A light flickers on inside the kitchen.
Chewy and Moose, the adopted mutts, scamper out to do their business. Two cats nuzzle against your leg, begging for attention.
“What’s up?” Chris Cooley says, stretching his arms out, yawning.
He’s been getting up at 8 a.m., but it was 7 today because he has to be at work by 8 a.m. — going back to his old job at an Ashburn factory.
Not that any political candidate will take note, but another Virginian got off the unemployment roll this past week. One man tears his Achilles, another signs a contract. In the broken-body world of the NFL, this is known as job creation.
Cooley walks out of his kitchen, locks the animals back in, and wraps his arms around his burgundy shoulder pads, helmet and cleats — the exact same pads, helmet and cleats he cleared out of his locker in August, after the Redskins released the tight end with the most catches in franchise history.
“Can you open the back?” he asks.
He gets in the passenger’s seat, pops open a sugar-free Red Bull.
When you’ve known someone since he was 22 and he’s now an evolved 30 — heck, when you realize you’re 18 months shy of 50 yourself — you can develop some paternal feelings, to the point where you might offer a ride to work on his first day back.
“Left here,” he says as the minivan snakes down the hill upon which he lives.
It is exactly 22 minutes from Cooley’s home to Redskins Park, via the Dulles Greenway, 22 minutes of burnt-orange skies peeking through oaks as the sun rises. You immediately get right to the heart of the interview.
You think if Robert Griffin has a kid he’ll be RGIV?
Cooley: “He’s got to be.”
There’s no use searching for a negative in this guy, is there?
“There just isn’t one.”
Sometimes I think, ‘If I could’ve been that mature at 22, I could’ve done some real big stuff.’
“Are you kidding me, me too . . . it’s unreal . . . he’s good at everything. Even his commercials are good. They don’t suck; they’re not weird. No one teases him about them. . . .
“I just hope it works out, and I get to play. I know I can play well. I just hope it works out.”
You drive down winding country roads, take a shortcut through an office park, onto the main thoroughfare.
“Best-case scenario is I play the way Fred [Davis] was playing. The real ideal is I play and we win.”
“Everybody is like, ‘First day coming back, are you excited? Are you nervous?’ I’m not [expletive] nervous. It’s Wednesday at Redskins Park. It’s not my first Wednesday at Redskins Park ever. I know exactly what we’re doing today.
“I missed seven weeks total and people are like ‘Can you come back and play, do you think you can do it’ Yeah, I think I can do it. Granted I understand I haven’t played a real football game in an entire year, but, yeah, I think I can come back and play.”
Have you texted Fred or talked to him?
“Yeah, he’s pretty down. I mean it’s a contract year for Fred. So if he plays at the level he’s playing, ends up with 60 catches, think of what that equates to. I mean $20 million up front, $40 million dollar deal.”
When the ball comes to you Sunday, it’s just going to be muscle memory?
“We’ll see. I’ll be nervous. I’ll definitely be nervous.”
Are you in football shape?
“I’ve been riding my bike a lot. And I’ve been running. And I made it a goal to do 100 push-ups a day and 200 sit-ups a day. I take my dogs for a couple miles on a run. That’s plenty for me. I could go into the park and do the squats that I was doing when I left. I’m down about five pounds from training camp — probably 240 right now.”
In the last year, you’ve gone through a divorce, lost your job and put your house on the market. Have you processed all that yet?
“Believe it or not, it hasn’t been a trying year. Nobody in my life wants to believe that. It’s been a great year. Now it’s working out even better. I planned like four shows at the [pottery] gallery.
“People call and are like, ‘Are you doing okay?’ If you really knew me, you would know that it’s not the end of the world to me. I don’t wake up and breathe football. There hasn’t been one day where I woke up and felt bad for myself. I got released and went home and was like, ‘All right, what can I do now?’”
So why are you selling the house?
“You’ve seen it. It’s [expletive] enormous. I want to build a house right next to it. There are four bedrooms upstairs that never get walked in.”
Did you buy it because you could buy it?
“Let’s just say I learned a good lesson. When I’m 40 or 50, I don’t need to look at my life and think I need a bigger house. I’ve had everything. Every car you can think of, every luxury. I know what I want in my life.”
“Simplicity. I want a home. I’ve had a house. I want a home.”
You take a right onto Redskins Park Drive. Dick Beam, manning the guard gate, smiles big when he sees who your passenger is. “Well, welcome back, Chris!” You pull around to the front of the offices.
Hey, before you go, I got something for you.
“You made me lunch?”
Sort of. It’s out of my son’s cupboard: There’s a box of raisins, applesauce. But I put a protein bar in there and a Scooby-Doo fruit chew snack. Those are good.
Teammates are funneling into the team’s headquarters. Cooley’s elk-hunting trip to Wyoming is on hold. The pottery gallery is on hold. For how long, he doesn’t know. But out of nowhere, a football life beckons again. Cooley opened the passenger’s side door, walked up the walkway, through the glass doors, back to his old world.
He calls you several minutes later. “I’m forgetful. I forgot my helmet, shoulder pads and cleats.”
You pull the car back around, musing at the obvious realization: Chris Cooley suddenly needs those things again.