SEATTLE — When Xavier Cooper lines up for Washington State on Saturday night against Stanford, there will be a message cloaked in the mayhem: There are all sorts of paths that lead to such a big stage, from the high achievers on the Stanford side to a guy who took a challenging road to the WSU defensive line.
In ninth grade, Xavier Cooper was diagnosed with a learning disability. He didn’t take it well, nor did his parents, both of whom have master’s degrees. His emergence from that obstacle seems a testament not only to his own resolve, but a lot of people along the way who foresaw a success story.
“I’m so very proud of Xavier that he’s blossomed and excelled,” said Cherry Goudeau, former assistant principal at Wilson High in Tacoma.
She wasn’t talking about football, where the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Cooper is starting at WSU for the second season at defensive end. He had 3.5 tackles for loss last week against Idaho, doing nothing to discourage the vision of defensive coordinator Mike Breske, who says, “He’s going to be a special player for us.”
Cooper was always athletically gifted, competing in the sprints at Wilson at 260 pounds, the son of Louis Cooper Jr., a former NAIA All-American at Doane College in Nebraska, and his mother Dawn, who does “boot camp“ workouts several times a week.
But he was also unfocused. When the verdict of a learning disability came down, neither he nor his parents accepted it well, his dad says.
“He wanted to be regular like everybody else,” Louis Cooper said. “That was a very difficult thing for him to overcome. He fought it for the longest time. It took us a little bit of time. I had to work through it with him and his mom.”
Xavier’s recollection of that crisis might be comical if it weren’t sobering.
“I was placed in some classes I didn’t want to go to,” said Cooper. “So I chose not to participate in school.”
In time, with the help of Goudeau and others at Wilson whose names his dad clicks off, Cooper began to respond.
“It was just a matter of sitting down and walking them through the process, what it would look like and what it could feel like, what the outcomes could be for Xavier in the long run,” says Goudeau. “And there was nothing wrong with saying, ‘I need help.’ Over a number of conversations, that finally resonated.”
Soon, football became the vehicle to push him in the classroom. “It kept him engaged in school,” says Dawn Cooper. “A lot of kids who have learning disabilities just give up. There’s no reason not to.”
By his junior year, when Cooper was attracting attention from several Pac-12 schools, he had such an academic deficit from his earlier years that junior college seemed the only way out.
“My mom said she didn’t want me to go down to L.A. or anyplace like that,” Cooper says, referring to a JC. “I couldn’t stay focused in Tacoma, and she didn’t think I could probably stay focused down there, either” — he laughs — “which is probably true.”
It would take a lot of work, not only by Cooper, but any school chancing to sign him. WSU’s longtime assistant coach then, Mike Levenseller, talked to Wilson counselors and they devised a plan. Cooper not only had serious academic work as a senior but he would have to “grayshirt” — delay enrollment with his 2010 class and arrive in January 2011.
“After he signed his letter of intent, he was riding the wave,” his father says. When he got the news he had to sit out that first semester, “He was very, very angry. I can’t tell you how angry he was.”
But he needed classes at Tacoma Community College to meet NCAA requirements and time to advance physically. Today, Xavier says of Levenseller, “Levy is always going to have a place in my heart. If there’s anything I could do for him, I’d do it at the drop of a dime.”
At WSU, Cooper found more Samaritans, people like Heather Erwin of the student-athlete development staff, whom his dad calls a “godsend“ in keeping Xavier grinding academically.
On the field, Cooper is a rising force on the 10th-ranked defense in the country. Off it, he’s spontaneous, gregarious and quotable.
After a last-minute goal-line stand against Idaho, Cooper talked about “chaining the gates.” Then there’s the description of his position coach, Joe Salave’a: “Like one of those crazy uncles.”
Referring to one-upping a good friend and former high-school teammate, Washington’s Desmond Trufant, last year in the Apple Cup, Cooper said, “I ain’t gonna lie. I got a lot of hatred for the UW.”
One other thing about Cooper: He’s grateful.
“He’s very humble and very kind,” says Dawn Cooper. “When you struggle, you understand how other people struggle, too. I’m very proud of him.”