When the history of Santa Monica High sports is written, James Cooper, the quarterback on the 2001 CIF championship team, will rate a chapter.
“He’s a born leader,” recalls Norm Lacy, who coached the team. “You can count on him. Nobody gave me a better effort.”
At 5-foot-10, however, Cooper wasn’t coveted by college football teams who like their quarterbacks taller. So he went to Loyola Marymount University to concentrate on baseball.
Following three productive years as an LMU outfielder, Cooper was selected by the New York Yakees June 7 in the annual baseball draft. He was chosen in the ninth round, the 289th player, a remarkable accomplishment for someone who was better-known for another sport in his formative years.
Now Cooper must decide whether to sign or return to college for his senior season.
Most players drafted in the ninth or 10th round receive a $50,000 bonus. There’s also a strong possibility Cooper will ask the Yankees to pay for his senior collegiate year so he can earn his degree, a common practice among draftees.
Education is valued in the Cooper family. His father, Ray Cooper, didn’t earn a college degree after starring for Samohi in football and baseball in 1977. The elder Cooper feels strongly that his son should get a degree.
“Ray Cooper was an excellent tailback at Samohi,’’ recalls Lacy. “He’s been a security officer at Samohi for many years and a supportive parent. He’s instilled some excellent values in James and I’m sure earning a degree has been at the top of the list.’’
I covered the 2001 Vikings and developed my own admiration for James Cooper. He was the leader of a superb group of athletes who made the most of their senior season. Cooper had a powerful arm and threw to Charles Gordon, among others.
Gordon is now a star receiver at Kansas and has received some All-American mention prior to the upcoming season. Cooper and Gordon came up through youth sports programs in Santa Monica and, following the 2001 football season, both became starting outfielders on the Samohi baseball team.
“If James Cooper was 6-foot-2 he could have picked his college for football,’’ said Lacy. “He was that good and he loved the game. He never missed a workout and he absorbed everything a coach had to offer.’’
Ray Humphrey, an assistant on Lacy’s staff that season, is fond of Cooper too.
“He’s the kind of young man you want to coach,’’ said Humphrey. “There was no messing around on that team and he was the leader. They were a great group of athletes who had started as sophomores and juniors and learned what it takes. Smart, determined guys. They knew the senior season had to be theirs and it was.”
As a collegian Cooper quickly earned the trust of Loyola Marymount Coach Frank Cruz. He hit in the middle of the LMU lineup and struck out less than any regular player in the West Coast Conference, even coming back strong following knee surgery.
Ever willing to learn and improve, Cooper spent six weeks in Kansas last summer playing baseball and further developing his skills.
His junior season ended when Loyola lost a playoff to arch-rival Pepperdine two weeks ago. The three-game series was played at LMU and the Lions won the first game but lost the next two.
Before that, LMU won 14 of its last 16 games, the best regular season finishing stretch in school history.
In preparing for the draft, James met with representatives of numerous major league teams and did well in interviews.
The Yankees were impressed with his maturity. Sources indicate they decided to draft him after learning he is a truly good person in addition to being a fine athlete.
“He’s not the biggest guy or the fastest guy but he’ll work harder than others,’’ said Lacy. “He’ll make the most of what he can.’’
If Cooper doesn’t sign, he’ll play for LMU again next season. But he was drafted about where he expected after talking to various teams and often players in his category turn pro and begin gaining experience in the minor leagues.
Cooper joins a long line of former Samohi players who have gone on to succeed in baseball, but few achieved equal success in football, as he did.