Exclusive: Stephen Cooper Interview

Stephen Cooper has stepped in as an undrafted rookie and seen significant time on special teams and made his defensive debut at linebacker in Oakland. Playing for a small school in college, the huge crowds at NFL stadiums had to be a shock. Imagine playing your first Pro game at Arrowhead!

"It is crazy. Everywhere I go is pretty much crazy to me because the biggest crowd I ever played in front of was 20,000. That was at McNeese State in the playoffs. This is all pretty new to me, but I am adapting to it pretty well. The crowd doesn't really have any big thing on me other than when I made my big hit versus Denver. That was when I really felt the crowd."

Early in the game against Denver, with the score still reasonable at 7-3 after a Steve Christie field goal, Cooper nailed Chris Cole at the 22 after a 13 yard return. The hit brought a huge ovation from the crowd as the fans attempted to give the Chargers their emotional support.

"Especially when there is 50,000, almost 60,000. When you make a big play and you can hear the crowd screaming and yelling just because you made a big play. It makes you feel real good."

Unfortunately for the Chargers, the fan support has yet to last at home. Still Cooper thrives on special teams with dreams of playing linebacker dancing through his head. Cooper has been playing on special teams since his college days.

"Oh yeah, he was on our punt team mostly and our punt return team," Maine Defensive Coordinator Richard Nagy said. "At times we played around with him on kickoffs but mostly just never did it because of how much he meant to us defensively."

The mind of a special teams player is a little different than most. The job on coverage is to go downfield and turn helmets. Steve Tasker was perhaps the best ever at it and pride in the task at hand is enormous. Rookies get their feet wet on special teams first and generally the ones who shine will go on to become starters in their NFL careers.

To hear Stephen Cooper tell it, it is not much different than any other phase of the game and is just as crucial.

"I don't really do anything. I just try to stay focused on my assignment, take care of my responsibility really. Before the game I talk to Coach Crosby, figure out what is going to go on with our return and figure out what we have to do to make plays on special teams and get Eric Parker and Tim Dwight in the end zone. I just got to take care of my responsibilities."

Being prepared for anything and everything by consoling the playbooks, the coaching staff and the players is imperative in the NFL. Much like a backup quarterback, Cooper is one play away from contributing as a linebacker and he refuses to be ill-prepared. He doesn't have any pregame rituals or superstitions, but maintains focus by doing the little things.

"I talk to the linebackers, try to figure out what is going on in the game. Just try and stay loose, don't try and get too tensed up, that is when you make a lot of mistakes, when you think too much. I just want to go out there and have fun. I don't really listen to music before the game. I just sit around, run through my stretches and go back in and get ready for the game."

Cooper became just the third player in Atlantic 10 history to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year. Now he is the backup at outside linebacker behind Ben Leber. Normal for any backup, Cooper is itching to get in there at linebacker and show his wares.

"Of course, I think everybody wants to get in there and play to show their ability. We have three great linebackers in front of me with Donnie Edwards, Ben Leber and Zeke Moreno. Right now I am learning from all three of those guys. I am just being patient and when my time comes, I have to do what I have to do."

Cooper is happy to be on the plush carpet that is San Diego.

"Yeah it is ridiculous, I love this weather."

What the team doesn't want is this to be a resort. Not to worry with Cooper, he has his priorities.

"The only thing I really do is read my playbook. Once in a while I watch some Sportscenter, MTV and BET. Really that is about it.

"I have been out a little bit around here. I have been downtown a couple of times to eat. You don't get to really do much."

A good attitude, especially on a team that is floundering at 0-4 and heading to Jacksonville. Cooper is not used to losing. His Maine team went 20-6 in the last two years of his career. He remains confident in the team and a little bit of Marty Schottenheimer appears to have rubbed off. As he looks ahead, the recent memory of the Oakland loss can still be heard. Although it is something that is still lingering, he reminds himself about the future.

"I feel real confident about it. We are getting better each and every game. We still have a lot of things we have to improve on. We have a great coaching staff. We have great players and obviously get out there and get our first win.

"I have never been through something like this. It's a new thing to overcome. As a team a lot of guys were hurt because we played so hard, we played so good throughout the game until the fourth quarter and overtime and it hurts to lose any game you play in.

"It was such a big game because it was a division game and going to Oakland in a tough environment. You always want to come away with a victory but we came up short and now we look forward to Jacksonville."

After the Jacksonville game the Chargers will have a bye week. With his playbook memorized, it may be the first chance he has really had to relax a little and get to know this fine city. The plans have not been laid as there is work to do in Jacksonville, but the break, especially with a win in tow this week, could really lift spirits on the team.

"Right now I am not really sure what I am going to do. If I am sitting around here, it will pretty much be just resting. Probably get out and explore the city."

Cooper deserves the break. An undrafted free agent, active week in and week out ahead of a fourth round pick capitalizing on his work ethic, attention to detail and positive attitude.

Part I of the interview with Stephen Cooper

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net

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