Cooper focuses on grades
Returns this season to Winston-Salem State, has breakout year
All of this success: the thrill of playing for an undefeated team, the 1,000-yard season, the attention from NFL scouts. None of it would have been possible had running back Nic Cooper not given up a year of football at Winston Salem State to get his grades straightened out.
Cooper could have given up on school and college football and ended up as the latest athlete with seemingly unlimited potential to fade into the background.
But during the 2009 season, Cooper worked on getting eligible again. The time away paid off. A year ago, he finished the season with 1,134 yards, good enough for the 19th best total in NCAA Division II.
This season, the Rams ran the table in the regular season and rose to No. 3 in the country entering the final poll of the regular season. Cooper has played an integral role in the success, rushing for 1,519 yards and scoring 17 touchdowns.
He has also stayed on track in school and is proud of being able to overcome the adversity he faced off the field.
“That season I missed was the first time football had ever been taken away from me,” Cooper said. “It was tough to sit out, but I knew I had to focus on school and I gained a new perspective on being a student-athlete. I feel like I am much better student now and I’m happy to be on the field.”
Opponents don’t share his joy as Cooper has been a headache to game plan against all season long. In a 35-7 win over UNC-Pembroke on Nov. 5, the senior preseason All-American candidate churned out 146 yards and scored a TD as Winston Salem State scored at least 30 points for the seventh time this season.
“I always want to play my best. That is what I focus on,” Cooper said. “I’ve worked hard on being a student of the game. I study film all of the time and I go out there every week ready to run as hard as I can.”
The 6-foot, 245-pound running back averages 128.1 yards per game and has been tough to bring down. He has lost only 46 yards this season even though teams put a lot of emphasis on limiting Cooper’s success.
The thing is, it hasn’t worked too well, in part because Cooper relishes the opportunity to take everyone’s best shot.
“I love the pressure that comes with being a top running back,” Cooper said. “I see a lot of seven-man, eight-man fronts. I’ve even seen a few nine-man fronts. I don’t mind the challenge. I just read the defense, follow my blocks and run hard. I enjoy putting pressure on the defense to stop me.”
Don’t think for a moment that Cooper is arrogant or believes he is bigger than the game itself. The red shirt senior does not hesitate to give credit to his teammates.
“It’s not all about me,” Cooper said. “We have a great team, and I wouldn’t be where I am now without my teammates. We have a lot of good players on our offense and our defense has also been big for us. We all work hard and we all stay focused on being the best team we can be.”
Stardom always seemed to be on the horizon for Cooper. While at Clinton High School in North Carolina, Cooper helped lead his team to back-to-back state championship game appearances, including a state title during the 2005 campaign.
His ability to put his speed and power on display earned him a reputation of being one of the top running backs in the state. He even earned Cape Fear Player of the Year honors as a junior and senior and was an all-state selection during his 2006 senior season.
But as amazing has his skills were with a football in his hands, he never landed a spot on a Division I team because his ACT score was too low.
Rather than complain about his position, he moved forward and found a home with the Rams.
“It doesn’t matter where I’m playing at,” Cooper said. “The cream always rises to the top. I know that with God, anything is possible, and I believe that what you put into something, is what you get out of it. I’ve had a great experience here and have made the most of my opportunities.”
His success this year has attracted the attention of pro scouts and Cooper is determined to make that NFL dream come true. He understands it won’t be easy but knows what he has to do to give himself a chance.
“I know I’m going to have to work on getting faster and I want to drop about 10 pounds,” Cooper said. “The main thing is just focus on the basics and prepare as hard as I can to make a good impression. But right now I’m focused on the season. I’ll worry about the NFL when the time comes.”
The Rams are likely headed to the playoffs next week and seem poised to make a deep run.
Cooper and his teammates have their sights set on a national championship. The Rams have already secured at least a share of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title.
“We want to win a title but we have to take it one game at a time. The next game is always the biggest,” Cooper said. “We feel like if we execute, continue to work hard and we play the way we have all season, we’ll have a shot.”
No matter what happens from here on out, Cooper has certainly had quite a run with the Rams. He has managed to excel on the field and has stayed focused in the classroom as well.
He took a moment to reflect on everything during an interview, and if he had a chance to change anything about his college career, he wouldn’t do it.
“If I could go back in time, I’d leave things alone,” Cooper said. “Everyone has their own experience in life and my experience as helped me grow as a person and a player. It’s my story and I wouldn’t change anything about it.”