While other players are sleeping or partying, Alabama wideout Amari Cooper is getting in extra workouts. Why? He's got a list of rival receivers in his head, and he's willing himself ahead of them, one by one
AMARI COOPER doesn't allow many glimpses into his psyche. He sheathes a disarming smile in an almost perpetual scowl that keeps reporters at bay. When he does answer questions, it is politely but tersely. Occasionally, though, the receiver offers hints about what drives him. At the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December he presented two of them, and they explain a great deal about him.
The first revelation came in front of a national TV audience. As his mother, Michelle Green, sat beside him onstage, Cooper told a story from his teenage years in Miami. Green had come home after a full day's work and still had to walk three miles, as she did many nights, to the supermarket to buy groceries. She asked Amari, her youngest child, to accompany her. He declined. He said he was tired.
Now, at the Heisman ceremony, the boy had grown into a man. He was about to leave Alabama after his junior season and enter his name in the NFL draft. But he still wanted to talk about that night in Miami. Too tired? When Green returned from the grocery store there were marks on her arms, left by the bags on the long walk home. How tired was she, who never complained as she supported three kids and even helped raise two nephews after the family moved to the tough Liberty City neighborhood when Amari was in high school? ("I just do what I need to do," says Green, who worked as a cashier and waitress before settling into her current job as a code compliance officer for the city of Miami Beach.) Years later she had forgotten about that night of grocery shopping, but Cooper still felt guilty about it. "Selfish," he called his younger self.
"I'm still kind of feeding off of that," Cooper said after the ceremony, in which he finished third among the Heisman finalists. The memory of his mother's dedication illuminates his own maniacal work ethic: his early mornings and late nights in the weight room, his two workouts on days in which some of the best athletes in college football struggled to finish one.
Cooper said something else that night in New York City that helped explain how he willed himself to become the most dominant receiver in college football in 2014. At a table full of reporters before the ceremony, the conversation turned to Cooper's college recruitment, which had been almost nonexistent until the summer before his senior season. Because of a left-hip injury in his junior year at Miami Northwestern Senior High, Cooper had not been noticed by evaluators who flocked to see his older teammate, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, in 2010. The evaluators had, however, spotted a handful of other receivers in the national class of '12—which is how Cooper wound up ranked behind so many guys who, he knew, paled in comparison with him.
Cooper never forgot those rankings. "Yeah," he told reporters in New York, "I remember the names ahead of me." Briefly dropping his scowl for a smile, he said, "You can look them up."
So let's do that.
Rivals.com and 247Sports.com ranked Cooper as the No. 6 receiver in the class of 2012. Scout.com had him 12th. Combine the three evaluators, and a total of 14 receivers were touted ahead of Cooper. Meet the fuel for Cooper's on- and off-the-books workouts: The List.
Chris Black (247's No. 4) and Cyrus Jones (Scout's No. 6) wound up playing alongside Cooper in Tuscaloosa. Black hauled in 15 passes for 188 yards and never reached the end zone in 2014—a far cry from Cooper's 124 catches, 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns. Jones was moved to cornerback in '13, so any frustration that Cooper felt over his ranking probably got worked out at practice.
Cayleb Jones (Rivals' No. 5 and Scout's No. 3, now at Arizona), Shaq Roland (Scout's No. 4, Prairie View A&M), Bryce Treggs (Scout's No. 5, Cal), Aaron Burbridge (Scout's No. 9, Michigan State) and Darreus Rogers (Scout's No. 10, USC) became reliable college receivers, but none came close to matching Cooper. Leontee Carroo (Scout's No. 11) was first-team All--Big Ten at Rutgers this season—with half as many catches and 641 fewer yards than the Bama wideout.
Some players on The List didn't pan out. Thomas Johnson (Rivals' No. 4, Scout's No. 8) played as a freshman for Texas A&M before disappearing for a few days from College Station (he was found in Dallas unharmed) and then dropping out of the game. Trey Metoyer (Scout's No. 1 prep receiver) was booted from Oklahoma's team and last made news in February 2014 when he was arrested in Tyler, Texas, and charged for the third time with indecent exposure. (He is scheduled to be sentenced for a 2013 arrest in Oklahoma later this month.)
A few in the group did become stars and are competing with Cooper for draft position, although all but one rank far below Cooper on most draft boards. Houston's Deontay Greenberry (247's No. 3, Scout's No. 7) was better as a sophomore (82 catches, 1,202 yards, 11 touchdowns) than as a junior (72 catches, 841 yards, six TDs), but he declared for the draft anyway. Stefon Diggs (No. 2 for 247, Rivals and Scout) never cracked 900 receiving yards in a season at Maryland, but he is blessed with soft hands the size of oven mitts. Nelson Agholor (Rivals' No. 3) signed at USC with coach Lane Kiffin, who would get fired in 2013 and land at Alabama as offensive coordinator. Agholor would thrive (104 catches, 1,313 receiving yards, 12 TDs) in his only season under Steve Sarkisian, while Kiffin would build the 2014 Crimson Tide attack around Cooper.
