Former University of Washington running back Deontae Cooper is back on the sideline. Not with a brace around his knee, but with a whistle around his neck. And his ever-present ear-to-ear grin.
With his playing days behind him, he found himself standing on the sideline again at Bellevue High School, reunited as an assistant coach with his good friend and former Husky teammate, head coach Michael Kneip.
As Bellevue was beginning to trend upward, the then running-backs coach looked in the mirror and said to himself, "Deontae, you have to challenge yourself."
Chris Petersen, one of his former UW coaches, often stated that in order to succeed, one needs to step out of his or her comfort zone.
So Cooper left talent-rich Bellevue for Highline High School in suburban south Seattle.
"There's a lot of talent in this area, too," he said. "It's my job to get the most out of them."
The new Highline coach knows a highly skilled player when he sees one -- he was one. Coming out of high school, he was rated as the 15th-best running back in the nation in the 2010 recruiting class and signed by then Husky coach Steve Sarkisian.
However, between 2010 and 2012, Cooper sustained three ACL tears and didn't see his first college snap until he was months away from receiving his bachelor's degree.
Twenty miles south of the UW, during that same time period, Highline won a total of 5 games.
As a senior, Cooper was able to strap on a helmet and see his first action against his future head coach, Petersen and his Boise State Broncos.
After three seasons with the Huskies and one with the San Jose Spartans, Cooper earned an NFL tryout with the Oakland Raiders.
"I've been to the highest level; I know what it takes to get there," he said. "I have some great kids here who I can teach what it takes physically and academically."
With his three injury-laden years, Cooper absorbed the offensive coaching done by Steve Sarkisian.
"I learned offensive schemes from Sarkisian, one of the great offensive minds out there," he said.
In 2014, Petersen took over and Cooper saw a different approach to the business of coaching.
"I learned the CEO side from Chris Petersen, of how to be an effective administrator," Cooper said. "That knowledge has helped me in so many ways."
Cooper fused those two different methods of leadership with his signature smile and success came quick.
In his first year as a coach, Highline won its district for the first time since the turn of the century. In the 2021 pandemic-shortened season, the Pirates finished with 2-2 mark.
To outsiders, Cooper's success will be measured on wins and losses, but he's a stickler for having his players compete academically, as well.
And he loves it when a Highline player such as running back Marquan McCraney sent him a screenshot of his report card.
"The message said, 'See coach, all A's,' and that's what it's all about right there," Cooper said.
This coach is all about breaking the cycle of hopelessness for Highline's inner-city youth. Highline has had its share of top athletes transfer away for the exposure that some of the area's private schools offer. Cooper wants them to stay put.
The subject of an intense recruiting battle himself in 2009, Cooper knows that as he begins to build the Pirates into a perennial contender he has to demonstrate that Highline has as much to offer as a private school in academics and scholarships.
Cooper took the job with his eyes and his heart wide open. In nine seasons between 2010 and 2018, Highline won 11 football games. He's transformed a program that once struggled to score double-digits in games into one averaging 50 points an outing in district games and advancing to the playoffs.
Being so close in age to his players Cooper shares a unique bond with his players.
"We're all pretty much from the same musical era so we like the same kind of music," he said.
At Highline, Cooper's coaching approach based on Sarkisian and Petersen principles is working out well. Players such as McCraney are drawn to his cheerful personality over a coach that might yell all of the time.
"I don't want to look over and not see the smile on his face," McCraney said. "I make sure that I'm giving my best effort all of the time for coach."
When the nation's 189th-best college football prospect signed with Washington more than a decade ago, people thought he would be in the NFL now.
Yet coaching suits him. He sees opportunity at the Burien school where others previously found only despair.
"I love it here," he said with another smile. "This is where I am supposed to be."