Riley Cooper rejoined the Eagles on Tuesday afternoon, caught a couple long touchdowns against the Patriots in his first practice in five days and said the shame he feels for lobbing a racial slur at an African-American security guard during a recent concert will stay with him forever. “I’m going to live with this every day for the rest of my life,” Cooper said. “It’s brutal, but that’s reality, and it’s going to be with me every day. I’m going to think about it every day. I know I will.”
Video of Cooper directing a racial slur at a security guard during a Kenny Chesney concert in June at the Linc surfaced last Wednesday. Cooper, a 25-year-old wide receiver in his fourth year with the Eagles, apologized that evening and practiced with the Eagles the next day before going on a four-day leave of absence by mutual agreement between himself and head coach Chip Kelly.
He rejoined the team Tuesday and said he has spoken with everybody on the roster since last week, assuring each individually face-to-face that he’s truly sorry for what he said, that it will never happen again and that it doesn’t represent who he truly is. He also said he believes that all his teammates accepted his apology (and it appears they have - see story).
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, to talk to my boys and talk to my teammates and tell them what I did and how I let them down,” Cooper said. “It’s the most emotional thing I’ve ever been through.” Cooper was asked what his message was when he met individually with all his teammates.
He paused for a moment before he answered. “I told them, ‘I don’t want you to forgive me because that puts the burden on you. I want it all on me,’” he said. “I told them that, and I told them I apologize, and 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.”
Cooper declined to get into the specifics of the counseling he received. He did say alcohol counseling was not part of it. He has said he had been drinking when the incident was caught on video. Cooper said there were no incidents during practice Tuesday with the Patriots – nobody said anything to him or took any shots at him. Nothing out of the ordinary. “Everyone was great,” he said. “Everyone was great.”
But he’s aware that it will happen at some point, and he knows he has to keep his composure if it does. “I know people are going to say stuff,” he said. “People have already said stuff. You have to be the bigger man and you have to have thick skin, especially in this situation. I’m aware of it.”
Head coach Chip Kelly said Cooper contacted him Monday evening and told him he was ready to return. “It wasn't letting him come back or not come back, because he wasn't suspended,” Kelly said. “We gave him time to seek outside assistance, and when he had the opportunity to go get that done, and he called and was coming back this morning, and I met with him, and he came back.”
Kelly, less than two weeks into his first NFL training camp, said he likes the way his team has handled such a difficult, potentially divisive situation and said he realizes the potential for division in the locker room isn’t over just because Cooper has returned and has apologized to everybody.
“I think our team is extremely close,” Kelly said. “I think we have a great sense of understanding of everybody that's around each other. There’s been great open communication between ourselves and our players and our coaches as this whole thing transpired. So I'll continue to talk to them.
“I think some leadership has emerged and certain guys that have really stepped up, I kind of lean on them a little bit. DeMeco Ryans and Jason Avant and people like that that get the pulse of the team in the locker room.
“So we'll see. It’s an ongoing process, it's not something that we can just say, ‘Hey, it's over with.’ It's something we'll continue to monitor. The biggest thing with us – and we talked about since Day 1 – is open communication. If you do have some issues or something that needs to be said, let's make sure that we can get that addressed.”
Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, who once tried to buy the Patriots, watched practice Thursday at the NovaCare Complex and later issued a statement, expressing his personal disgust with Cooper’s behavior:
“I want to make this clear: The words Riley Cooper used were totally unacceptable. His words may have been directed at one person but they hurt everyone. Riley has apologized to the team and community and has made a personal commitment to work hard to try and gain their trust and earn his position on the team.”
Cooper actually had three big catches during 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills, including long touchdown catches from Nick Foles and Michael Vick. “It felt great,” he said. “I love being out there on the field playing football. That’s what I do and that’s what I love.
“It felt good to be out there with the guys catching and running and making some plays, and them coming up to you, supporting you, high-fiving you, chest-bumping you like Jason Avant did in the end zone when I had that TD. It just felt good to be back out here with all the guys.” Cooper said he had a chance to meet with his parents in person during his leave of absence.
He said that was one of the most difficult parts of this whole ordeal for him. “They’re extremely extremely disappointed in me, and that’s one of the hardest parts of this whole thing,” he said. “Just knowing how I was raised, I was raised great. “I’ve got a great mom and dad, and they’re having a tough time dealing with it, and that’s pretty tough for me to cope with. I’m trying to be there for them, and they’re trying to be there for me. I’m their son, and that’s where we are.”
He said one big thing he learned during his counseling over the past few days is just how offensive and hurtful his comments were, not just in the locker room, not just in Philly but on a much larger scale. “I realize how many people I’ve hurt, how many families I’ve hurt, how many young kids I’ve hurt,” Cooper said. “That’s what we talked about: the severity of it. And I realize that and take full responsibility for it.”
- Reuben Frank, CSN Philly