The only member of the receiving class of 2012 who seriously threatens Cooper's position in the draft is the player all three recruiting services declared the nation's No. 1 overall prospect. Dorial Green-Beckham is 6'5" and 237 pounds. The 6'1", 211-pound Cooper is faster—4.42 in the 40, to Green-Beckham's 4.49—though not nearly enough to offset Green-Beckham's size advantage. Still, while Cooper was putting in extra workouts and dominating the SEC, Green-Beckham was getting thrown off the team at Missouri for marijuana offenses and for an incident in which he was accused of domestic violence but not charged because witnesses declined to testify. (Leading up to the draft, he said, "I'm young. I made mistakes.") The only season in which both receivers played major roles on their college teams was '13. Green-Beckham led the Tigers with 59 catches for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns. Cooper led Alabama with 45 catches for 736 yards and four TDs. It was his least productive season in Tuscaloosa. But while Green-Beckham sat out '14 after transferring to Oklahoma, Cooper finished third in the nation in receiving yards per game (123.4).
Cooper's main competition for the top receiver slot in the draft doesn't come, however, from his own recruiting class. When Cooper signed with Alabama, Kevin White had just finished his freshman season at Lackawanna (Pa.) College, a juco. He later transferred to West Virginia, where he had a spectacular senior year with 109 receptions and 1,447 receiving yards (third and sixth, respectively, in the nation). If the predraft process had camps, as college recruiting does, Cooper and White might stage an epic showdown against some of the best cornerbacks in the draft. That would probably please Cooper, who forged his reputation at an Alabama camp in July 2011.
COOPER HAD raised his profile on the seven-on-seven circuit in the spring of 2011 and earned a handful of scholarship offers, but, he recalls, most college coaches asked the same question: "Where's your film?" Because the hip injury had cost him so much of his junior season, Cooper had a disappointing answer: "I kept telling them, 'I don't have it.'"
What little action there was of Cooper on tape in 2010, however, hadn't gone completely unnoticed. Miami Central High defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luther Campbell was impressed by Cooper while watching video before his team played Northwestern that season. "If they get the ball to that guy, man," Campbell remembers thinking. "Please don't throw the ball to him." Campbell, the former 2 Live Crew rapper and outspoken First Amendment advocate, was hired by Northwestern before the 2011 season, and he was with the group of Bulls players who trekked to Tuscaloosa for that Alabama camp. Campbell knew that a healthy Cooper, who occasionally played safety for him, would tear up any cornerback. When Cooper did just that at camp, the college recruiters took notice. Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, whose son, Duron, was on Alabama's roster at the time, began waving Tide coaches toward Cooper. Their evaluation didn't take long. "Nick Saban was on him like white on rice," Campbell says. The coach knew he had seen a future star.
"We've had some good receivers in our camps through the years, but he may have been the most impressive, to me, in terms of his ability to change direction and get out of a break—the quickness, the acceleration, the speed," Saban says. "Good hands. Hard worker. I walked away from that camp saying, You know, this guy may be the best receiver we've ever had in our camps. And we've had some pretty good ones."
Cooper proved Saban correct, smashing the Crimson Tide's career records for receptions (228), receiving yards (3,463) and touchdown catches (31) while helping Bama win two SEC titles and the 2012 national championship. But even when he owned the defensive backs of the SEC, Cooper didn't stop trying to emulate his mother's quiet work ethic.
While other draft-eligible receivers did ordinary pull-ups before the combine, Cooper posted a video on Instagram of himself clapping after rising above the bar on each pull-up. While others rested or went out on the town, he sneaked back into the weight room for extra box jumps. Cooper might not offer many explanations for his unmatched drive, but his production offers abundant evidence of its existence. "That guy is on a mission," says Campbell. "I don't know what that mission is, but he's on it."
The mission, at least for now, isn't so hard to figure out. Cooper has to keep beating those other receivers on The List, so no one but he is ever No. 1 again.
What impressed him about Cooper, Saban says, was his ability to "CHANGE DIRECTION AND GET OUT OF A BREAK—the quickness, the acceleration."
31 Cooper set a Crimson Tide record for TD receptions while helping Bama win one national and two SEC titles.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg For Sports Illustrated
Photo Illustration By SI Premedia
TODD ROSENBERG FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BALL MAGNET Whether at the combine this winter (far left) or against A&M last fall, Cooper was sure-handed.
KEVIN C. COX/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]