Washington Huskies

Huskies running back Deontae Cooper playing to honor father’s memory

After multiple knee surgeries, Washington running back Deontae Cooper, speaking to reporters during Pac-12 media day Thursday in Burbank, California, says he’s ready to make a statement for his late father, Willie.
After multiple knee surgeries, Washington running back Deontae Cooper, speaking to reporters during Pac-12 media day Thursday in Burbank, California, says he’s ready to make a statement for his late father, Willie. The Associated Press

He recites the date — March 28 — in a manner that suggests it’s seared into his memory and always will be.

Deontae Cooper was two days away from rejoining his Washington Huskies teammates in Seattle for the beginning of spring football practices — the sixth spring of a college career that has persistently tested his will and perseverance.

He had just talked to his father, Willie, the day before.

“He was fine,” Cooper said, “(and) the next day was … boom.”

March 28. That’s the day Cooper lost his father, the man he calls his “No. 1 mentor, No. 1 supporter, No. 1 fan.” It was unexpected, Cooper said. He went to bed and just didn’t wake up.

“It was tough losing someone like that,” Cooper said. “He was all those things, and a sudden death … it hurts. It just kind of makes me want this a little bit more than I already wanted it.”

Cooper, along with coach Chris Petersen and linebacker Travis Feeney, is representing the Huskies at Pac-12 media days this week at Warner Bros. Studios, where he fielded numerous questions Thursday about this UW team picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 North, about the transition into Petersen’s second year as coach, about his surgically repaired knees, the ones that sustained three anterior-cruciate ligament tears in his first three college seasons.

And he also spoke publicly about his dad for the first time since Willie died back in March, when Cooper missed the first two weeks of spring practice to be with his family.

He said he’s grown closer to his twin brother, Deontrae, who is entering his final season as a receiver at Division II Colorado State-Pueblo. He laughed about his dad’s sense of style, about how he “learned by example” when it comes to picking out his own typically well-appointed wardrobe.

He remembers, too, how badly his father wanted to see him and his brother succeed, how hard he worked to ensure that they did.

“I think the thing that was most important was just the vision that he had for me and my brother, and what he had us do,” Cooper said. “The fact that he won’t be here to see it, it makes me want to make sure it gets done.”

As the Huskies prepare for camp — it begins Aug. 8 — Cooper is nearly three full years removed from his most recent ACL tear, and with two injury-free seasons in the rearview mirror, he’s looking forward to carving out an even bigger role as a sixth-year senior (or maybe he’s a sixth-year junior — the NCAA has, after all, granted him eligibility through the 2016 season).

“I just feel confident,” Cooper said. “Just the fact that I played a little more after every injury. I don’t want to get too confident, but it’s time to really take that next step and tear the roof off. I’m just so anxious and excited about this opportunity, and ready to get through camp and compete and play at a high level.”

There will be competition. Dwayne Washington, who will be a junior, emerged as UW’s top back toward the end of last season, and third-year sophomore Lavon Coleman led the team in carries.

But the more time that passes, the longer removed Cooper is from the pain and rehabilitation that marred his earlier years, and the closer he might be to regaining the form that made him a prep superstar where he grew up about 70 miles east of Burbank at Citrus Hill High in Perris, California.

“He’s so smart,” Petersen said. “He’s such a reliable guy that he’s always going to have such an important role for us. How big, how much, I don’t know, but it’s going to be really important.”

And with particularly important purpose.

christian.caple@thenewstribune.com

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