Article written by Bruce Wood.
Don’t get the wrong idea. Brandon Cooper didn’t grow up the son of an oilfield roughneck in one of those desolate wind-blown West Texas towns playing six-man football before coming to the Ivy League.
But just because the Dartmouth football captain spent his formative years in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex the son of college graduates didn’t make being chosen the Homecoming speaker at an elite Ivy League school 1,800 miles from home any easier.
“My first reaction when they asked me?” he said with a laugh, repeating the question. “It was, ‘Oh man, public speaking.’ It’s something I never could have ever imagined when I was a freshman here.”
A 6-foot-1, 270-pound defensive end and pro hopeful, Cooper came to Dartmouth from South Grand Prairie High School in Grand Prairie, a city of about 175,000 a dozen or so miles west of Dallas and 15 minutes from Cowboys Stadium. As is the case with so many Ivy League athletes, he grew up in a household where education was important. Dad Bert was a guard on the Texas Wesleyan basketball team in the mid-1980s and mom, Cynthia, graduated from Illinois State and is a teacher at South Grand Prairie.
“My parents did not play around at all when it came to education,” said Cooper. “School always came first.”
As a captain of the South Grand Prairie Warriors, Cooper was named to the Texas 5A District 7 first team and chosen a Texas Prep Stars “Under the Radar” selection. A National Honor Society Member and first-team Texas High School Coaches Association Academic All-State selection, he drew wide-ranging recruiting interest, particularly from academic-oriented programs.
“I got my first offer my junior spring from Rice,” he said. “Outside of the Ivies, I had about 12 Division I offers. My Ivy League offers were Yale, Penn, Columbia and Dartmouth.
“After my senior year of football I narrowed my decision down to an Ivy League school. I was thinking more about my future and being guaranteed to go to school for all four years even if I got hurt or stopped playing. I was thinking about that and not the scholarship renewal from year-to-year.”
He took his first recruiting visit to Yale, “but the vibe wasn’t there.” The fit was better at Penn, where he was hosted by defensive end Brandon Copeland, who would go on to play in the NFL and is currently with the Detroit Lions.
“I really enjoyed that visit,” he said. “But they brought us up when the students weren’t on campus. I think it was a week before they got back and I didn’t really know what campus life was like.”
Although he liked what he saw in West Philadelphia, Cooper still had two recruiting trips planned including one a week later to far-off Hanover, N.H.
“Coach Hank (Cortez Hankton) was the recruiter back then and K-Lew (Kevin Lewis) was the D-line coach,” he recalled. “I really liked them when they came to visit my house. And I really enjoyed Coach T (Buddy Teevens). He made a lasting impression.
“I came up here on MLK weekend. Flo (Orimolade), Abrm (McQuarters) and (Joseph) Cook were on the same visit and I was vibing with them. My host was Ernest Evans, who’s from Houston, about 3 1/2 miles away from me. Dalyn (Williams) is from Dallas and (Jacob) Flores doesn’t live too far from me so there were people here I could relate to, and relate with.
“There was just a better sense of family and well-being here. I felt right at home. Everyone gelled. I liked the football program and the direction it was going.”
Cooper was scheduled to fly to the Big Apple a week after his Dartmouth visit to take a look at Columbia but instead canceled the trip.
“After I got back from Dartmouth I sat down with my family and said Dartmouth is where I want to go, where I want to be,” he said. “I told them I felt like it was the place where I could grow and be the best man I could be, and the best football player as well. I said I liked not only what I can bring to Dartmouth, but what Dartmouth can bring to me.”
As a freshman he played in six games, making five tackles including a 17-yard sack. He’ll readily admit that during those early days he was a lot more at home on the football field than in the classroom or his dormitory.
“The transition was a culture shock,” he said. “I came from a big high school with about 4,000 students who were predominantly black and Mexican. This was a small college with different demographics.
“I wasn’t sure how I would fit in but I knew when I got here that I had 120 guys to build a friendship with and bond with before anybody else came on campus. From that I began to branch out and meet new people, and got more comfortable with the atmosphere here.”
It took a little longer for him to get comfortable in the classroom.
“I came from a really good public school and there’s nothing wrong with their curriculum,” he said, “but obviously, when you come to an Ivy League school you are going to be behind the eight-ball on some things. It was hard catching up to the speed of classes, the quality of work that they expect from you, and the quarter system.”
Cooper said he “made some bad decisions” picking classes early in his academic career and that led to self-doubting.
“There were times when I wanted to quit,” he said. “You can ask the coaching staff. I came close but I stuck it out.”
Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens remembers that Cooper struggled at the outset of his college career, but marvels at how he adjusted to living half a country and a world apart from where he grew up.
“It was a big change for him,” the Big Green coach said. “As a younger guy I don’t think he appreciated what Dartmouth could do for him. It has been wonderful to see his confidence grow, his academic success and his interpersonal skill development grow.
“He got it after a while, but it is a radical change for a lot of people. Some aren’t strong enough to see it through. He’s one who did.”
Cooper finally settled in by the spring of his freshman year.
“I came in with expectations that Dartmouth was going to be a certain way for me and it wasn’t,” he said. “Instead I had to adjust, to the team, to the people who were here and to the surrounding.
“I had to learn to hone in and focus on what’s important without a lot of distraction. I had to grow and mature as a person and that changed what my definition of success was in life. I came to understand I could become a leader and communicate in different ways with different people.”
Perhaps the culmination of his journey from uncomfortable and disoriented freshman to confident and accomplished upperclassmen was his election as one of Dartmouth’s three captains last spring and the leadership he’s provided during a trying senior season.
“Everyone can lead when things are going well,” he said. “When you have a 9-1 championship season everything is good. What about this year, when things haven’t been on the up and up? When everything is looking hard?
“(Fellows captains) Flo, David (Morrison) and I had to keep our heads up and be that motivating force. We had to show the positive attitude that drives everyone, not only the young, but also the experienced guys.”
That has been a challenge but one that he’s been up to, just like the challenge the kid from Texas faced when he was asked about speaking in the glare of the spotlights illuminating Dartmouth Hall on the night before Harvard would come to town.
“I did a couple of speeches in high school but it wasn’t really my forte and nothing near this magnitude,” he said. “I knew that it was a blessing and an honor and I had to take advantage of the moment as one of the first African-Americans to give the Homecoming speech. I knew the words I spoke would resonate.”
He recalled sitting on the dais awaiting his turn to speak with the crowd building and the lighting of the bonfire waiting and thinking to himself how far his personal journey of discovery has taken him.
“I was the finale speech so I found myself thinking about how things were my freshman year,” he said. “I was thinking about how I’ve grown and matured. How I would never have seen myself in this position, but here I am.
“I couldn’t even tell you how many people were there but all eyes were on me and I knew they weren’t going to start the bonfire until I got done. That speech was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do in my life, but it was natural. It felt like I was supposed to be there in that moment to give that speech.”
Which his four-year journey from Texas proved he was.
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