Several years ago while working for a national newspaper based in the D.C. area, I accompanied a summer intern to his first-ever NFL training camp, in this case that of the Washington Redskins. His assignment was to come away with some type of story – any story – that might be of general interest to NFL fans.
When practice was finished and the players trudged up the hill toward the Redskins Park locker room, the intern approached one player after another and ultimately was given a grunt or two in response to his questions. He began to panic because he had no material.
I saw Cooley walking toward the glass doors of the complex and told the intern that that was the player he should nab, and so he did. Cooley motioned toward a blocking dummy on the porch outside the rear of the complex, the two sat down on it and proceeded to chat for nearly half an hour.
“Chris Cooley,” the college intern said with gushing excitement during the drive back to the newspaper office, “is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever interviewed in my life.”
The intern had just been Cooley-fied!
That’s the sensation with which one is jolted while talking to a famous person who doesn’t come across as a famous person and certainly wouldn’t consider himself a famous person. That was, for example, the way Brett Favre handled himself early in his Green Bay career before gradually become something of a me-first diva.
Cooley will never go that route, and fans know it. Cooley is them. A regular guy (although it’s hard to imagine Cooley being one of those “regular guys” who paint their faces on game days or worship with lit candles at secret Redskins ceremonies).
And now he’s gone, having been released Tuesday following eight seasons during which he became the team’s all-time leader in catches by a tight end.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate to play for a franchise that has embraced me,” Cooley said during a brief press conference Tuesday at Redskins Park, “and a fan base that has embraced me.”
Well, he got one out of two right, anyway. The fans certainly still embrace him but the franchise clearly doesn’t, and with good reason given that Cooley would have counted somewhere around $6 million toward the salary cap this season, as well as the fact that Fred Davis has more than established himself as the better player – not to mention the unfortunate injuries that sidelined Cooley for much of the previous two seasons.
Nevertheless, this is one more snip that keeps severing the past from the present; Joe Gibbs’ imprint on the team quickly is fading, as is that of, ahem, Jim Zorn. It’s silly – but not altogether unthinkable – to say this is a must-win season for coach Mike Shanahan after two bottom-feeding seasons, but this roster undoubtedly has a Shanahan stamp.
Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III doesn’t quite win the excitement-meter race with Joe Gibbs II but he comes close, and at least for the next several seasons, barring injury, RGIII will be the face of the Redskins.
Cooley, on the other hand, never really was the face of the Redskins – only he was. He was a link to Gibbs, to the period during Sean Taylor’s murder, to Clinton Portis, to Jason Campbell, and to the ill-fated Zorn experiment.
Yet Cooley had only kind words for Shanahan and general manager Bruce Allen.
“Even though I’m not part of (the new direction), I still believe in what they’re doing.”
Of course he said that. Bitter is not something to which Cooley’s nature is wired. That’s another reason why Cooley-heads are so bummed.
No matter. This is the NFL, and this is business.