Xavier Cooper was a sophomore at Wilson High School the first time he attended an NFL game.
And he did it in style.
“Yeah, I was just telling one of my buddies the other day, Nate Orchard: I went to my first NFL game in the Seahawks’ stadium to watch Marcus Trufant play,” Cooper said by telephone Monday night.
Cooper wasn’t some kid crammed up into a corner of CenturyLink Field’s rafters, either.
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“We were in Marcus Trufant’s suite,” he said of the 1998 Wilson High graduate.
On Sunday, Cooper will complete his remarkable journey in the path of Trufant. The rookie defensive tackle followed Trufant from Wilson to play for Washington State. Now he will play for the Cleveland Browns against Trufant’s former Seattle Seahawks, playing at that same stadium where Cooper watched Trufant play a half-dozen years ago.
“Man, it’s awesome!” Cooper said from the home he’s renting in Brunswick, Ohio, about 10 minutes from the Browns’ headquarters in Berea.
“I’m actually going to be there playing on that same field in the NFL.”
Sunday will be a dream fully realized. A homecoming for the former select-soccer and AAU basketball player, a gym rat at the YMCA in North Tacoma from before he was 10 years old.
It’s a return of the resilient son of Louis Cooper, a former NAIA football All-American at Doane College in Nebraska who works for the Port of Tacoma, and Dawn, a social worker who, like her husband, earned a master’s degree.
It’s for the boy who knows through his family — his sister Keysha has a degree in sociology — the value of education and bulled through a learning disability diagnosed when he was in ninth grade at Wilson.
The 300-pound force could dunk a basketball off one step in high school, yet got exactly one major-college scholarship offer, and very late in the recruiting process. That came from a coach and neighbor, WSU’s Mike Levenseller, who lived in their Titlow Beach neighborhood near the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
“It’s a crazy story,” Cooper chuckled.
Crazy good for one of Tacoma’s favorites.
“It’s an honor to see what he has done,” said Tacoma police officer Zach Smalls, a mentor of Cooper’s and former walk-on for coach Jim Walden at Washington State.
Smalls runs a speed and agility-skills training camp, Zee Speed, summer mornings inside Stadium Bowl for teen athletes. Cooper was one of his prized trainees.
“It was his desire to keep grinding,” Smalls said .
Smalls will be there Sunday to see Cooper play the Seahawks.
Cooper was a star at the NFL’s scouting combine February in Indianapolis. Cleveland then drafted him in the third round, one round after his new buddy Orchard, a pass rusher from Utah. Cooper was a new star during the Browns preseason, with three sacks in their first two exhibition games.
But he was inactive for the first two regular-season games. That was his first lesson in the NFL: rookies often get caught in the game of roster checkers that goes on 90 minutes before each kickoff. Teams have 53 players on the roster, but only 45 can be active for a game.
“It’s all about numbers,” Cooper said. “It was about one guy being injured or them needing a wide receiver up, so I dropped down.”
Cooper made his NFL debut in Week 3 against Oakland. He played 28 snaps, almost half of Cleveland’s defensive plays that day. He’s played in every one of the next 10 games since, averaging 27 defensive snaps. For the season he has nine tackles, five assists and 1 1/2 sacks; he shared a sack last weekend in the Browns’ win against San Francisco that ended Cleveland’s seven-game losing streak.
His 24th birthday was Nov. 30 — the Monday night the nation watched the Browns lose in what was mocked as “a thoroughly Cleveland way.” Baltimore blocked the Browns’ field goal attempt that would have won the game, and the Ravens returned it for a touchdown to beat Cleveland.
The Browns were widely heralded for having one of the league’s best drafts in May, headlined by first-round pick Danny Shelton from the University of Washington along with Orchard and Cooper.
Cleveland hasn’t won an NFL championship since 1964.
“I know we are in a struggling phase; we’re 3-10,” Cooper said. “But next year, the year after that, you are going to see a different Browns. We’ve got great, young players on this team.”
Another lesson he’s learned as a new pro: diet matters.
He’s cut out red meat. His father advised him doing so would help him bounce back from games more easily.
Dad’s been right.
“Yeah, that’s been hard,” he said with another chuckle over forgoing steaks, pork chops and other staples common for a 6-foot-3, 293-pound man in his 20s. “But I handle inflammation (of joints) better now. Dad told me I’ve got to eat right to play in the league.”
