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Friday, August 10, 2012 - Page updated at 09:00 p.m.

Steve Kelley
Huskies baffled, saddened by Cooper's latest injury

By Steve Kelley
Seattle Times staff columnist

The drill was one of those necessary evils in the long, slow march to the start of the season. A ball exchange between the quarterback and his running back, as innocent as a layup line.

Deontae Cooper wasn't hit. He didn't fall. He made a cut against air, then hobbled slightly, favoring his right leg and told the coaches, "I think I tweaked my calf."

If only that self-diagnosis had been accurate. If only Cooper, a freshman back who already has had two ACL surgeries on his left knee, was sidelined for a down, or a day, something reasonable for a kid who already has gone through so much.

But after practice Wednesday, two days after he suffered the injury, it was announced that Cooper had torn his right ACL.

He needs surgery. Again. He will miss the season. Again. And, once again, his future as a football player is jeopardized.

"This isn't how karma is supposed to work," his friend, tight end Michael Hartvigson, said Thursday.

For Cooper, the unfair squall of misfortune continues to follow him. This is the inexplicable heartbreak of sports and the sadness it engendered was obvious in the words and on the faces of his coaches.

"It's extremely difficult. It kind of left me dismayed for a little bit," Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. "I was almost baffled by it. How could this happen again? This time, on a good knee, with nobody around, nothing."

Cooper was back at practice Thursday, without crutches, walking the sidelines with his teammates.

"To Deontae's credit, he's just an absolute stud about it," Sarkisian said. "He was obviously shook up, like anybody would be. But you see that guy's will inside and why he's so unique and special and why people love him so much, because he's back out again today and (saying), 'Coach, I'll be back.' If anybody can make it back it's that guy. He's just a great soul. He'll battle again. I believe it."

Cooper first injured his left knee in August of 2010 on a tackle during a scrimmage. He reinjured it in a non-contact drill last summer.

"I've never seen this before," Sarkisian said. "I've never seen three (ACL tears). We've got some great kids, some tough kids on this team, but I don't know if there's anybody who will handle it better than Deontae will."

During both rehabs, Cooper surrendered his body to the strength and conditioning coaches and training staff. Every time his coaches checked the reports, the signs were positive. Cooper did everything he was asked.

"He busted his butt," running backs coach Joel Thomas said. "That's how disheartening this is, because we know how hard he's worked to get back to this point every single year."

This summer he finally got his body back. He was back on the field for the opening day of camp and his smile was unquenchable. He was buoyant, the way he always is. He told reporters that if he had five more ACL tears, he still would come back and play football five more times.

"He's the light on the darkest days," Thomas said.

Every day of his rehabilitation, Cooper's teammates watched him fight. They were in the weight room with him. They saw him push past reasonable limits to get healthy and get back.

"He always has a great attitude, whether it's on the field or in the weight room," Hartvigson said. "I love Deontae to death and this has been real tough for me. I think it's been real tough for the whole team, the whole Husky Nation."

Through all of his disappointments, Cooper never has been a "Why me?" kid.

"He's a super positive kid. Even on the days when I might be down, you can't help but smile when you're around him," Thomas said. "When we recruited him, there wasn't one person who said a bad word about Deontae. People would go out of their way to brag about him. They wanted to be a part of him. He's one of the highest-character kids I've ever coached.

"This is a process and obviously he knows how to go through it now. He's not going to ask why. He's going to ask what can I do? Hopefully it will pay off in the long run."

And, once again, we will root for his return.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

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