Until he and his three friends were reported lost on a fishing boat in the Gulf of Mexico, former Huskies linebacker Marquis Cooper always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
As a freshman in 2000, Cooper appeared in every game on a team that won the Rose Bowl. He picked off a pass thrown by Texas quarterback Vince Young in the 2001 Holiday Bowl. His 31-yard touchdown return of a Purdue fumble was among the few defensive highlights for the Huskies at the 2002 Sun Bowl.
Cooper went 4-for-4 in the Apple Cup, recovering a fumble in the 2002 triple-overtime classic at Pullman before sealing a wild Washington victory the following season with his last-minute interception of a Josh Swogger pass. Cooper returned the ball for a 38-yard touchdown – the final play of his college career.
Initially projected as a fourth- or fifth-round selection in the 2004 draft, Cooper improved his stock at the Indianapolis scouting combine. Tampa Bay took him in the third round.
The UW players who preceded Cooper in that draft were wide receiver Reggie Williams (arrested last week for driving under the influence and possessing marijuana) and defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who went to Chicago and accumulated a thick police file that included arrests for unlawful possession of firearms and aggravated assault.
Williams, a first-round flop who wasted his physical talent in Jacksonville, is pursuing free agency. So is Johnson, who no matter where he ends up appears destined to be remembered more for his legal troubles than his productivity.
Cooper? He didn’t open the eyes of those scouts fawning over Williams and Johnson, but because he was willing to perform the high-risk, low-profile grunt work of a special teams wedge buster, he always found employment. Over five years, he played on seven teams – including the Seahawks briefly in 2006. Most recently, he played with the Raiders, who signed him in last November.
Oakland coach Tom Cable thought enough of Cooper’s contributions that he awarded a special teams game ball to the linebacker on two occasions. Nothing if not a survivor, Cooper was signed to return to the Raiders in 2009.
Football is his occupation, but fishing is his love. When Rick Neuheisel brought Cooper into Seattle on a recruiting visit, the high school kid from metropolitan Phoenix wasn’t wowed by the Huskies’ tradition, or the opportunity to play on a team that in those days was a perennial contender for the Pacific-10 Conference title. What impressed him was the water that surrounded the Montlake campus.
At Tampa Bay, Cooper’s fishing hobby flourished as his football career stalled.
“I used to go freshwater,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle last season, “but now I’m salt and that’s it. Don’t show me no lake, river or nothing.
“It’s a drug. You get hooked. You need it, like you want a new pole or you want new reels. I just go out there and get it done.”
Poles and reels are fun to buy, but more essential for a Gulf fishing expedition are dependable life preservers, a surplus of gas, short-wave radios, an emergency raft, nautical maps, and access to up-to-date weather reports on the possibility of storm fronts.
The fishing boat lost at sea Saturday was 21 feet long, or seven yards in football dimensions. It contained a 230-pound NFL linebacker, a 250-pound NFL defensive tackle and two other men who played football in college – close to 1,000 pounds of human cargo. Based on Cooper’s previous fishing junkets, the Coast Guard believes the boat was as far as 50 miles from the coast when it encountered distress.
“A 21-foot fishing boat is a relatively small vessel to be 50 miles offshore in bad weather conditions,” Coast Guard Capt. Timothy M. Close told The Associated Press.
An 87-foot cutter has been deployed, along with two helicopters and two planes.
But the Coast Guard is trying to locate a small vessel in a 750-square mile “vicinity,” and the grim search was complicated on Sunday by 14-foot waves roused by 30 mph gusts.
For those who believe in the power of prayer, it’s time to say one.
And if anybody is capable of surviving the most harrowing hours imaginable, it would be a professional athlete who makes his living on special teams.
Before Cooper’s senior season at Washington, Neuheisel acknowledged that though the linebacker’s technique wasn’t fundamentally perfect, his instincts usually prevailed.
“He was where he needed to be,” Neuheisel said, “a lot of the time.”
Wherever Cooper is right now, it’s not where he needs to be.
A final thought: Before the 2004 draft, his NFL profile, provided by STATS, Inc., noted that Cooper “has good coverage skills against running backs out of the backfield. He also has a motor that is always running.”