He was finished, at 25. He was toxic, an enemy in his own locker room, and if Riley Cooper survived training camp, surely there was no way he'd make it past Week 2, not with all the angry defensive backs out for him. "I own a Riley Cooper jersey … What should I do with it?" was the subject of a message-board thread on philadelphiaeagles.com in early August. "Burn it," some said, and then someone came up with an idea that the Eagles hold a Riley Cooper jersey exchange weekend, just like the New England Patriots did with accused murderer Aaron Hernandez. The Eagles, of course, didn't.
"I would frame it and hang it on the wall," one poster wrote. "It now has become a big part of our history."
In the NFL, 4½ months is a lifetime. Coaches are canonized and terminated over the course of 4½ months; players are exalted and forgotten. There is no entity more fluid and fickle, and that was evident in the Eagles locker room Sunday just after Philadelphia's loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Michael Vick stood near his locker, pondering whether his shoes would get lost on the trip back to Philadelphia, focusing on something irrelevant because he'd just spent three hours on the sideline as the Eagles' backup. Four and a half months ago, Vick was preparing to be the starting quarterback.
A few lockers away, Cooper was talking to reporters before a PR guy broke up the little scrum. Months after he was caught on video uttering a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert -- temporarily becoming the most hated man in the NFL -- Cooper is having the best season of his career. He's caught 41 passes, and his 743 receiving yards and seven touchdowns have surpassed the totals of his first three seasons combined.
"I don't know if I'm doing anything different," Cooper said. "I'm just trying to go out there and play as hard as I can."
Cooper is now being called a good teammate and a catalyst for an 8-6 Eagles team on the verge of its first playoff berth in three seasons.
"We all expected that Riley would come out and have the best season of his life," said Mike Jalazo, Cooper's high school coach in Clearwater, Fla. "Because that's how he reacts to any adversity."
But Cooper's story is about more than redemption. It's about a team with strong leadership. It's about forgiveness. It's about a young athlete who was seemingly born with everything waking up one day and realizing he was on the verge of winding up with nothing.
In late July, after the news of the video broke, a humbled Cooper texted Vick. He thanked the quarterback for standing up for him, for publicly forgiving him at a time when Cooper desperately needed an ally. It was a hot, tension-filled summer in Philadelphia. Teammates, especially new players, were angry and didn't know Cooper, didn't trust him. Cooper issued a public apology, but even older players, such as LeSean McCoy, said they'd lost respect for him.