The capacity of college football to produce weirdness, on and off the field, is like no other sport. And we’re not talking about Penn State.
Take the 24 hours in Huskies football from Wednesday afternoon to Thursday afternoon. One player goes down with his THIRD knee injury requiring surgery, and the next day one of the team’s best players does something so foolish that coach Steve Sarkisian calls him a “stupid (deleted) football player” before kicking him off the field.
The thing that happened to sophomore running back Deontae Cooper was so incomprehensible that Sarkisian had a hard time wrapping his head around it. The thing that happened to junior safety Sean Parker was so aggravating that Sarkisian wanted to rap Parker’s head.
In practice Wednesday during a simple ball-exchange drill with quarterbacks, without making contact with another player, making a cut only “against air,” as Sarkisian put it, and without even falling down afterward, Cooper’s right knee went haywire.
“I think,” Sarkisian said, reporting Cooper words, “I tweaked my calf.”
No. He tore his anterior cruciate ligament. In the right knee. Not the left knee, in which he had torn the ACL. Twice. Another year lost to surgery and rehabilitation.
“It left me dismayed for a bit, almost baffled,” Sarkisian said. “How could it happen again, this time on his good knee, with no one around?
“I’ve never seen it before. Seen two (ACL tears on the same player). Never three.”
The freakish randomness was made more poignant Thursday because Cooper showed up to practice. Sitting, standing, watching, talking, smiling. Hurting.
“To his credit, he was an absolute stud about it,” Sarkisian said. “He’s shook up, like anyone would be, but you see him back (Thursday) and why he’s so special. He’s out here with a smile, saying, ‘Coach, I’ll be back.’
“If anybody can make it back, it’s him — a great soul. He’ll battle again. I believe it.”
Cooper’s setback was much more than a blow to the offense’s depth chart, where Cooper was probably third behind Jesse Callier and Bishop Sankey, the Nos. 2 and 3 tailbacks in 2011 behind Chris Polk, who moved on to the NFL after three of the best seasons in Washington’s history at the position. Cooper’s position coach, Joel Thomas, explained why the blow, beyond the cruel, unfathomable irony, hit the team so hard.
“There wasn’t one person who said anything bad about him,” said Thomas of his recruiting survey of people in his hometown of Perris, CA., near Riverside, who knew Cooper. “From day one, his character has never been a question. The feedback on his rehab every week was positive, which this is why it’s so disheartening.
“Some days, I might be down, but you can’t help but smile when you’re around him. He was the light on the darkest days.”
Cooper’s dark day was followed Thursday a dark moment for a teammate, but entirely opposite in nature — completely controllable. During a scrimmage late in practice, Parker, the junior safety from Los Angeles who started all 13 games last season and was second on the team in tackles, hit tailback Willis Wilson late, tangling with his face mask.
Sarkisian exploded. Dropping several f-bombs, he raged at Parker over a hot-button issue from last season — an annoying number of personal-foul penalties (fights, late hits, hits out of bounds, etc.) that plagued a team with little margin for error.
Parker was kicked off the field, and stalked an empty section of the sidelines at the temporary practice field east of the construction project rebuilding Husky Stadium. He was sought out by a couple of players, including quarterback Keith Price. He eventually rejoined the team for the standard group meet at the end of practice.
A calm Sarkisian later explained why his fuse was lit.
“I don’t doubt our talent level, I don’t doubt our competitive nature, I don’t doubt our schemes,” he said. “But we should pride ourselves on our ability to play smart football, not make dumb penalties. That was huge point of emphasis in our team meetings Tuesday. Then to come out today . . . emotions got the better of him, and that’s not OK. That’s a selfish move.
“Sean is arguably one of my top five favorite players on the team. But it’s not about who you are. We’re held to the same standard.”
In a period when the randomness of football was nearly ungraspable, Sarkisian had zero tolerance for an abuser of opportunity.