By Vince Agnew, Player Engagement Insider
Many boys grow up in Miami, Florida with the dream of suiting up in the NFL after watching some of the game’s past and present greats like Michael Irvin, Andre Johnson, Frank Gore and Antonio Brown rise from South Florida. However, in one of the country’s deepest talent pools, the heat of Miami’s tropical climate matches the level of competition.
Miami natives and childhood friends Johnny Holton and Amari Cooper began their journey together in the same neighborhood with the same dream. Though they now share a coveted commonality playing wide receiver for the Oakland Raiders, each decision and detour in their journey quickly led them in different directions before their paths would meet again.
Cooper and Holton spent nearly every day together as youths playing basketball and football, going to summer camps and on school field trips. They created a lot of great memories during those times and also saw many of the same struggles. Those experiences would spawn an unstoppable motivation and mutual respect between the two.
“Growing up I saw a lot of guys that had the same potential and talent that I had, but somewhere along the road they didn’t make the right decisions or do the right things,” Cooper said. “I feared not being successful.”
Cooper stated that the hardships he faced during his childhood toughened him and taught him perseverance in difficult situations. While attending Miami Northwestern High School in an embattled area of Miami-Dade County, Cooper grew his legend as one of the highest-rated recruits in the country. His size, intangibles and support from his family helped him to flourish and he accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Alabama.
Holton’s path was not so direct.
While Cooper was thriving, Holton attended Coconut Grove High School and did not play a single down of high school football. Instead, as one of 11 children in the house, he felt that there was a greater need to work during those years to help provide for his family and his grades took a hit as a result.
But the passion that he had for the sport and watching his friend experience a prolific career inspired a change in his direction. Holton’s grades were not ample enough to receive a high school diploma but he worked to obtain a GED instead.
During his uphill battle, Holton reconnected with the game that he had once forsaken in an unlikely way. While participating in a flag football tournament he captured the interest of a junior college scout and earned and offer to attend the College of DuPage in Illinois.
As Holton was beginning the next chapter as a walk-on student-athlete looking to uncork his ability, Cooper was making a major splash on one of the nations most dominate football programs and earning All-American honors.
Holton’s dedication was on display for two years at DuPage and he earned himself a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati. Set out on proving his gratitude for the chance and the abilities that he possessed, he quickly became a premier big-play threat leading the nation with a staggering 27.1 yards per catch. His senior season was cut short by injury but after just a year and a half of Division I football, Holton had done enough to gain the attention of some NFL scouts.
The forks in life’s roads led Cooper and Holton on different treks, but the resilient mindset that they share drew them together once again. Now the two Florida natives are not only living out a dream, but they are doing it together on the same NFL roster. Cooper was the fourth overall selection in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Raiders, while Holton was signed as an undrafted free agent by the club this season.
“I still can’t believe I’m in a NFL locker room and at that, playing with Coop, somebody that I grew up with,” Holton said. “It’s a blessing just to be here with the Raiders organization that’s doing a good job this year. It’s a blessing to be in this position. Coop and I just laugh about it and joke about our childhood.
“Seeing how I grew up, how rough it was, I’ve seen the struggle,” Holton went on to explain. “In junior college, you have to go buy your own cleats, your own gloves. By being on this level, they supply you with so much on and off the field. I can’t take it for granted. You can be here today and gone the next. I just wake up everyday ready to go get it and Amari is the same. You would think it’s his first day the way he comes to work ready to go.”
Sharing an achievement that is tangible for few, the appreciation that they have for one another is immense.
“We have a lot of respect for each other, only the top one percent makes it,” Cooper said. “I respect him so much more than he knows because when it takes you longer to get here, you have less of a chance of making it and he didn’t quit.”
Cooper was just named as an AFC Pro Bowl selection this season for the first time and Holton finished his rookie season appearing in all but one game for the playoff-bound Raiders.
It still feels unreal for the two wide receivers, having shared a childhood of memories to now creating new ones over 3,000 miles away from where they began. Cooper and Holton spent countless days playing ball at the park but neither of them then could have predicted that they would soon be doing it for a living. Their improbable rise as two friends cracking the same NFL roster will inspire more from their communities to keep dreaming even when the final coordinates do not seem to align.