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Cooper Catches On as Little Big Man

Football: Former Antelope Valley College standout becomes top receiver with Iowa Barnstormers of Arena Football League despite his 5-foot-7 height.

July 24, 1996|FERNANDO DOMINGUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For as long as he has been in football, Lamart Cooper has heard the remarks.

"He's too small," they said.

"He'll never survive," they cautioned.

"He doesn't fit into our plans," they explained.

Ah, recognizing football talent can be such a precise science, can't it? The formulas are so clear, the parameters so well defined.

But every now and then, along comes someone like Cooper to alter those preconceived ideas of what a football player should look like.

Cooper, a former standout at Antelope Valley College, is a rookie wide receiver with the Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. He's one of the fastest players in the league and is quickly becoming one of the top performers at his position.

He's also 5 feet 7.

And that, Cooper says, has been his biggest obstacle in football.

"I've always had to prove myself," Cooper said. "But my speed has given me the opportunities. That's something you can't coach."

To Iowa Coach John Gregory, however, Cooper's size--he weighs 170 pounds--is inconsequential.

"In our game, what we look for is speed," Gregory said. "We don't give a damn how tall they are. He has done very well. He's a bright young man who has excellent hands and learns quickly."

Cooper, 22, used his 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash to secure a spot with the Barnstormers during training camp but didn't get a chance to play much until starting inside receiver Ryan Murray was sidelined because of an ankle injury two games into the season.

When Murray returned six weeks ago, Cooper moved to outside receiver and hasn't missed a beat. He has 32 receptions for 524 yards and 10 touchdowns, including 270 yards receiving in the past three games.

Cooper caught four passes for 83 yards and scored twice Saturday in a 50-44 victory over the Anaheim Piranhas that gave the Barnstormers a 10-2 record and kept them atop the Central Division standings with two games remaining.

Like nearly everyone in the league, Cooper is a two-way player and plays defensive back. He received the league's weekly Ironman of the Game award after leading the Barnstormers to a 66-64 victory over Milwaukee on July 6. In that game, Cooper had five receptions for 97 yards and three touchdowns and had an interception.

"I felt I could make one of the teams [in arena football] if I was given the shot," Cooper said. "I'm happy I was able to get my foot in the door."

Cooper had to do the same at Antelope Valley.

After graduating in 1991 from Palmetto High in Miami, where he played football and wrestled, Cooper didn't know where he was headed. He was then 5-6, 145 pounds and generally ignored by college recruiters.

"His high school [football] coach had talked to us about him," said Brent Carder, who in the fall enters his 27th season as Antelope Valley coach. "We told him we just didn't think it would be a good idea for a 5-6 wide receiver to come all the way from Florida."

Think again.

On the first day of practice for the 1991 season, Carder noticed a player he didn't recognize but whose speed and quickness were hard to overlook. It was Cooper.

"We timed the 40 [yards] and I looked at my watch and I figured I had blown it, because he ran 4.28," Carder said. "I told him to run again, and he ran just under 4.3, as I remember. I said, 'Let's find out who this guy is.' "

Cooper led the Marauders with 1,021 all-purpose yards that season and was an All-Foothill Conference first-team selection as a kick returner. He was a versatile weapon the following year, playing receiver, running back and quarterback--in every game.

"Those were the days," Cooper said. "Coach Carder always tried to bring out the best in me. I'm beginning to enjoy the [arena] game like I did at Antelope Valley."

That must be a good feeling, indeed.

In 1992, his second season with the Marauders, Cooper had 1,552 all-purpose yards--including 833 yards receiving and 295 yards rushing--and was named the conference's most valuable player. He also sparked the Marauders in a 24-23 upset of Glendale in the K-Swiss Bowl, scoring two touchdowns.

Cooper left Antelope Valley with 50 receptions and 1,128 yards receiving, both school career records.

"He turned out to be a remarkable player despite his stature," Carder said.

From Antelope Valley, Cooper transferred to Wayne State in Nebraska and split time between football and track, becoming the Division II 55-meter indoor champion last March in Indianapolis. He played 18 games in two seasons at wide receiver for the Wildcats, catching 76 passes for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns.

His time at Wayne State proved profitable.

"The athletic director at Wayne State [Pete Chapman] is a friend of Coach Gregory and he got me a tryout [with the Barnstormers]," Cooper said. "They offered me a job right away and I signed a contract but I didn't realize I still had to make the team in camp."

Now, Cooper is hoping to use arena football as a springboard so he can show, again, that he measures up as a football player.

"I feel my size is good because [defenders] can't grab me very easily," Cooper said. "I want to go to the NFL. If I have to work my way up, so be it."

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