The Advocate introduces Edmonton-area sports columnist Jason Hills today. He will write every second week on the Edmonton professional sports scene. On alternate Wednesdays, Calgary-area columnist Jeremy Nolais will look at the Stampede city’s pro sports scene. Nolais’ column makes its debut next week.
When Justin Cooper left the hallways of Lindsay Thurber, he had one goal in mind, be a professional football player.
During his high school years in the late 1990s, he was arguably the most dominating defensive lineman in the Central Alberta High School Football League.
He spent five years with the Edmonton Huskies, where he won a national title in 2004 before heading to the University of Manitoba, where he spent three years, finishing with a Vanier Cup title in 2007.
Wherever Cooper’s been on the football field, success has followed.
Now entering his third season with the Edmonton Eskimos, the 28-year-old is garnering success both on and off the field.
“These last three years have been very special for me,” said Cooper, who was taken in the third round of the Canadian Football League draft by Edmonton in 2008.
“I’ve been able to live my dream of playing professional football, but more importantly I’ve been able to move into the next stage of my life and that’s so exciting.”
Where Cooper is finding the most of his success in the CFL is on special teams with the Eskimos.
Despite never playing on special teams until he turned pro, he’s relishing the opportunity.
“I have the perfect mentality for it. I don’t have much regard for my body. I play hard and I try to play as fast I can,” said Cooper.
“It was an easy transition — I’ve got a motor, and you need to have a motor on special teams in the CFL. Every snap is the most important four seconds of my life.
“As a Canadian, you have to play special teams. I always tried to have the mentality in life whatever is put in front of me, just try to do whatever I can.
“It was something I’d never done before and I was excited for the change. I never realized how much more aggressive you can be and the impact you can have on special teams.”
Eskimos fullback Mathieu Bertrand is one of the top players on special teams, and the former Laval Rouge et Or quarterback has taken Cooper under his wing from the time he walked through the doors of the Eskimos’ locker room.
“He’s been my mentor,” said Cooper, who finished the 2009 season with eight special teams tackles.
“He’s a special teams ace too. He knows what he’s doing all the time. A lot of our blocking assignments, we sit together in meetings and we discuss the good and the bad, and he’s been there whenever I’ve needed him.”
With the Eskimos off to a tough 0-2 start and two key injuries to defensive ends Greg Peach and Dario Romero, it may open the door for Cooper to play a bigger role on the defensive line.
“I played most of the game against B.C (at defensive end) and I graded pretty well. The CFL … it’s tough to be a six-foot-tall defensive lineman starter. My role is on special teams and I’m more than happy to do it,” explained Cooper.
“If I get a bigger opportunity to play a bigger role on defence, I’ll be ready, but it’s not what I’m focusing on. My focus right now is on special teams.”
Off the field, Cooper’s life is also taking a big leap forward. He left Manitoba after his third year to turn pro, but he’s striving to finish his degree in Environmental Studies. He has just one class left.
He also recently got engaged.
“I admit, I never thought that when I was in high school that I would ever go to university and earn my degree. It was something I never cared about,” admitted Cooper.
“But I quickly realized in my first year that I had to make that choice if I wanted to play football, you either do the school, or you don’t.
“I ended up on the dean’s honour roll two straight years. I was so scared of failure, I just wanted to do well and succeed at everything I did.
“It’s very exciting to move on, and start living a normal life, living my dream playing football. I’m really excited about this new chapter and to be able to start it with someone.”