By Will Vandervort.
By Will Vandervort
When Sam Cooper looked over the sideline and saw the call, he could barely contain himself.
With Clemson sitting on a first-and-10 play from the NC State 11-yard line, offensive coordinator Chad Morris called a seam route to the tight end. If executed right, the tight end would be wide open for an easy touchdown.
The tight end on that call was Sam Cooper.
Four months earlier Cooper’ number was called on a different play in a game that did not even count. The Tigers’ first-team tight end was charged to catch a pass in the flats after running an out pattern. Cooper had come a long way to get in this position and he patiently waited his turn to become a starter.
The previous two seasons, he sat in line behind First-Team All-American and Mackey Award winner Dwayne Allen in 2011 and last year First-Team All-ACC tight end Brandon Ford. In those two seasons, the two combined to catch 90 passes for more than 900 yards and 16 touchdowns as the starting tight end.
Now it was Cooper’s turn. He had finally become the guy at the tight end position and worked hard to earn first-team status as the Tigers’ concluded spring drills.
“Sam is going to be a guy we know we can count on,” Morris said a few days prior to the spring game.
Cooper possesses all the skills necessary for a tight end to strive in Morris’ complicated, yet simple offense. He is big (6-5, 250), he is strong (one of the strongest guys on the team) and he is smart (2010 All-Academic Honor Roll). He also has good hands, has good speed and is one of the best run blockers on the team.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said the Brentwood, Tenn., native reminded him a lot of former tight end Michael Palmer—a First Team All-ACC tight end—and it had nothing to do with the fact he wears the same No. 86 jersey.
“He is one of the smartest guys on our team and he has a great understanding of the offense because this is his third year in the system,” Swinney said. “He knows what he is doing now. He gets it.”
So on the fifth play of the first drive in Clemson’s annual Orange & White game in April, Cooper caught a pass along the near sideline, where he was cut—like many times before—under the knees. Most of the 25,000 in attendance thought it was just any ole play, but when Cooper rolled over to the sideline in agony, it was obvious something was seriously wrong.
“I had really never been hurt before this,” Cooper said. “The fact that you can tear an ACL and get up and walk off, I never thought it would happen to me. So I got up and walked to the training room and the doctors were kind of hopeful that was not it.
“Then when I got that MRI that was tough information to swallow. But you can’t control it. That is part of the game and you have to move forward.”
Though strong on the outside, Cooper was devastated on the inside. He said he felt kind of lost and he actually needed a day or so to actually grieve and let what happen set in. When he learned of the tear, he reached for the phone and called his parents – Mike and Sandy Cooper.
“I called my dad and told him,” Sam Cooper said. “That’s the thing I’m so blessed with. I have great parents and they supported me the whole way. Every decision I made they backed me one hundred percent and that is something that is really nice to be able to say.”
Before having surgery on May 3 to repair his torn knee, Cooper, with the help of his family, was determined to get back on the field again in 2013.
“If you wallow in self-pity that isn’t going to get you anywhere,” the redshirt junior said. “Negative thoughts were not going to get me back on the field. I talked to my family and figured out what was going to be the best path I should go on and I stuck to that path.”
Luckily, Cooper did not have to go down that path alone. Backup quarterback Chad Kelly, who redshirted the entire 2012 season, tore his ACL 10 plays later in the spring game and like Cooper his chances to play in 2013 seemed bleak at best.
But like Cooper he too was determine to get back on the field and contribute this season.
“We were in there every day working hard,” Kelly said. “One day I was down and he was picking me up and the next day he was down and I was picking him up. Every day we were picking each other up and pushing each other.
“Sometimes we would get angry at each other because we were pushing each other so hard, but that is what you need. To see someone like me and him come back from something so quick is a testament that we were able to put our minds to it.”
Cooper admitted it was easy to stay motivated at first. The first couple of weeks there is a ton of progress and everything seems to be going well, then they hit a wall.
“Then you kind of reach, and not necessarily road blocks, but you plateau a little bit,” he said. “That’s when positive thinking, constant encouragement from your teammates, the medical staff and your family really elevates that process.”
Regardless, it was not easy for either player. Both got up every morning by 5:30 a.m. and at six o’clock they were in the pool riding their water treadmills, then leg lifts and a ton of other things. After that they were off to class for about an hour and a half and then back in the weight room for team lifting and then skills and drills.
“My summer was extremely busy,” Cooper said. “While some people were going off to the beach, I was hitting the gym and taking that one-day at a time attitude. After the surgery, you lose all that muscle in your leg so I kind of took that body building kind of attitude towards it every day.”
He also competed with Kelly, which made the process a lot easier as well as helped pass the time.
“One thing you need to know is that Chad and I our huge competitors,” Cooper said. “So I would see him maybe doing leg lifts with twenty-five pounds and I’m looking at my eighteen and a half pounds and I would say, ‘No I can’t do that today. I’m kicking it up to 25 pounds, too.’
“That was definitely a huge tribute to both of our success and I will never wish someone to have to go through that with me, but to have Chad there was such a huge help.”
In only four months, after major knee surgery, Cooper and Kelly were both cleared to practice by the second week of fall camp. Kelly was later cleared to play the week of the Georgia game and played the next week against South Carolina State.
Cooper was cleared to play against S.C. State and played 16 snaps before doubling them at NC State when he was in on 32 plays.
“Everyone’s body is different and honestly I was very lucky to have a surgeon like Doctor Bowman, a trainer like Danny Poole and all the resources that we have. I was given the tools to be successful.
“The way Chad and I worked, I’m honestly not that surprised we were able to get back so soon. People look at what we did coming back off four months and say, ‘That is crazy!’ But they did not see what we were doing this summer and see how dedicated both of us were.
“They didn’t see how hard we worked and how hard we pushed each other. I think that’s definitely the story to be told.”
So following a Tajh Boyd seven-yard run on fourth-and-one, the Tigers found themselves set up at the NC State 11-yard line with a little more than two and a half minutes to play in the first half last Thursday. That’s when Cooper looked over to the sideline and saw the call.
“My number was called,” he said he was thinking at the time. “I’m ready to step into the light again. I’m ready to lead my team and I’m ready to make a play and get this win.
“I went down to the line thinking, I can’t wait to make this play. I can’t wait to show people here, back home or watching on television how hard we worked this summer, and now here I am back again. It was fun.”
So when the ball was snapped, Cooper held at the line for just a second and sold as if he was staying in to block. When the linebackers bought it and blew by him, he released down the seam. He was so wide open Boyd nearly missed getting the ball to him.
“I will never argue with a throw I catch,” Cooper said. “He put the ball in there and I was able to go down there and make a play.”
Cooper made a diving catch in the end zone that gave the Tigers a 13-7 lead with 2:23 to play in the first half. Clemson never looked back after that and went onto a 26-14 victory.
“No matter what, you have to catch that ball and that was kind of my thought right when it came out,” Cooper said.
When he rolled over and stood up to celebrate with his teammates, Cooper said he glanced towards his father in the stands and he thought back to all of those countless summers when he and Kelly worked their tails off to get back.
“The first thought, I was glad I’m not letting my teammates down and I’m right here helping out,” Cooper said. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t emotional. That was a huge confident boost for me. I honestly think that is one of the hardest parts in coming back from an ACL tear, you know, the confidence.
“Gaining confidence in your leg and feeling that you are back to one hundred percent. That was definitely a huge stride in that direction.”