FRISCO — Amari Cooper hit up a local suit store recently to shop for game day. Cowboys players are required to dress up, and their arrival at the stadium is treated like a virtual fashion show on social media.
The salesperson kept bringing him pairs of shoes to go with the looks. “No,” Cooper kept saying, “no.” His childhood friend who was visiting spied one pair and started laughing, Cooper recounted.
They looked like Cooper’s old “church shoes.”
Growing up in the west Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, Cooper was the youngest of five, and he owned only one pair of shoes at a time. He wore them for church, but also for school, for everyday, for playing football.
“They were my everything shoes,” the wide receiver who changed the course of the Cowboys’ season said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News. And, as he explained it, the shoes “talked,” meaning the sole separated from the rest of the shoe and flapped.
“My mother, she used to buy super glue to glue the part back on,” Cooper said. “But I was playing football … so I would shake and run. They would always come back loose and the glue would be showing.
“It’s kind of funny now. But all my friends remember that.”
The memory is a glimpse into Cooper’s backstory that surprisingly remained largely private as he emerged from a low-income area and football hotbed to become part of the University of Alabama dynasty and the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL draft in 2015.
The Cowboys deemed the 24-year-old, two-time Pro Bowler their missing piece and worthy of the 2019 first-round draft pick they gave the Oakland Raiders to get him. When the trade was made Oct. 22, the Cowboys were 3-4. The 7-2 finish to the regular season and wild-card playoff game Saturday night against Seattle at AT&T Stadium — another chance for a franchise starved for postseason success — seemed almost fantastical at the time.
Cowboys and their fans continue getting to know Cooper, the gifted route runner with game-breaking ability who is thoughtful and economical with his words. But Michael Irvin is already convinced. The Cowboys’ Hall of Fame receiver said he sees Cooper joining running back Ezekiel Elliott, 23, and quarterback Dak Prescott, 25, as the core of the Cowboys’ offense for the next decade.
“Amari, his personality, the way he is away from the football field, I knew he would fit perfectly with the kind of leader Dak is and a young Ezekiel Elliott,” Irvin said. “You have a young quarterback, that’s the best thing you can give him — a guy that is so great at getting in and out of his cuts … knowing that he’ll be wide open.
“He’s such a great fit, and now these guys can play together hopefully for the next nine, 10 years. And hopefully do a lot of winning. It’s a great combination.”
Cowboys fans immediately took to crooning “Cooooooooop” after big plays. Cooper’s teammates did it too recently, when coach Jason Garrett selected No. 19 to lead the team in jumping jacks at the start of practice, a prized ritual of Garrett’s.
But Cooper does not know the man whose name he carries. Terrance Cooper, his father, is incarcerated in a Florida state prison. According to public records, Terrance was found guilty of burglary of an unoccupied dwelling in May 1996, when Amari wasn’t yet 2. He received a 30-year sentence because he was ruled to be a habitual felony offender. His projected release date is June 17, 2022.
“So I never knew him, never went to visit him,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t [bother me] because I don’t know him. Obviously it did when I was younger. I used to always be like, ‘Where’s my dad?’ You would see guys getting picked up from school and stuff like that. But after a while, nah.”
Cooper’s world was made up of a small square in his neighborhood. His home, his elementary school, the local park and community center were all within a few blocks.
Cooper attended The Barnyard, a nonprofit organization that provides free after-school and summer programs, from the time he was 5. Travis Swain, the neighborhood services coordinator at the time, said it was Cooper’s second home. Cooper was always running around with a basketball or football.
“Everything was really competitive,” Cooper said. “We used to always do field day, relays. Races. I was always just naturally good at those things. So when I started playing football, I used some of those traits.”
Swain recalled the pick-up football games played on the tennis courts. They would have “bowl games” for whatever holiday was coming up, from the Valentine’s Day Bowl to Christmas Bowl.
Cooper remains so fond of The Barnyard that he donates books — and, because it’s important to him, shoes.
Ashley Williams, one of Cooper’s three older sisters, said the kids who used to give Amari a hard time about his “talking” shoes “can’t say anything now.”
Michelle Green, Cooper’s mother, used to do hair, and clients came to the house on Saturday mornings. So Williams and her sisters and their friends would go to the park to watch Cooper’s youth league games. “I’ll never forget the touchdown he scored from one end of the field to another,” Williams said.
Cooper said playing receiver always felt natural to him.
“That’s all just God-given,” he said. “When someone did a route, I was always able to emulate exactly how they did it.”
Cooper transferred to Miami Northwestern High School, in Liberty City. The football program is renowned for the championships and NFL talent that it’s produced in a city known for taking football seriously.
One of Cooper’s quarterbacks there? Teddy Bridgewater, currently with the New Orleans Saints.
