The Eagles and the Patriots took a similar tact to dealing with Eagles receiver Riley Cooper, who re-joined his teammates at Tuesday’s practice three days after being excused by the team for sensitivity counseling:
Just leave him alone.
Cooper, caught on video in July angrily using a racial epithet, knows some of his teammates may never respect him again, as running back LeSean McCoy said when the video surfaced a week ago. And he knows that he’ll hear plenty of talk from opponents this season, and could be the recipient of a few cheap shots.
But coaches Bill Belichick and Chip Kelly didn’t want any of that Tuesday when the teams practiced together. Belichick said he didn’t have to talk to his players about dealing with Cooper, but the Patriots defensive backs knew not to get into it with him.
There was no jawing with Cooper. The Patriots defenders simply collected themselves and jogged back to the huddle after every play.
Cornerback Kyle Arrington was asked if he had any issue going against Cooper.
“None,” he said. “We’re all aware of his situation. We just wanted to keep it concerning football as much as possible, and that’s it.”
The Patriots certainly weren’t the only team to leave Cooper alone. Cooper appeared to lose his starting receiver spot to Arrelious Benn during practice, but he still took plenty of repetitions as the Eagles’ third or fourth receiver. The Eagles announced later that Benn had suffered a torn ACL. Still, Cooper’s teammates gave him his space on the sideline — which Cooper probably didn’t mind.
There were, of course, a few conversations with his coaches after he came off the field. He chatted briefly with backup quarterback Matt Barkley at one point. He even got a chest bump from fellow receiver Jason Avant after catching a touchdown.
But Cooper’s day was spent mostly in solitude, trying to blend in as much as he could.
“It’s been a tough ride,” said Cooper, a third-year veteran expected to help replace Jeremy Maclin, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. “I realize how many people I’ve hurt, how many families I’ve hurt, how many young kids I’ve hurt, and I take full responsibility for it.”
Not even the Patriots’ Tim Tebow, Cooper’s college roommate, spoke to him before practice, though Tebow said he expected to catch up with him at some point Tuesday.
“I was definitely praying for him,” Tebow said.
Several Eagles were rightfully upset with Cooper when the video emerged last week. Cooper was excused from team activities Saturday to seek counseling, and called Kelly Monday night to ask him if he could return. Kelly said Cooper was never suspended, and when asked if the team may have to eventually cut Cooper, he said, “I don’t see that happening.”
Cooper said he talked with each of his teammates individually since the video came out — most before he left for training, the rest when he returned Tuesday morning.
“I told them, ‘I don’t want you to forgive me, because that puts the burden on you. I want it all on me,’ ” Cooper said. “They could tell it’s from the heart, they know I’m not that type of person, and it feels good to have support from the guys.”
Publicly, anyway, his teammates supported his decision to return.
“I’ve been in contact with him non-stop,” Avant said. “It’s water under the bridge. You can’t live in the past, you can’t live in unforgiveness. Even if it did offend you, you don’t want it to be a hindrance for you, because the person that’s affected most by it is the person that’s unwilling to forgive.”
But no matter what his teammates said publicly Tuesday, Cooper will walk around his own locker room with a scarlet letter pinned on his jersey. And he’ll always be known in the NFL as “that racist guy.”
“That’s brutal, but that’s reality,” Cooper acknowledged. “It’s going to be with me every day. I know I will. When I had to talk to the team the day everything came out, it was extremely emotional. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, talked to my teammates and tell them what I did and how I let them down.”
Cooper comes from a good two-parent home in Clearwater, Fla., and went to private school. His father, Larry, is a former baseball player and is good friends with Sam Bradford’s father.
Cooper also has anger issues — like in March 2006, when he punched through a car window as a senior in high school, was charged with criminal mischief, and needed plastic surgery on his right arm. Urban Meyer had Cooper room with Tebow when they were seniors at Florida to help calm Cooper down.
Obviously, Cooper’s temper and alcohol fueled the nasty, racist rant that was caught on camera. Cooper knows he let a lot of people down — especially his parents.
“They’re extremely, extremely disappointed in me,” he said. “That’s one of the hardest parts of this whole thing. I got a great mom and dad, and they’re having a tough time dealing with it, and that’s pretty tough for me to cope with.”
The Eagles know they can’t just rip off the Band-Aid and make this whole mess go away. Cooper is going to hear it from African-American players throughout the league, potentially throughout his entire career.
All Cooper wants is a chance to get some normalcy back in his life – if possible.
“It feels great to be back doing what I love to do – playing the game of football,” said Cooper, who had some fans waiting for his autograph after he met with reporters. “I talked to Chip last night and this morning, and he asked me, ‘How do you feel? Are you ready to come back?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, coach. I want to be out there today, the sooner the better.’ ”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin