I was coaching at Conyers Middle School in 1996 when I learned through the grapevine that some people in high places wondered if I would be interested in inaugurating the football program at the brand-new Indian Creek Middle School. For me, it was a no-brainer. I knew those seventh- and eighth-grade kids composed perhaps the greatest batch of athletes to come through the system in one group—ever.
Their team picture still hangs on a wall at Indian Creek. After an undefeated regular season, we won the semifinal playoff game before falling to powerhouse Henry County in the championship. I ran a simple offense built on the wing-T, which featured tailback powers, sweeps and devastating inside traps and end-around plays. Our Panthers were talented, deep, coachable and had great parental support, and I had three wonderful assistant coaches. It was a recipe for success.
Trap plays in middle school were not widely anticipated back then, and our opponents were not always apt at recognizing them. However, effective traps require a quick and fearless pulling guard who hits like a freight train. My pulling guard was Matt Cooper. He signed my championship football simply as “Coop.” Coaching him and that offense provided me with pure, unbridled joy.
A few years later, Cooper and a best friend, Matt Tyree, were in my wife’s science class at Eastside High School when passenger jets flew into the World Trade Center in New York and The Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The two Matts reached across the aisle, clenched hands and decided then and there to enlist in the United States Army to right that wrong. They became one of the highest-rated sniper teams in the world. Upon returning to civilian life, Tyree entered the medical field as an EMT, while Cooper decided to defend and protect the people he loved as a Covington Police Department officer. They served freedom abroad and now desired to serve their own hometown.
One afternoon, as I worked on a manuscript, I got a phone call from my wife. She informed me that a Covington policeman had been shot and that the identity was being withheld. Five minutes later, I found myself leaning against my Jeep outside the police department, unable to stop sobbing. A cop in a cruiser stopped by and attempted to console me. I asked him to tell me if the officer down was “Coop.” He told me he could not and went inside. A few minutes later, he came out and started to drive off but stopped and asked if I was under control. Awash in emotion, I explained that I had coached a few officers and simply begged him to tell me who was down.
“It’s Coop,” he said.
I had prayed fervently before, but the prayers I offered to God that day were the sincerest I had ever uttered. Parents are never supposed to bury their children, and the same holds true for coaches and their players. Thankfully, we were spared that experience.