By Nick Shook
Read full post on NFL.com
Throughout his life, Mariel Cooper has frequently had to call an audible.
When his father became ill and his mother had to pick up the slack, Cooper had to grow up quicker than most. When he was cut from his high school football team as a sophomore, he had to instead spend the season as a team manager, because it was as close to the game as he could get. When he was injured and his test scores didn’t qualify to get him into Clemson, the school to which he committed, he had to change his choice to Division I-FCS South Carolina State.
That’s enough major adjustments for anyone’s first 25 to 30 years of life. Cooper faced another after he wasn’t selected by an NFL team in the 2016 draft, a journey chronicled in NFL Network’s Undrafted, airing on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET.
But Cooper has already met his greatest challenge, one he faced after transferring to The Citadel to use his last year of NCAA eligibility after graduating from SCSU.
The plan was to play with his younger brother, Destin, a star running back in high school. They were on the path to live out their dreams as teammates for one season.
Then, tragedy struck.
Four days after Cooper arrived at The Citadel, Destin died from internal injuries suffered in a car accident. Cooper had just finished a day of workouts with his new teammates when he received the call, which threw him into a whirlwind of sorrow.
“I actually had just helped him get a job at Champs,” Cooper said. “In my mind, I’m at a new school, I’m competing with everybody. I’m telling him I’m out here doing this and practicing.
“His favorite player was LeBron James,” Cooper said. “He loved the Cleveland Cavaliers too. I was just talking trash to him about Steph Curry. After the Finals, my mom called me that morning and told me everything that happened.”
But Cooper has always rebounded as a stronger, better person in the face of adversity.
After he was cut in high school, he was named all-state in each of his final two high school seasons. He starred at SCSU, where the Bulldogs won two conference championships. And instead of allowing his brother’s death to sink his football dreams, it took him to a new level of focus, effort and as a result, success.
“Before my brother passed, I didn’t really cherish stuff as much as I do now,” Cooper said. “After losing him, I went back [to The Citadel] like ‘yo, I’ve really got to leave it all out here.’ I’m running extra after practice. I’m running to the other side of the field every play. I’m trying to do the extra stuff, the little things.
“I carry that with me every day, just in life. That’s why, with the foundation I started, We Ball 4 Destin, I don’t want it to just be thought of as a football thing. When I say we ball for Destin, we’re ballin’, we’re doing it big in whatever you’re doing in life, and I just walk with that. …I’m ballin’ for my brother.”
After helping The Citadel to a share of the conference championship, Cooper went to Oxford, Mississippi, where he trained for his professional football pursuits with his cousin, former NFL All-Pro defensive end Derrick Burgess. There, he worked on perfecting his craft and learned life and football lessons from Burgess while hoping for a shot at the NFL — and also spent time grieving.
“He helped me enhance the mindset of controlling what you can control and not worrying about what you can’t,” Cooper said, “because you can be here today and gone the next day.”
It resulted in an invitation to Redskinsrookie camp, where he beat out 33 fellow rookies for one of two roster spots. He landed in training camp, practicing and learning alongside seasoned veterans, including star cornerback Josh Norman. Cooper learned three positions — corner, free safety and strong safety — played in preseason action and put together game tape he feels will get him another shot, even after he was released on an injury settlement stemming from a strained rotator cuff.
He was forced to adjust yet again, relegated to training and getting healthy while awaiting a phone call from an NFL team.
Now, healed up, ready to play and eligible to be signed, Cooper awaits a call from one of a handful of clubs he says are interested in him. He could land on a practice squad any day now.
“Right now, I’ve just got tunnel vision,” Cooper said. “I’ve done got a taste. My focus is on a whole new level right now. I’ve been talking to a few teams and I honestly feel like I’m not done playing football.”
If and when Cooper’s name pops up in a league transaction wire, he’ll have his bags packed and ready to take on a new challenge. After all, he’s already shown he knows how to call an audible.