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Star Kick Returner Fights Having to Punt Career : Top Prospect Darrell Cooley Must Work Out Family, Grade Problems to Get Back on the Field

November 06, 1994|ETHAN ALLEN THOMAS JR. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last season Darrell Cooley used swift moves and stunning speed to fly by tacklers and run down receivers at L.A. Southwest College. The former Jefferson High star earned conference-leading statistics, All-State team honors and recruitment letters from prestigious universities throughout the country. Coaches said his exceptional talents could even take him to the National Football League someday.

But that was last year.

Now, returning punts and defending receivers are the furthest things from Darrell Cooley's mind--and life. Cooley's focus is on the vexing responsibility of raising his 4-year-old daughter Aleisha and providing her with a place to live. But Cooley's problem is twofold. He also has to cope with being academically ineligible for the entire season.

"What caused the grades problem was that I didn't have a place to stay. . . . My pop threw me out on the streets," the defensive back and kick returner said. "(Before that) I was in school every day. I was doing everything I was supposed to."

Awarded custody after a court battle with the mother, Cooley and Aleisha were living with his father in Los Angeles last spring. But the house was crowded, tempers flared and after an irreconcilable argument with his stepmother, the 20-year-old football star and his little girl were forced to find shelter with his mother in 29 Palms.

Nearly 150 miles away from school and only three weeks from the end of spring semester, Cooley missed his final exams and his grade-point average dropped below the 2.0 needed to keep his eligibility.

So in the season he would have spent chasing ballcarriers, studying and narrowing his choices for the big-name school lucky enough to have him, Cooley has lived a vagabond life.

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He and his daughter have moved back and forth across the Los Angeles basin, staying with relatives in 29 Palms, Van Nuys--even, for a time, deep in the heart of South-Central where Cooley grew up, in "the Pueblos," a congested, gang-infested government housing project.

Cooley belonged to the gang for a while, joining while in elementary school and leaving in high school, when his athletic career began to blossom. "That's not what I'm about any more. . . . And they (members of the Pueblos) know it," Cooley said. "I've been out since this college stuff started gettin' for real. Since the letters started rollin' in."

But since his academic and football career were sidelined, Cooley has done more spinning than rolling. Still unsettled, living for now at his uncle's house in Van Nuys on $490 in government aid, Cooley has been cast into a role that many teen-age mothers have found themselves in.

"When we went to court, they (authorities) found me to be a better parent than her," Cooley said. And even as he struggles financially, without new employment in sight, he refuses to seek additional help from county officials. "I don't want them to think I can't take care of my daughter."

Although the resources provided by the government have been limited, he has received assistance from Family Preservation, a Los Angeles-based agency, which helps him with parenting counseling and locating government-subsidized housing.

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While Cooley predicts that his return to college will be in the spring, he still has obstacles to overcome: He's "not in tip-top shape," although he plays basketball often; until he has a place to settle down, he doesn't want to go back to school; and once back in school he must maintain a C average to play ball again and draw attention from a four-year school.

That school would get a player who last season led the Western State Conference with six interceptions. Using his 4.4 40-yard-dash speed, the 6-foot, 190-pounder returned two of the interceptions for touchdowns of 92 and 106 yards. As a kick returner he led the conference with an average return of 30.1 yards a kick, including a 93-yard touchdown return. The All-State defensive back also led in punt returns, averaging 23.5 yards per return. If Cooley's stats don't speak for his ability, coaches do.

"Cooley has tremendous talent," says Hank Johnson, Cooley's coach and dean at Jefferson. "It's very seldom when coaches see a kid in high school and say he can be a Division I player, and then take it to the next level and go to the NFL. Darrell Cooley was definitely one of those players."

"He's a big-play ballplayer. He was that in high school, and he is at this level," said L.A. Southwest coach Henry Washington last spring. "People take a big chance when they throw at him. He's a great football player."

Cooley is confident he can get himself back on track as a student-athlete and remain a good parent, but his plight worries others.

Johnson fears that inactivity may lead to the demise of his young football career.

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