Cooper breaks away from preseason controversy

Just a few months ago, Riley Cooper was at the center of a firestorm. Today he is the firestorm, having caught five touchdown passes in two games and putting the controversy behind him.
Just a few months ago, Riley Cooper was at the center of a firestorm. Today he is the firestorm, having caught five touchdown passes in two games and putting the controversy behind him. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: November 12, 2013

GREEN BAY, Wis. - On Fox's pregame show Sunday, Richie Incognito was emoting and atoning to America, describing a Miami Dolphins locker room culture in which he was - according to one published report - an "honorary black man."

As such, he could get away with using a racial epithet when talking to his teammates, and this admission had ignited a national discussion about race and language, about who we are and how we act and what we can say. And it was difficult not to think about this discussion as you watched the Eagles' 27-13 victory here over the Packers, and as you watched one player in particular.

"I know everything that's going on," Riley Cooper said as he left Lambeau Field's visiting locker room. "Words can hurt."

He shrugged a what-else-can-you-say kind of shrug and then was gone, allowing his play to speak for him, to prevent people from defining him solely by the stupid and detestable things he said at a summertime Kenny Chesney concert. He had just three receptions Sunday, but they covered 102 yards, and two went for touchdowns - a week after he caught three touchdowns in Oakland against the Raiders.

Out of nowhere, out of an incident that could have torn the Eagles apart before Chip Kelly had coached his first game, Cooper has emerged as perhaps the most pleasant surprise of their season: 28 receptions; seven touchdowns; a gaudy 19.8 yards per catch; and, most important, a group of teammates who were willing to accept him again.

"I'm so proud of him," wide receiver Jason Avant said. "Only he and I know some of the conversations we've had or some of the things that transpired that could have had him down. But he's definitely overcome a lot of things."

No one but Cooper knows whether he has truly changed in the wake of his telling a black security guard at Lincoln Financial Field that he would "fight every n- here," and in a way, we don't have to know. Everyone carries some amount of prejudice, however small, within his or her heart. No one is immune. No adult is an innocent. As offensive as Cooper's language was, what matters now is that he understood he was wrong, that he has not repeated the behavior, and that his teammates were forthright both in condemning what he said and allowing him the opportunity to repair his relationships with them.

That's a far cry from the situation in Miami. In that locker room, Jonathan Martin - a Stanford alumnus, the son of two Harvard alumni - was reportedly regarded as less black than Incognito because of his very background, as if intelligence and educational achievement were somehow stigmas for an entire race. What a terrible message to send. What a terrible way to think. What a terrible lack of appreciation for true individuality and diversity.

"It's a whole different situation here," defensive end Trent Cole said. "We know. We know what happened. The only thing you can do is forgive, and everybody gets a second chance.

"I think everything's working out. We're playing together as a team, and if you play together as a team and everybody's doing their job, good things happen."

So Cooper, to his credit, has done exactly that. He has kept his mouth shut and done his job, and yes, it does make it easier for his teammates to forgive him when he plays like he has these last two games. His first touchdown Sunday was a rather remarkable sequence: a 45-yard post pattern that quarterback Nick Foles underthrew on purpose so that Cooper could come back to the ball. Even then, Cooper still had to break off his route at a sharp angle to make a diving catch and tumble into the end zone, fending off a blinding sun glare and getting spiked on the shin by a Packers defender.

"I am having a blast," he said. "I love football, but it feels so good when you are contributing to the team and winning games. That is what I love."

There was a time, not long ago, when those things wouldn't have seemed possible for Riley Cooper. Yet there he was Sunday, leaving Lambeau Field after another productive performance for him and another victory for the Eagles, receiving congratulations from teammates black and white, and it was hard not to think about what had come before, and what was most important now.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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