By Lisa Zimmerman, Player Engagement Insider
Chris Cooley had a career plan: graduate college and then become a coach and art teacher. Things didn’t exactly go that way. Instead, for nine years, Cooley was a stand-out tight end/H-back for the Washington Redskins.
Art was always a vocation for Cooley. His father’s side of the family had many members who pursued a variety of artistic endeavors and from an early age, Cooley was drawn to it as well.
“Some of my favorite memories are sitting at my grandmother’s house painting and I had this little wood carving set. Then I went to high school in Logan Utah. Seminary is part of the high school, but I’m not Mormon so I didn’t have to go so, I took AP art instead. I loved it and I’ve also always loved sports.
As much as he loved sports, his NFL career was practically an accident. Playing for Utah State, and majoring in art education, Cooley had few aspirations to go to the next level thinking it wasn’t a realistic goal for him. But, during his junior year, midway through a game against Boise State, the starting tight end fumbled the ball. Annoyed, Cooley’s offensive coordinator grabbed him and said, “Cooley, you’re in.” And that, was that.
A good senior year, during which he led the NCAA with receptions by a tight end, put him on the map when the one scout who ventured to Utah State said to him, “I put a fifth-round grade on you, so agents are going to start calling.”
Cooley ended up being selected by Washington in the third-round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
In spite of a successful career in Washington, Cooley’s interest in art never waned. He continued to pursue it during his off time and after his third NFL season, he bought a pottery wheel. Things there almost stopped before they really got started.
“I tried hard and I spent three or four months [trying to make pottery], but I couldn’t do anything. So, I put it away painted a little bit. Then my dad came out and he’d done some pottery. And he asked me why the wheel was spinning the wrong way. Well,” Cooley said laughing, “there’s a switch underneath and we started it spinning it the other way and then I thought, “Oh, this is easy.”
In the meantime, Cooley’s football career progressed until 2012 when the two-time Pro Bowler saw the writing on the wall. He was coming off a season-ending knee injury in 2011 and knew he was going to be cut at the end of the year. So, he carved out time to start setting his new path. He had begun to plan for a future pottery studio and gallery, but, he knew he also wanted to stay connected to the team in some way.
Upon his retirement from the NFL, Cooley was hired as the color analyst for the Redskins radio broadcasts on ESPN 980 and also hosts his own four-hour show, which allowed him to stay with the only organization he had ever played and feels close ties to.
Now, four years since he last wore a uniform, Cooley has a thriving broadcast career and a thriving pottery gallery and studio. The Cooley Gallery represents about 30 artists and their work rotates being featured. Cooley always has his own work on display and sells about 2,000 pots each year. The gallery also offers classes to the public. In addition, the renovation of the building that the gallery is housed in, which was originally built in 1793, won an Architectural Design Award in Loudoun County, Virginia for restoration work Cooley has done.
Cooley, who warmed to the sport of football slowly at first, now credits it with helping him become the man he is today.
“Football provided so many incredible opportunities,” he said. “And what it provided the most for me was it allowed me to be me. Football allowed me to have confidence in myself everywhere. I don’t care what anyone expects of me I’ve always been able to just be me. Through college I was really introverted. Football has allowed me to do everything I like to do. I wake up excited to do something I like to do every day.”
Lisa Zimmerman is a long-time NFL writer and reporter. She was the Jets correspondent for CBSSports.com, SportsNet New York’s TheJetsBlog.com and Sirius NFL Radio. She has also written for NFL.com.