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There is more to missing former Buccaneers than football

March 3, 2009

Dear Delaney,

Perhaps you are too young to understand the sadness that surrounds you. Certainly, at the age of 3, you are too young to read a letter from a stranger with good intentions.

When you are older, however, there will come a time when you will attempt to make sense of the most difficult day of your young life. An unimaginable pain will tug at you, and you will find yourself gazing across the water and wondering about the man it took away from you.

Someday, Delaney, you will search for clues to tell you about the father it seems you lost too soon.

Someday, Delaney, you will want to know everything you can find out about the man who was Marquis Cooper.

As a community, Tampa Bay is struggling to maintain its hope while bracing for itself for bad news. We share your pain, Delaney. Those of your father still take care to speak in present-tense.

He was a good man. Even those who think a bad ending is inevitable say that. Coop, they called him. Quis, sometimes. He was quiet, and he could be hard to get to know, but he was a solid man and a good teammate. You could count on Coop.

For that matter, Delaney, you could count on Corey Smith, your father's friend and old teammate with the Tampa Bay Bucs. Maybe that's what drew them together, Delaney. They were not stars, and they were not celebrities. But the people they played with liked them and respected them. There are worse ways to be remembered.

"We grade people on character every day,'' said Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, "And both of these guys were A's.''

On a day like this, Delaney, it is easy to realize that the size of celebrity is not the measure of tragedy. Sometimes, adults forget that. But when your father and Smith (along with Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler) disappeared on a fishing trip, it touched us all. It made them a part of us in a way that football never did.

"They weren't the main players,'' said linebacker Ryan Nece, who played with them in Tampa Bay. "They weren't the guys you see on the billboard. But guys like them are essential to a team. They do everything you ask. A handful of guys get the headlines, but this league is made up of players like Marquis and Corey.''

As a football player, Cooper faced a constant fight to keep enough weight on his frame. He could run — which is why the Bucs drafted him in the third round in 2004 — but the bulk of his career was spent on special teams as he bounced from the Bucs to the Vikings to the Steelers to the Seahawks to the Raiders.

Smith's fight was against the odds. He was an undrafted free agent, but he had a knack for rushing the passer, and former Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli fell in love with his worth ethic. He took Smith from Tampa to Detroit with him.

"You remember what kind of team we had in 2002?'' Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "Corey Smith was probably our 14th defensive lineman going into camp, and he made that team. We had a couple of Hall of Famers, in my mind. That's the kind of guy he was. Every year, you would think, 'I don't see how Corey's going to make it this year,' and every year, he would make your team.''

Over the years, Nece said he saw a change in Cooper from a fun-loving guy to a family man. That's where you came in, Delaney.

Nece can tell you stories. He and your father used to play pranks on each other. Once, Nece drove all the way home, weary from practice, and found that he could not get in his house. Your father had taken his key off of his key ring.

A few days later, your father came out to his car, and it was gone. Before practice, Nece had taken his keys, run to the parking lot and moved it to a nearby garage.

Yeah, Coop was quiet. But Coop enjoyed himself, too.

When he really wanted to have fun, as you have probably heard, Cooper wanted to be on the water. He had grown up in Arizona, one of those kids who collects insects and loved to fish. He went to the University of Washington largely because of the water, and he loved Tampa for the same reason.

Who knows what you will think of the water? But understand this: It gave your father joy, and it gave him peace. Nece used to tease him that he liked fishing better than football.

Back when he played here, Coop would be in the training room of the Bucs, and teammate Dave Moore would stop by. Soon enough, the two of them were talking about the water the way golfers talk about courses.

"It's the curiosity of the unknown,'' Moore says. "You never know what you're going to see, and you're never sure what you're going to catch. It's the thrill of the chase.

"People don't realize how dangerous it can be. It can be as calm as a pond, and an hour later, you can have 15-foot waves.''

Grief travels in waves, too, Delaney. You will find that you miss your father at the oddest of times. On your birthday. When your friends are talking about a father and daughter dance. When you suddenly feel empty.

What should you remember? Remember that people trusted him. Remember that people liked him. Remember that Nece referred to him as a man with a great spirit.

"You don't want this to happen to anybody,'' Barry said. "But this league needs people like Corey and Coop. They're the good people.''

That's what you need to know, Delaney. It won't always ease the pain, and it certainly will not replace the man.

He was admired. He was liked. And he loved his family.

When you look upon the water, perhaps that is what you should try to see.

There is more to missing former Buccaneers than football 03/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 3, 2009 11:34am]
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