Cooper fit in, even though “he put himself right in the fire” by enrolling at the competitive powerhouse, said Luther Campbell, who was the school’s defensive coordinator. Campbell, also known as “Uncle Luke,” is the former star of the rap group 2 Live Crew and is immersed in the youth football scene in Miami.
But Cooper dealt with a hip injury as a junior and didn’t have much to show college recruiters.
“I was really worried,” Cooper said.
That changed when he tried out for the South Florida Express, a well-known 7-on-7 team. Founder Brett Goetz said Cooper stood out immediately, despite the team’s being loaded.
After Cooper dominated at a tournament near Tampa, the word was out.
“I’m getting on the bus and guys are showing me Rivals and stuff,” Cooper said of the recruiting website. “‘Look! They’ve got you on there, you’re a three-star now!’ I’m like, ‘Wow, really?'”
Campbell annually takes a group of Miami kids to summer camps on college campuses, from Miami to Florida State to Alabama.
Campbell asked coaches to pit the best defensive backs against Cooper. By the time they arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., legendary Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban had heard of the receiver dominating the circuit, Campbell said.
Cooper called what happened next “indelible” in his mind.
“It really happened the same way every time,” Cooper said. “The same way Nick Saban came up to me. I caught a comeback route on one-on-ones and he took off his hat, came up to me and said, ‘I’m going to meet you in my office later.’ … It was just weird. How could you offer me a scholarship after seeing one play, two plays? That’s how you know they’re good coaches, they have good eyes for talent.”
Saban has said he walked away thinking “this guy may be the best receiver we’ve ever had in our camp, and we’ve had some really good ones.”
Cooper now owns the major receiving records at Alabama. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2014, the year he won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.
Garrett sounded out Saban, his former boss at the Miami Dolphins, before Dallas pulled the trigger on the trade.
Before she made enough money to buy a truck, they didn’t have a vehicle. She had to trek a couple of miles back and forth to the grocery store, weighed down with bags.
When she finally could attend a game in Cooper’s senior year at Northwestern High, he was racked with nerves.
“She’d never seen me play. What if I drop the ball or have a bad game?” he said. “I scored two times that game, so it was really cool.”
Cooper’s family has still yet to see him play as a Cowboy. He said he still gets nervous when his mom attends. “She’s probably seen me play in the league two or three times,” he said.
His mother also doesn’t love to fly. She did brave the long trip to Hawaii, though, when Cooper made the Pro Bowl as a rookie for the Raiders in 2015.
Cooper’s first major purchase after being drafted was a house for her. The next year, he bought her a Range Rover. Eventually, he posted a picture of Michelle standing in front of both on Instagram. He said he’s still driven by the fear of poverty.
“The whole story is way too long and melancholic,” he wrote. “But just know a dream can go a long way if it’s followed by faith and hard work.”
Cooper’s Cowboys teammates have been learning about him over the last two-plus months.
He finished up his degree at Alabama, by taking online courses, and graduated in May. His girlfriend is studying psychiatry. He became a bookworm in college, and he’s currently plowing through books on investing in real estate.
On Thursday, he took part in a team locker room tradition: hamper basketball. He and offensive lineman La’el Collins clanked plenty of shots off the metal rims of the laundry baskets in the middle of the room.
Most people who encounter Cooper observe that he’s quiet and reserved.
“We’ve definitely grown,” said Prescott. “I knew he was kind of a quiet guy. He’s not one to call out in front of everybody. He knows what he’s doing. So, just pull him off [to the side] and you get a better result when you talk to him that way.
“At the same time, once he loosens up, he does talk a bit. I would never say he’s the attention of the room — but he’s got a little bit to him as he’s opened up.”
Cooper’s sister said he’s always having fun and talking around the family. But they have seen a change in him since he joined the Cowboys, including showing more visible emotion during games. “I’ve never seen him like that,” his sister Ashley said. “It’s a big change. I’m just excited for him to be on a team that he’s happy.”
Cooper, who crossed the 1,000-yard mark last week for the third time in his four seasons, has said he wants to prove Dallas right for giving up a first-round pick for him.
Cooper’s most memorable games as a Cowboy, so far, are his 180 yards and two touchdowns against Washington and 217 yards and three scores against Philadelphia. While some of his other days have been more ordinary, defenses still have to account for him, wary of his next big play.
Cooper has played in only one playoff game, a two-catch, 10-yard performance with a backup quarterback for Oakland in 2016. He’s excited to get another chance Saturday.
“Loser go home,” he said, “but if you win, you have opportunity.”
As for Irvin’s idea about Cooper being around for many years to come, Cooper’s contract only goes through next season. The Cowboys’ front office intends to try to reach a long-term extension.
Cooper is game.
“I love it here,” he said. “I’ve been really happy since I got there. There’s no complaints. I feel blessed. So, of course, I would love to be a Cowboy for the remainder of my career.”