It’s Monday morning at Canyon Springs High School in North Las Vegas, the start of summer football practice.
At 6 a.m. sharp, Coach Hunkie Cooper tells an assistant to close the gate because responsible men are prompt.
“We took over this program three years ago. Had been 1-30. Last year, we won the division title, beat Vegas. But the most important numbers are our GPAs, our SATs.”
The players are silent.
“Our standard is our standard. We’re respectful. We’re responsible. We do what we need to do. We are men in the hallways, students in the classrooms, citizens in our community.”
The sun is rising over the valley, the last of the cool morning giving way.
“How many are gonna be the first in the family to graduate? “ he asks. “How many are going to be the first to go to college? We’ll get you there. That’s what we’re about.”
Cooper commands respect because he’s got football chops. He was a star at UNLV and retired after 13 years in the Arena Football League as the all-time leader in all-purpose yards. He’s also a ubiquitous presence at Canyon Springs as the site coordinator for the nonprofit Communities in Schools, which provides extra help for schools whose resources are few. He uses his vast network to find shoes or clothes or eyeglasses or meals or a job or a dentist visit for kids who need them.
“I commit to you everything I have,” he says. That’s apparently a lot.
Cooper and his wife, who has a heart condition, have six children, three still at home. He’s nightclub security manager at a Wynn property, often going straight to morning practice after a night at work.
This coming school year, the Clark County School District is planning to designate Canyon Springs a “turnaround” school, installing a new principal and adding resources to improve lagging academic performance.
But don’t expect to find lagging academic performance on his team.
“You get a D in the classroom, you’ll be running D hill,” he laughs mirthlessly, pointing at the steep rise behind him. For freshmen and junior varsity players, there are no football awards, only academic awards.
“Today’s run tells me right now who gets the ball on third-and-one. Who do I run behind on fourth down?” he says.
The 8-mile run is a metaphor. “It’s gonna get tough. Life is gonna get tough,” he says. “But the decisions you make now will affect you directly and indirectly the rest of your life.”
He refers to the depressing data, that 1 in 9 black men between ages 20 and 34 is incarcerated while homicide is the leading cause of death among young black men; 3 of 5 incarcerated Americans are either black or Hispanic.
“We’re gonna change that right here,” Cooper says.
Cooper leads his charges south on Fifth Street. A group of upperclassmen bunches around Cooper at the front. Younger players and linemen straggle.
Cooper only let me cover the run because I agreed to run. I keep pace with a program volunteer who is an Army drill sergeant and is yelling an occasional cadence. We run through the light industry of North Las Vegas, dusty lots and empty warehouses that are the detritus of our flagging economy. Occasionally, signs of prosperity appear, too, like Brady Industries, which supplies linens and bathroom supplies to the Strip.
A young man with a beer in a paper bag hustles across the street in front of us, perhaps his night still going as our day is beginning. Through the neighborhoods on Englestad and D streets, onlookers view us with curiosity.
On the run I think about team sports and why they’re so endemic to our identity as humans. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has noted, we evolved to identify as members of groups who collaborate, often to compete against other groups. Not surprisingly, then, we find the most happiness when we feel we are part of something bigger than ourselves. That’s probably why I love the fall: Go Irish.
As Cooper says, football teaches commitment, responsibility, respect and character.
We turn left on Owens Avenue and stop across the street from the homeless shelter. A homeless man cheers on the players and tells them to keep moving and hold their arms up so they can take more air into their lungs. They comply.
Cooper is thrilled. “See,” he tells me. “You can never tell. Today we inspired a homeless man.”
The coach sends two seniors up the hill to grab the slower players. While we wait, he tells me he hopes to take his team to the next level, competing against the best in other states. His primary motivation, though, it seems, is more life lessons. “I want to teach them how to travel, how to dress, how to eat in restaurants. That’s life preparation,” he whispers to me.
“Tighten up,” he says, and the players gather closer.
He asks the players to consider the homeless shelter and what brought the people there.
“This is what I talk about when I talk about decisions. When (life) goes sideways on you, and it will, what will you do?” he asks. “When you get caught, gettin’ drunk, gettin’ high. You’re with a girl, she tells you no. At some point in your life, you’re gonna make a decision that’s a life-changing decision.”
He had two babies with two different girls when he was 18, he confides.
He shifts his attention to the women’s shelter down the street.
“How many of you have a sister, a grandmother, a mother?” he asks
They all raise their hands.
“How many of you would allow a man to put his hands on them?”
He waits a beat.
“That means you can’t put your hands on a woman.”
His own mother, he says, raised nine children on the $13,500 per year she earned as a maid. His father, who was career military, died when Cooper was 14. His mother had simple rules: Never embarrass your parents. Never complain, citing the proverb, you complain about your shoes until you see a man with no feet. And do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “That’s it,” he says.
Despite the adversity, Cooper thrived, and they can, too, he says. “We use single-parent homes as a motivator, not an excuse,” he says. “Our motto this year is ‘No excuses.’”
Cooper tells the students to find their passion and then apply their purpose, and then they’ll be successful.
But that’s not enough. “It ain’t about you,” he says. “If it’s only about you, it’s gonna be a shallow life.” He wants them back in the neighborhood in 10 years, college degrees in hand, working in the community, remembering the run that kicked off summer practice. They’ll start now, with community service during the season.
We run the short distance to Woodlawn Cemetery. Sprinklers shoot water among the souls. The players gather around the grave of the brother of a friend of Cooper’s. He reminds them of those statistics about dead and incarcerated black and Hispanic men.
He tells them how difficult their schedule will be but then places football low on the priority list. “If you’re here for any reason other than to be a respectful, responsible man who graduates and makes good decisions and goes to college, if you’re just here because you think you’re gonna win championships, then leave now,” he says.
The players grab some water. Hunkie Cooper, man among boys, leads them on the run back.