After he trots onto the field to the roar of thousands of fans every Saturday, Shaquille Cooper arrives at the Fort Hays sideline. The 5-foot-10 sophomore running back takes a sharp right and makes his way to the west end zone at Lewis Field Stadium.
Upon arrival at the goal line — he has become accustomed to crossing it in 2015 — he takes a knee. He hoists himself up by placing his helmet on the ground. Cooper’s face finds the comfort of his hand, and he begins to pray.
A multitude of other Tigers join him in the end zone, but few of them have enough reason to thank God prior to another day of football as the man known as ‘Shaq.’
“I think God put me in that position to see how I was gonna react to it,” Cooper said. “I got over that hump now. I’m staying over that hump. I ain’t trying to go back.”
When the Fort Hays State charter bus pulled up to Wantland Stadium in Edmond, Okla., before the first game of the 2015 season, Cooper was listed as the third running back on the Tigers’ depth chart. Just 13 minutes into the season opener, Cooper had risen to the top of the list due to an offseason injury to Kenneth Iheme and a torn ACL suffered by Malik Thomas in that very game.
At the start of the game, nobody outside of Hays was certain of who this Cooper fellow was. Three hours later, the entire MIAA and teams across the country found out. Cooper picked up 195 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in a last-second win for the Tigers, including a 79-yard run.
The following week, he upped his performance from Week 1 by rushing for 263 yards, 93 of which came on a go-ahead touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.
“The first game, I wasn’t patient; I just wanted to go,” Cooper said. “When I became patient, I busted a 79-yard run.
“It was the same (against Northeastern State). I wanted it so bad, and I couldn’t keep my feet. No lie, I felt it that night.”
“I felt it that whole night running on the field. Before that play, I felt it, like I knew something was gonna happen. And it happened.”
Without Cooper, Fort Hays State probably is not heading into a matchup with No. 20 Central Missouri on the cusp of reaching the postseason for the first time since 1995.
But without Fort Hays State, it is uncertain where Cooper would be right now.
Cooper — a native of Coral Gables, Fla., a suburb of Miami — is not the first member in his family to extend his playing career beyond high school. His older brother, Jason Frierson, was a wide receiver at Florida International.
You might have heard of his cousin. Frank Gore is an NFL veteran running back for the Indianapolis Colts, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers. Cooper’s younger brother, Shakur Cooper, is one of the best pass rushers in Miami-Dade County (29 sacks in 2014) and is committed to play next year at FIU. Cooper’s youngest brother, Gilbert Frierson, is a sophomore at Coral Gables and plays safety.
Cooper came to Fort Hays State after tearing his ACL during his senior campaign in 2010-11. Many of the Division I schools recruiting him backed out after the injury. His mother, Michelle Cooper, did not want him to play at FIU.
In came Fort Hays State head coach Chris Brown, who recently has been hired, and recruiting phenom Al McCray, the Tigers’ receiver coach. Ed Smith, a running back at Fort Hays, helped the Tigers’ staff haul in his long-time friend from the sunny beaches of southern Florida to the plains of western Kansas.
“My boy, Ed Smith, was here. We grew up together since we was little,” Cooper said. “Coach McCray called me, told me about the school, and I called Ed. He told me how the school is and how it is out here. I never took a visit, but he told me about it, and I was like, alright, I’ll come, whatever, it’s a scholarship.
“When I first got here, I really didn’t like it,” Cooper added. “It was so different for me. The first day I got here, I was ready to leave already. I didn’t like it. But I got used to it. It’s pretty cool, it’s chilling, no trouble, laid back. I came here for football and school, and that’s what I’m here for.”
Cooper redshirted in 2011 before making his Tiger debut in 2012. The speedster played in all 11 games in the backfield and secondary and collected four rushing touchdowns and a team-high 723 all-purpose yards.
But in the midst of establishing his spot on the roster and in the future of the turnaround of a once dismal program, his opportunity was snatched right out from underneath him.
Cooper failed to reach the 2.0 grade-point average requirement from the NCAA and was suspended from the school and team for two years. He failed two classes in the spring of 2013 and another in the summer, dropping him below the allowed level.
He was trapped. Coming to college was a rude awakening. In high school, he said he was part of a system where schooling was undermined by sports, leaving him to fend for himself when he arrived at Fort Hays.
“In my school, if you were playing football, you really didn’t have to do much,” Cooper said. “The principal was cool with me. I could really say I never did work in high school. I did, but I didn’t. I never went to class, and it lead to college and me thinking I’m gonna get away with it. It all caught up on me.”
He did get away with it. Instead, he was faced with a decision. Cooper could transfer to a new school, start a new career and work to fix his problems in school. Or, he could sit out two years and try to rejoin the program in which he had invested two years of his life.
“I coulda transferred somewhere else and played, but I wanted to play here with these guys,” Cooper said. “They’re like my brothers. I like playing with them, I’m used to them, I’m used to the system. Coach Brown’s a good coach and he likes me a lot, I like him a lot. Coach McCray helped me out a lot.
“Those guys know what I had. If I would have went to any other school, I would have had to start all over again. I told myself, this time I’m gonna stay focused, get my grades and try to stay on top of it. I hold myself accountable.”
After receiving the news from Brown, Cooper returned to the Sunshine State. The beaches, weather and palm trees welcomed him with open arms. His mother did not. He had to face a son’s worst nightmare in facing his mother in a time of disappointment.
