Training Camp | 2021

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Helman: Amari Cooper & Perception vs. Reality

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FRISCO, Texas – From the first time I got the chance to talk to Amari Cooper, I've found him extremely relatable.

On the surface that feels like one of the stupidest sentences I've ever written.

Amari Cooper is one of the best football players walking this planet, a star receiver who has excelled at every level he's reached. He was a college All-American and a national champion and a Top 10 NFL draft pick. He's currently a four-time Pro Bowler playing on a $100 million contract.

My athletic ability peaked sometime around age 11, I live in constant fear of over-drafting my bank account and I was proud of myself for sneaking in 30 minutes on the elliptical machine before I left for work this morning.

And yet, there's something that really resonates with me about the Cowboys' most established receiver, whose calm and quiet demeanor doesn't exactly match the mental image we associate with a No. 1 wide out.

This was all thrown into focus on Tuesday afternoon, when Cooper met with the media on the loading dock of the Cowboys' indoor practice facility – a surreal twist in a time when COVID-19 protocols have forced us to look for spacious, outdoor places to congregate.

It was there that Cooper, his voice barely audible over the loud beeps and bumps of loading dock life, got into a discussion about personality types, emotion and his reputation as a quiet player.

"That's just my personality. I can't change that," Cooper said. "I used to be real shy, like in middle school. I'm not as shy. I'm still introverted, but I wouldn't say shy."

That reserved demeanor has been a talking point since Cooper was traded to Dallas midway through the 2018 season. In an organization that's famous for bombastic and braggadocious characters, Cooper tends to stand out for the opposite reason.

From his highest highs to his lowest lows, Cooper tends to operate at the same level. He's not one to throw a tantrum about anything -- and as he said on Tuesday, he's not much of a trash talker. It's something that pushed him into the news cycle last season, when Philadelphia defensive end Brandon Graham said Cooper looked checked out during the Cowboys' 23-9 loss to the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in November.

"It was just so funny, because he did say something to me when they were winning," Cooper said ."He was chirping, and I just looked at him and I walked back to the huddle – which is what I usually do if somebody is talking trash. I don't really get into that, I just play.

"But because we were losing and because Dak was hurt and because they were winning, he felt like 'Oh, I talked trash to him and he didn't say anything, he just walked back to the huddle. He must be out of it.'"

In reality, that's just Cooper. Arguably his most memorable moment as a Cowboy came in December 2018, when he torched Graham's Eagles for 217 yards in an overtime win, a placid expression on his face the whole time.

It doesn't appear the irony is lost on him.

"I think since I've been here, I may have lost once or twice to Philly," Cooper said. "We've beat them more than they've beat us, and I've had big games against them, but because we were winning there was no trash talk like that coming from him or anybody from his side. But if there was, I wouldn't have said anything, then."

I'll never know how it feels to walk off against a division rival, but this is something I can relate to on a deep level – the silly notion that your outward appearance directly correlates to your inner drive.

It's not a perfect comparison. I don't think many people would call me quiet, and I'm not so sure I'm an introvert. I'm a loudmouth who makes a living sharing my opinion about the Dallas Cowboys.

Any public-facing job comes with some share of scrutiny, though. And for as long as I can remember, I've fought against the notion that I'm lazy or uninterested, mainly because I prefer not to wear my emotions on my sleeve.

It can be a blessing and a curse. In a high-pressure, deadline-driven job, I value the fact that I'm not easy to rattle or anger. In my day-to-day life, though, I can't say I appreciate when people question my commitment – or worse, take advantage of my laid back demeanor. It can be tough to grapple with whether your approach to things is the correct one.

Obviously, the conversation multiplies by a few factors for someone in Cooper's position – and someone in his tax bracket. He has often been a flashpoint for criticism when he has seemed to be disengaged. Questions about Cooper's love for the game have been plentiful, especially during the days when he was angling for that new contract.

The most notable example was the Cowboys' 24-22 loss to the New York Jets in 2019, when he left the game after just three snaps.

Talking about that Tuesday, a full two years later, Cooper noted that he sustained an intense thigh bruise the week before in a loss to Green Bay – only to be tackled in the same spot just two plays into that Jets loss.

"My adrenaline was running in the Green Bay game, but then that next day, I couldn't even walk," he said. "I barely was able to get here … It just didn't heal up enough in time, and I still tried to play."

That gets lost in the shuffle, though – mainly because people were bothered that Cooper didn't look upset about losing to the lowly Jets.

There's a level of irony there, as well. Because this team is only a few years removed from the opposite personality type in Dez Bryant. And as infectious and fun as Bryant's passion was, it also manifested itself in the shape of sideline screaming matches and weeklong news cycles about whether Dez was a distraction.

As much criticism as Cooper might get for seeming to lack passion, he easily recognizes that it'd be a similar story if he tried the other approach.

"It's the same way if you're outspoken and you're loud," he said. "If things are going well, there's nothing really said. But if things are going bad, they're going to blame him, like a distraction type of thing."

As is often the case when someone is paid $20 million per year, Amari Cooper seems to be damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. To his credit, he doesn't seem to be sweating it too much.

"You can only be yourself," he said.

That can be a lot easier said than done, especially in a time when we all live with more external feedback than ever before. As someone who's still working toward that goal, I appreciate it that much more.

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