This fall, Kenyon football welcomed 20 newcomers to the team. While 19 of them have been cracking open new textbooks and reading over syllabi during their first week of classes, George Cooper has been diligently watching game film and studying the Lords’ playbook in his second-floor office at the Kenyon Athletic Center.
A former National Football League player, Cooper, 31, is interning with the Lords as part of a National Football League Players’ Association’s (NFLPA) Coaching Internship. While actively pursuing coaching jobs, Cooper found out about the NFLPA internship program from a couple of former teammates, who are currently coaching, at a coaching symposium.
Cooper grew up playing football recreationally in Westerville, 38 miles southwest of Gambier. “I started playing football at an early age,” Cooper said. Cooper’s uncles played football and his father played at The Ohio State University. On the high school gridiron, Cooper thrived on both sides of the ball, catching 20 passes for 420 yards as a tight end his senior year, while also racking up 80 tackles and eight sacks as a defensive end. Ranked as high as the 11th-best tight end in the country by Super Prep, a sports magazine, Cooper finished his senior season as a second-team all-state selection. Garnering the attention of Bill O’Brien, current head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans, Cooper committed to play Division I football at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where O’Brien was serving as offensive coordinator.
Transitioning from Westerville North High School to Georgia Tech meant Cooper had to adjust to the faster pace of the college game and to the greater raw strength of his teammates and opponents. “You can just be athletic in high school, where in college, the jump is basically from playing 17- and 18-year-olds to 22- and 23-year-olds,” Cooper said.
Playing alongside current Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Cooper emerged as one of Georgia Tech’s primary tight ends during his junior season, which was highlighted by a 31-yard touchdown catch in the 2005 Emerald Bowl. Although Cooper did not attend the NFL Combine following his senior year, he performed well enough at Georgia Tech’s pro day to get signed by the Detroit Lions. After the Lions cut Cooper before training camp, the Atlanta Falcons signed Cooper and assigned him to their practice squad.
“What it is is just the detail that goes into your work,” Cooper said of the transition from collegiate to professional football. “The greatest difference is the amount of time that you have to put into football.” According to Cooper, a player averages 20 hours a week of football in college, while professionally the time commitment jumps to 80 hours a week.
Following his one-year stint with the Atlanta Falcons, Cooper went back to Georgia Tech to complete his Bachelor’s degree in science, technology and culture, with a focus on media studies. The next year, in 2010, Cooper traveled overseas to serve as a player-coach for the Graz Giants in Graz, Austria.
After traveling across the U.S. and the globe, Cooper returned to his home state of Ohio to lend his wealth of knowledge to the Lords in their 2015 campaign. “A lot of the guys we have on the team are returning from last year’s team, so they’ve developed an understanding for the system, for the speed of college football,” Cooper said of Kenyon’s team. “One of our greatest strengths is just experience.”
With the return of 17 starters on both sides of the ball, including 2014 All-NCAC Honorable Mentions Alec McQuiston ’16, Blake Calcei ’16 and Brian Hunca ’17, experience is on the side of the Lords going into Saturday’s season opener at Sewanee: The University of the South.
“I think that, more than anything, there’s been a focus on improvement and work ethic,” said Head Coach Christopher Monfiletto, who is entering his fourth season at the helm of Kenyon football. “They’ve worked harder, and they enjoy working hard and that’s a really neat thing to be around.”