For the Philadelphia Eagles, necessity has become the mother of re-invention.
Less than a week after his racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert in June was caught on video and went viral, receiver Riley Cooper was back at practice at the team’s NovaCare Complex. He had been excused from all team activities to undergo counseling, and there was some thought around the country that he’d seen his last days in Philadelphia, but that was not the case. Cooper arrived early Tuesday morning, met with team officials, and hit the field. He caught two long touchdowns, according to reports, but the win for Cooper had to be the fact that he made it through an NFL practice at all.
After practice, Cooper and head coach Chip Kelly addressed the media, and Kelly talked about the ramifications of the decision to bring Cooper back, despite his use of a word that certainly affected most everyone on the team, regardless of their particular pigmentation.
“My concern wasn't how he practiced, it's just him with the team itself and get the chance to make sure he got to talk to every single guy so that they understand how we felt, what he did, and understand that he's truly sorry for what he did,” Kelly told the media. “We'll look at the film and correct all those other things, but that wasn't my concern.”
Cooper was already set to replace Jeremy Maclin as the Eagles’ deep seam target opposite DeSean Jackson – he was gifted that opportunity when Jeremy Maclin went down for the season with a torn ACL in late July. And as Cooper was back on the field, receiver Arrelious Benn suffered his own ACL tear, leaving Kelly’s offense in more desperate need of targets for his yet-to-be-determined starting quarterback than before. Benn's injury happened just two days after Kelly want out of his way to praise what he's seen from the three year veteran, who had spent his entire NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"He's had some injuries in his career, but our thought isn't if he's clear and ready to go like he was today in practice," Kelly said on Sunday. "I was actually pleasantly surprised because of the time away, sometimes there is an ease-back-in factor, I didn't see that from him. I've got to obviously look at the film, but I thought he looked pretty good. At this point in the time, he's been in the league for a while, he's an experienced player, so what can we use him for? Right now, with his size, his ability to play special teams, he can bring a lot to the table. So, really happy that we had a chance to get him back out there today."
Given Benn's injury, Cooper, who understands that offense far more than he seems to understand the effects of his words, became a virtual lock to stick on the roster, as long as his presence didn’t tear a fault through the whole thing.
"I talked to everyone individually,” Cooper said, when asked what he communicated to his teammates. “I told them, 'I don't want you to forgive me because that puts the burden on you.' I want it all on me. I told them that and I told them I apologize. They could tell it's from the heart. They know I'm not that type of person. It feels good to have support from the guys."
He certainly seems to at this point. Cooper referred to the chest-bump he had with receiver Jason Avant after one of his touchdowns in practice, and Kelly had already met with several team leaders to take their temperature on how Cooper’s return would affect them.
“We've got a pretty good pulse on where we are right now,” Kelly said. “Our players have been fantastic with us in terms of feedback, so it's really certainly a situation that, as I said, this isn't something that we just kind of put in the back seat and get moving forward. We'll make sure we keep our eyes and ears open, and continue to monitor the situation.”
Neither Kelly nor Cooper went into detail about the kind of counseling he received – Kelly deferred the question, and Cooper said that he’d discussed the debacle with his family. Now, it’s about Cooper finding ways to make amends.
“I realize how many people I've hurt, how many families I've hurt, how many kids I've hurt. That's what we talked about, the severity of it. I completely realize that and I take full responsibility for it."
Cooper also understands that this will never really go away. When you utter a word that toxic in anger, and you’re a public figure, it’s going to stick.
"It's brutal, but that's reality. It's going to be with me every day and I'm going to think about it every day. I know I will. When I had to talk to the team the day everything came out, it was extremely emotional. It was the hardest thing I've ever done, talk to my boys and talk to my teammates and tell them what I did and how I let them down.
“Yes, this is the most emotional thing I've ever been through."
In a way, it's encouraging that the Eagles found a way to bring Cooper back into the fold. It would have been the easy way out for the coaches and players to distance themselves from what he did, and nobody would have faulted them for it. But there seems to be a concerted effort to make Cooper understand how he needs to re-examine his life, at least regarding the racial issue. On Tuesday’s Dan Patrick Show, Tony Dungy said that he considered Cooper’s remark to be more an issue of alcohol than of racism, and that was an interesting point. Cooper did not go into details when asked if he has sought counseling for any alcohol-related issues.
"We didn't really touch on that, but I'm not going to get into all that we talked about,” he said. “I'm just going to try to move forward and hopefully people judge me from here on out."
Well, Riley Cooper has one of the most interesting “from here on out” chapters in recent NFL history. He has a chance to become a truly redemptive story, or he can continue to negatively affect himself those around him with ridiculous behavior. We’ll see which path he takes.