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Originally published Monday, March 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Marquis Cooper: A one-of-a-kind loss

Marquis Cooper never fit the prototype. Not in his personality, not in his physique. Cooper was an unmistakable original.

Seattle Times NFL reporter

Marquis Cooper came from a city in the desert, but felt at home on the water.

He played linebacker at Washington, but wore No. 88, a tight end's number. He was a 6-foot-4, 200-pound safety in high school who built himself into an NFL linebacker.

Cooper never fit the prototype. Not in his personality, not in his physique.

"He just wasn't like your typical football player," said Greg Carothers, who entered Washington alongside Cooper.

Cooper was an unmistakable original. That was true when he first stepped his size-14 feet onto Washington's campus in 2000, and just as accurate when he drove his boat into the Gulf of Mexico nine days ago in pursuit of amberjack, a fish known as a strong-willed fighter. It was Cooper's favorite.

Cooper and two other passengers in his 21-foot boat have not returned. On Friday, Cooper's family halted its search off the Florida coast and said it intended to begin the healing process.

It's a one-of-a-kind loss. There won't be another one like Cooper coming around, an elite athlete whose profession was football and whose passion was fishing. He smiled more than he scowled and had the ability to laugh at almost anything, even himself. Cooper had big ears and long feet, which made him a sitting duck when it came to locker-room barbs, yet he remained the toughest target in the room.

"How do you make fun of someone that laughs at your joke?" asked Zach Tuiasosopo, another teammate. "But that was the greatest thing about Coop. That's just the way he was."

Cooper's first name was Victor, but he went by his middle name. He came from Arizona, where his father was a television sportscaster and where his grandfather had worked for more than 20 years in Arizona State's athletic department. But the Sun Devils didn't pursue Cooper that actively, so he ended up on the edge of the ocean — first at Washington, and later in Tampa Bay after he was drafted by the Buccaneers.

But buried beneath Cooper's easygoing personality was a steel-toed toughness. It's what got him on the field as a true freshman at Washington and probably one of the reasons he loved going after a hard-fighting fish most of all.

Cooper's workload

Washington's defense already had a pacemaker when Cooper arrived. His name was Anthony Kelley, a linebacker nicknamed AK 47 and known for his manic energy and constant effort.

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And sometime that first training camp, Kelley looked to his right and saw a long-legged freshman keeping pace with him.

"When Coop came, he was the one to challenge me," Kelley said. "He wasn't scared and he didn't back down."

That was clear before Cooper even enrolled at Washington in 2000. He was listed at 200 pounds when he was announced as a Huskies recruit in February. He flew to Seattle to attend the annual spring game that April, and defensive coordinator Nick Hundley laid out the possibilities.

If Cooper weighed 215 pounds when he showed up in the fall, he might not redshirt. If Cooper weighed 220, he definitely wouldn't.

"I don't want to redshirt," Cooper said.

Tom Ellsworth attended that spring game with Cooper. Ellsworth taught Cooper in junior high and later worked as his personal trainer. Adding weight was going to be a chore.

"We both knew that meant he had to work his fanny off," said Ellsworth.

That was never a problem. Not for Cooper. He was in the gym lifting weights the day after he graduated from high school.

"Every workout I ever gave him, he always finished," said Ellsworth, who now runs Next Level Physical Therapy. "He never quit."

Cooper played in every game as a true freshman, the year Washington went to the Rose Bowl. He blocked a punt on the road at Arizona State, recovering it for a touchdown only a few miles from where he grew up.

His grandfather, Joseph Davis, had a long history with the ASU athletic department. That meant Davis caught some strained looks when he was in the crowd wearing purple.

"I had Marquis' jersey, and I had to do some explaining," he said. "That's my grandson."

And Cooper was a player to be proud of for sure. He was small by linebacker standards, but he worked himself into an all-conference player who graduated in four years with a degree in sociology.

He was chosen in the third round of the NFL draft by the Bucs. How did he celebrate? By getting up the next morning and running wind sprints at Kiwanis Park, just down the street from his parents' house in Arizona.

Fish tales

It was a Thursday, and Marquis Cooper wore shorts, a floppy hat and T-shirt. The weather was so clear, Cooper's sunglasses reflected the water around him as he fished alongside Clay Eavenson near the shore.

Eavenson met Cooper earlier this year. Cooper's wife, Rebekah, had bought her husband a charter trip with Eavenson as a Christmas gift. They had gone out after speckled sea trout and quickly became friends. On Feb. 26, Eavenson invited Cooper out to go after a large school of redfish.

They were two athletes with a passion for fishing — Eavenson a minor-league baseball player from the Yankees organization, and Cooper the NFL player who'd been hooked on fishing for as long as he could remember.

Cooper's grandfather said it was an uncle that really got Marquis interested in fishing, and that went along with Cooper's interest in marine life. Ellsworth came to visit Cooper in Seattle, and they went to the aquarium where Cooper played the energetic tour guide.

"I know a little bit about biology," said Ellsworth, Cooper's junior-high teacher. "But he knew before we got to any of the displays."

The pair fished together as well on camping trips to Montana or places just outside of Seattle.

"He'd fish all day," Ellsworth said. "It didn't matter if it was biting. Everyone has different ways of relaxing, dealing with stress or whatever. His way of handling life was either being with his family or fishing."

And so two days after Cooper's trip with Eavenson, he returned to the water, this time headed toward deeper water with three other anglers. They boarded Cooper's 21-foot boat in pursuit of amberjack, which regularly weighs from 30 to 50 pounds. It was a challenge that matched the hard-nosed work ethic that was tucked behind Cooper's wide smile.

Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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