The NFL's newest mini-millionaire isn't quite adjusted to that reality yet, but it'll be an easier adjustment than the one he made four years ago.
At that time, Stephen Cooper seemed anything but the future NFL starting linebacker he's about to become. An undrafted free agent out of the University of Maine, Cooper was a long shot to ever spend a day as a real San Diego Charger. Being a star in the Atlantic 10 does not bring with it the same entree to the NFL as being a star in the Big Ten. But what he possessed turned out to be better than a reputation.
What Cooper had going was talent, faith, and, most important, blinders. The Wareham-born former Globe All-Scholastic suddenly was in the most difficult of positions for a young athlete used to success. He was so far down the depth chart it would have taken a submarine to reach him.
Cooper did the only thing he could to survive in such a circumstance. He ignored it. He worried only about making a play today, knowing his assignment today. Tomorrow would take care of itself.
``I knew I had to focus on special teams," said Cooper, who last week signed a five-year, $15 million extension that ensured he would not become a free agent next season, when he's expected to become a full-time starter instead of sharing the position with veteran Randall Godfrey.
``From Pee-Wee football through high school and college, I was always kind of The Man. Now I had to take a step back and earn my stripes. That first year, I was in awe, really. I was playing with LaDainian Tomlinson and Doug Flutie, guys I used to watch on television. I understood I had to work from the bottom up, but I tried not to think about it."
Instead, he thought about his job, which was to run wild-eyed downfield blowing up kick returners, trying to prove he had enough skill to do in the NFL what he'd once done in the A-10, where he was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. Among those most helpful in that transition was Chargers linebacker coach Greg Manusky, a guy who knew the kind of jump Cooper was attempting because he'd made it himself, from Division 1-AA Colgate.
Manusky spent 12 years in the NFL rumbling downfield to make the kind of tackles that hurt your own neck as much as the recipient's. For six years, he led or tied for the team lead in special teams tackles in Kansas City. Manusky watched closely that first summer and saw in Cooper the same resilience he'd had.
``I was comfortable with Coach Manusky," Cooper said. ``He was from a 1-AA school so he knew what I was going through. We both knew I had to focus on special teams until I got a chance."
Chargers scout Mike Biehl had targeted Cooper as a player with potential. When it went unrecognized in the 2003 draft, he urged the team to make a run at Cooper.
``We pegged him as someone we'd go after as a free agent before the draft started, so he was one of the first guys we contacted," Biehl said. ``We needed a lot of help at a lot of positions and he saw the opportunity and took it.
``Coop came in and was physical from Day 1. He caught people's eye. He was blowing people up as a pass rusher. I can't say I thought he'd be a starter but I knew he could be a quality backup with a chance because of his work habits. He's kind of made himself what he is."
What he is, after moving from special teams demon to part-time relief for Godfrey, is a 3-4 inside linebacker who has flourished since the arrival of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips three years ago. It was then that San Diego transitioned from the 4-3 into a defense that seemed almost immediately suited for a guy still searching for his place.
``In the 4-3, I felt confused," Cooper said. ``Coach Phillips made it easier for me to do my job and he gave me opportunities to fill in for Randall and Donnie Edwards when they got hurt."
The past two years, Cooper has grown from a player on the fringe to a player on the cusp -- on the cusp of living a dream.
``Honestly, I can't even explain how I felt when we signed that contract," said Cooper, who was the first in his family to attend college. ``I know starting is right around the corner for me. It's exciting.
``As a kid I thought of professional athletes as the coolest guys. Who wouldn't want to be Michael Jordan or Walter Payton? But this is not a situation I ever thought I'd be in. People think we're different from everybody else because we're athletes, but we're not. I'm the same guy I was growing up."
The difference is, instead of playing basketball at Onset Beach, now he can afford a house there.
Offers, and messages, received
It became fashionable for some Patriots toadies in and out of the media to attack not Deion Branch but his agent, Jason Chayut, since Branch's summer-long holdout began, but Chayut proved his point Friday. He was right all along when he said the Patriots were lowballing his client.
The Patriots' plan to make a public display of challenging Chayut to find Branch a better offer exploded in their faces when he came back with not one but two far in excess of what New England said it was willing to pay. Of course, many of the Patriots sympathizers continued to say this only meant Branch would be overpaid, a charge that now extends to at least five of the league's 32 teams since they either hired wide receivers in the offseason, re-signed their own, or were willing to pay Branch what he felt was fair.
New England put itself in the worst of positions by letting Branch test the market because once he got multiple offers acceptable to him, it became a bit difficult to argue that he's wrong and they're right.
Just as significant is that no one in the Patriots locker room feels Branch deserves to be treated this way. ``How does he come back now?" one of Branch's teammates said. ``Only if they pay him the money."
The Patriots can, of course, continue to run their business however they like. They can continue to treat their employees the way they do and end up with ones like David Givens and Adam Vinatieri refusing to even return last-second phone calls from Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli before they leave. Or they can create situations like the one with tight end Daniel Graham, who is set to become a free agent next season and has already told friends, ``They got one chance to bid on me. Then I'm gone."
What has gone on with Branch was a serious miscalculation. More important, as one of Branch's teammates said last week, ``If this is how they treat a guy who's everything they say they want, what are they going to do to the rest of us?"
Steroid case shows that testing policy needs more muscle
The issue of undetected steroid and human growth hormone use in the NFL reared its ugly head again in Charlotte despite the league's best efforts to convince the public that its giants are all products of weightlifting, good genes, and a great diet.
According to court documents obtained by the Charlotte Observer, Rams offensive tackle Todd Steussie received illegal steroids on multiple occasions as both a Panther and a Buccaneer from convicted steroid dealer Dr. James Shortt. The documents detailed seven instances in which Steussie received prescriptions for items such as testosterone cream or human growth hormone; he had three prescriptions for testosterone cream from Shortt between March 1, 2003, and March 16, 2004, with each prescription renewable five times.
``This wasn't just a passing flirtation with these prohibited substances," Dr. Gary Wadler told the Observer. ``When I see [prescriptions] renewed five times, I say, `What are you trying to accomplish?' " Wadler is a steroids expert who reviewed the medical records for the US Attorney's office.
Three of the five starting offensive linemen for the Panthers' 2003 Super Bowl team were cited as obtaining steroid prescriptions from Shortt. According to medical records obtained by the Observer, Steussie and former Panther Louis Williams were given prescriptions for a total of five banned substances little more than a week before Carolina appeared in Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Patriots.
The 35-year-old Steussie hasn't been a full-time starter in the NFL since 2003 and was released by the Buccaneers last March after two seasons in Tampa Bay. He signed a one-year deal with the Rams this offseason and is a backup.
Shortt was sentenced last month to one year and one day in prison after pleading guilty to illegally distributing steroids and HGH. None of the users has been prosecuted, however. And the NFL's supposedly model testing program never caught one of the steroid users on the Panthers' offensive line.
Under pressure following Shortt's arrest, the league and the Players Association agreed to enhanced testing, but it has thus far netted few abusers.
Does anyone believe it was only these Panthers linemen (not to mention their punter) using performance-enhancing drugs while everyone else in football was clean?
Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.