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View from the O-Zone: Opportunity earned


JACKSONVILLE – He hasn't made it yet. At least not all the way.

But you don't have to make it all the way to be a success story. Sometimes, making it to where you have a chance to make another step is success.

Desmond Cooper's priority absolutely, positively is making the next step.

But the Jaguars' rookie safety has been through enough that he can appreciate beginnings, too.

"My position coach at UNC-Charlotte always told me, 'If they open that door even a little bit for you, just kick that thing down,''' Cooper said Monday. "That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to bust it wide open and see where things end up."

Cooper, who played his last two collegiate seasons at North Carolina-Charlotte, made his first dent in the rock-solid door that is making an NFL roster this past weekend. Invited to the Jaguars' 2015 rookie minicamp as a tryout player, Cooper on Monday was signed to the 90-player offseason roster.

That doesn't guarantee Cooper a spot on the 53-man roster come fall.

But it puts him a heck of a lot closer to that dream than he was a week ago.

"I couldn't put it into words for you," he said. "I thought about crying. I thought about jumping up for joy. At the same time, I realize I haven't truly made it, so I had to bring myself back down to earth and realize it's time to keep working."

There are several reasons for this story.

One is simply that Cooper is still here. The Jaguars brought 27 tryout players to minicamp; five signed to the 90-man roster. A chance to compete another day is always a good story.

Another is that Cooper went to The Bolles School in Jacksonville, which makes him the only local angle among the five signed tryout players, a list that also included defensive tackle Richard Ash, defensive end Cap Capi, wide receiver/punt returner Kasey Closs and offensive lineman Jack Rummells.

"To come home and play for the hometown team – it's a dream come true, actually," Cooper said.

Still another reason is when it comes to realizing the NFL dream, Cooper appears to have a legitimate chance. To make the practice squad? To stick in the league? To make the Jaguars? Those would be three positive endings to this story, and Cooper has the size and athleticism at a position – safety – that is becoming hard to find in the NFL.

So, while the odds of a tryout guy making an impact are long, Cooper's odds are perhaps a bit shorter than most.

And here's something else about Cooper:

There was a time, not so long ago – a couple of years after he signed with Wake Forest University out of Bolles – that not only wasn't he thinking much about the NFL, he wasn't thrilled with football at all.

"I had lost the love for the game," he said. "I was like, 'Man, don't think I want to do this.'''

Cooper, after playing 11 games as a redshirt freshman, decided to leave Wake Forest. He was unhappy with his playing time and unsure if he wanted to focus on academics or continue playing football. His decision was swayed by a phone call from his Wake Forest position coach, Brad Lambert, who had received the job as the first head football coach at UNC-Charlotte.

Cooper joined Lambert at UNC-Charlotte and spent his redshirt sophomore season practicing with the 49ers, who at that point were a start-up program preparing for their first season the following season.

"The whole year, all we did was practice against each other," Cooper said.

Practicing during the week and watching other teams play games on the weekends was the negative of that year for Cooper. The positive was that not playing on Saturdays "makes you really hungry to get back out on that field," and by his junior year, Cooper rediscovered his desire and passion for the sport.

"It gave me a better edge and a better to push to get better," he said. "It made me love the game again, because I saw the hard work and everything you had to put into it. …"

What is Cooper's future with the Jaguars and in the NFL?

Unknown and uphill. That's the most realistic way to describe it. A free-agent rookie is a long shot to make a roster; a tryout guy by definition is longer still. Still, considering his road, it's not surprising that he's undaunted by what's next, daunting though what's next may seem.

"Being the underdog is always a fun thing for me," he said. "No one knew UNC-Charlotte. No one from the school had ever signed an NFL contract. I knew it had never happened."

And hearing "never happened" never bothered him?

"Not really," he said, smiling.

Still, whatever the future, Cooper achieved one goal this past weekend. Not only does he love the game again, he earned the chance to earn the chance to keep playing it.

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