He’s also learned this year about adulthood. At WSU, he got a few bucks off regular stipend checks that scholarship athletes receive. Then he signed a four-year contract in May with the Browns. It’s paying him $435,000 this season. That’s the NFL minimum for a first-year player, yet it’s way richer than those stipend checks.
“Really, the biggest adjust is starting to pay bills,” he said, sounding like most 24-year olds.
“I always try to budget my money, anyway. I’m mainly frugal.”
He did afford himself one splurge after getting drafted: a black, GMC Denali.
“I mean, it’s not a Lamborghini,” Cooper laughed. “I pull into the parking lot at the facility next to Joe Haden (the Browns’ star defensive back who went on injured reserve this week). He’s got a Lamborghini. An orange one.”
He says that belief about rookies “hitting a wall” of fatigue late in their first NFL season is real.
“Yeah,” he said. “The college season ended about eight days ago. I’d be done by now. It’s been a different change. You just have to keep a routine down, do the same thing every day.”
He starts by getting to Browns headquarters at 6 a.m. each day, “about an hour before everyone has to be there,” he said, for extra studying. He’s created a notebook on each offensive lineman he is facing each week, to record and study each blocker’s favorite moves and tendencies.
This week, he’s studying Seahawks center Patrick Lewis and guards J.R. Sweezy and Justin Britt.
“It’s all about the mental aspect in the NFL,” Cooper said. “In college I was able to beat guys with my skills and strength. Now you’ve got to really study a guy, know what his weaknesses are. It’s been a big change.”
Cooper is going to have about 20 friends from Tacoma at CenturyLink Field on Sunday to see that change in himself. He’ll also have eight or so family members.
They will all be from an area Cooper credits from getting him to where he is now, fulfilling his dream.
“My man has it going on, because he is always about Tacoma,” Smalls said. “He knows where he came from. Sometimes people forget where they started.”
“I’m super blessed to be here,” he said. “I owe a lot to the city of Tacoma and all the people that helped me get to the NFL.”
Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle
Seahawks’ next opponent
CLEVELAND BROWNS (3-10)
1:05 p.m. Sunday, CenturyLink Field
Line: Seahawks by 14 1/2.
Against the Seahawks: Seattle leads the series 11-6. Only three of those meetings have come since the Seahawks left for the NFC in 2002. Cleveland’s only trip to CenturyLink Field came on Nov. 30, 2003, a 34-7 Seahawks win. The Browns have won the past two in the series: in 2007 (33-30 in overtime) and 2011 (6-3). That meeting in 2011 was the only game Marshawn Lynch missed since 2010 until this season.
What to know: The Browns ended a seven-game losing streak last weekend with a 24-10 win at home against San Francisco. … Johnny Manziel will make his fifth start of the season and second consecutive one at quarterback for the Browns after they demoted him to third string briefly after a video surfaced online of him partying with a bottle of champagne in an establishment in Austin, Texas, during Cleveland’s bye week a month ago.. … Manziel threw for 240 yards with a touchdown and an interception against the 49ers. He also in frustration slammed his forehead into the electronic tablets players use to review plays on the sideline between series. … In his second NFL season, Manziel has completed 61 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Cleveland has two of its three wins this season when Manziel has started; he’s 2-2. … Tight end Gary Barnidge, just rewarded with a contract extension, leads the team with 65 catches and eight touchdowns. Tight ends down the field have been a problem for the Seahawks this season. … Isaiah Crowell is the Browns’ leading rusher with 542 yards and three scores. … Cleveland has the 11th-ranked pass offense in the league, and 30th-ranked rushing offense. The Browns’ 18.5 points per game is 29th in the NFL. … Cleveland’s defense has let them down this season, tied for 30th in points allowed, 29th in rush defense, tied for 22nd in pass defense and 26th in total defense. … The Browns’ attacking style of defense showed up last week against San Francisco with nine sacks. Cleveland has 26 sacks — 16 in two of their three wins, against the 49ers and Tennessee. … Second-round pick Nate Orchard from Utah had his first two NFL sacks last week. … Top rookie draft choice Danny Shelton, the defensive lineman from the University of Washington, appears to be struggling. He played only 21 of 56 defensive snaps last week. He has 26 tackles, none for lost yardage, and no sacks.
Quotable: “Johnny’s a good dude, man. Around us he’s strictly business. He wants to be a leader on this team. And he plays hard. All the guys are really behind Johnny right now.” — Cooper about Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.