“It was tough. I’ve played football all my life. Just going back home, it was different,” Cooper said. “My mom, she wasn’t acting the same with me because she knows I’m supposed to be in school. My cousin, Frank, talked to me, told me to keep my head up, everything’s gonna be alright. My mom was telling me the same thing. It was all different for my family.”
Cooper stayed home for part of the fall and returned to Hays for the latter half of the 2013 season — partly to be with his team and work out, and partly to not fall victim to life on the streets.
“Back at home, it’s different than up here. It’s dangerous back at home. I’m gonna put it like that,” Cooper said. “You’ve gotta be careful. They thought I was gonna be in the streets doing bad stuff, even though I’m not that type of kid. When you go back home to that, that’s what it leads to, just being around that environment.
“I just told myself I know what I can do, I know what I’m capable of. I told myself I’m gonna keep working, keep working, and I got over that hump. I ain’t going back. I’ll never go back.”
And back to Hays he went. Every practice, every game, Cooper was there. While his former teammates were working out and getting in shape, he did all of his work on his own — a testament to getting himself to where he wanted to be.
“There was some days I would go and I would just think about it like, ‘I know I messed up’,” Cooper said. “It was tough for me. Nothing was going my way. I had family problems. There was a lot going on in two years, just looking at two years of me not playing football. My family’s not looking at me the same way because of my grades, I wasn’t playing.”
He returned to Miami in the summer to train with Gore and others from the area before making the trip back to Hays, even though he was not enrolled in school or on the team.
“I wasn’t taking classes; I wasn’t in school. I actually was just here, just being around the team, just wanting to be around the team,” Cooper said. “I was just coming to every practice, I went to every game. I missed it so much.”
When his two years were up, Cooper was unsure of his status with FHSU. During his time away from the team, Cooper, the coaches and his family did not have the slightest of hint if he would ever be able to play at Fort Hays again.
That is until two days prior to the start of this year’s fall camp. Two years of training, watching from the sidelines and taking classes in the summer finally paid off.
Cooper walked into a meeting with the dean of Fort Hays ineligible. He left as a running back for the Tigers.
“It was just a relief, like so much off my shoulders,” Cooper said. “I don’t know what I would’ve been doing right now if I couldn’t play football right now. I was so happy. I just prayed … and I still pray. I just thank God every time I step on the field for giving me another opportunity, for being out here.”
For the coach that has been behind Cooper from the start, seeing the strides a player has took to become one of the nation’s most feared rushers and team’s best students is something special.
“Hats off to that kid for getting those things done,” Brown said. “There’s still some things he has to do to stay in school here and to be on this football team. Up to this point, grade checks, going to class and meeting with the people he’s needing to meet with — he’s doing every one of those things every single day. … He’s really taking ownership in what he’s doing.
“He’s taken an advantage of this opportunity and doing things the right way. On the football field it shows for itself.”
On Sept. 3, his return was officially marked on the MIAA TV Network. Just under five minutes into the contest against Central Oklahoma, he had made it onto the field. His first rush went for no gain. He ended the week as the MIAA/Astroturf Offensive Athlete of the Week.
Even better than winning the award was hearing his mother tell him she was proud.
“That first game, she was happy,” Cooper said. “She went back and told all the teachers I did good, they’re all looking me up and looking at all the papers and everything. It was a good feeling.
During the next 10 games, he would earn two more honors on his way to leading the MIAA in rushing with 1,248 yards, the fourth best individual rushing season at Fort Hays.
He is just half of what might be considered the most dynamic one-two punch in the country, alongside senior quarterback Treveon Albert. Together, the combo has helped the Tigers to the fourth-best team rushing season in program history with 2,584 yards.
The accolades, stats and camaraderie between the offensive line and running backs, especially Cooper, have made for a gratuitous senior season for the likes of Luke Edney and most of the Tigers’ linemen.
“It’s awesome because he runs so hard,” Edney said. “He isn’t a big guy and he just takes his legs and keeps going and then all of a sudden he’ll break off a 90-yard touchdown. It’s awesome blocking for him because you always know if you make your blocks he can take it to the house instantly.
“It’s exciting, I really enjoy blocking for him. He gives the offensive line a lot of gratitude and we obviously appreciate that. It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy playing with him.”
Aside from hoping to help lead the Tigers to their first postseason appearance since 1995, a conference championship and a national championship, he does have very particular personal goals.
“I’ve got two more years here, and I’m gonna try to make the best out of it,” Cooper said. “Try to make it to the next level. Hopefully, if I keep it up, keep what I’m doing — try to win a D-II Heisman or something.”
He might not be entirely sure of the name of the Harlon Hill Award for Division II’s best player, but he does know what it took to get him back on the field. Once failing classes, Cooper now has a report card his mother would be proud to hang on her refrigerator, fluttering with As and Bs.
In two years time, Cooper has grown as a student, an athlete and a son. He has changed, but for the better. He now balances practice, weights, film, and meeting with tutors with the best on the team.
“Sometimes I just lay down and thank God for that game, thank God for this, anything — I pray for everything,” Cooper said. “Just staying on the right track, read my Bible, just try to stay focused; that’s the main thing — stay focused and stay healthy, and I’ll be alright.
“What you put in (is) what you get out,” he added. “It’s all on me. I know what it takes. There’s no excuses. It’s all on me. That’s how I look at it. I’m ready. I love this game.”
Whether it’s just for a quick prayer or for a lengthy touchdown run, he will continue to make a second home of the end zone. And every time he will kneel, thank God, and remember the career that almost never was.
And it was all on him.