Rifle community ambushes legendary Coach Cooper with drive-by birthday bash
City installs new ‘Cooper Field’ plaque at local baseball facility
Rifle sports icon Coach Gordon Cooper was treated to a pleasant surprise Saturday.
Basking in some late-morning sun at the rotunda entrance of the Veterans Nursing Home, a hefty motor procession circled by to wish him happy birthday.
The man who many simply refer to as “coach” just turned 91 on April 1.
“You’re awesome!” former Rifle High School baseball player Brian Rust, a product of the Rifle’s 1985 state title, whooped to Cooper through a pick-up truck window. “He was an awesome coach. He taught us a lot.”
Members of the Rifle Police Department as well as a bus-load of Bears varsity football players en-route to take on Basalt later that afternoon also joined former players, friends and those who revere the beloved Cooper.
Since COVID-19 protocols are still in place, the procession was organized in-lieu of personal birthday visits.
“Jesus, I’m like the vice president,” Cooper joked from his wheelchair, wearing a Rifle Football cap. “It’s like I robbed a bank.”
“It’s the greatest,” he added. “Thank you very much.”
Cooper was also greeted by his family during the surprise birthday bash. The glossiness building in the eyes of his son Shawn Cooper was noticeable. He spoke of how his father, a former U.S. Army corporal who served in Germany in 1953, ended up at the veterans home — his residence for the past few months.
“We’ve had a tough time with him since he fell down in December, but he’s doing so much better than he was before,” Shawn Cooper said. “We’re happy that he’s here, and they’re really taking good care of him.”
Asked to describe his father, Shawn Cooper kept it short and sweet.
“He’s a very genuine man,” he said. “That’s mostly what I can say.”
Football, baseball, track — Cooper was a master of them all. The indelible coach Gordon Cooper left Rifle High School sports with one of the most unrivaled, diverse portfolios in Bears’ history.
Two Colorado state championships in baseball — 1981 and 1985. Two rings on the gridiron — 1961 and 1973. He used the remaining finger for track and field regalia, in 1963. He also led three Bears grapplers to top individual appearances at the state podium.
Even before graduating from the University of Denver in 1955 with a masters in secondary education, Cooper boasted an already sterling reputation in high school and collegiate athletics.
Born in 1930, Cooper grew up competing upon the fields and courts scattered throughout McGill and Ely, Nevada — small towns on the arid high desert. It was there he’d excel in varsity basketball, football and track. Summers, meanwhile, consisted of American Legion Baseball.
Those diamond days prompted Cooper to try out for the Cincinnati Reds, but he hesitated to pursue an offer to play their farm system.
Eventually signing to play collegiate sports with the University of Denver, it was there Cooper would become an athletic aficionado. Track and Field, football, baseball — the lengthy list of accolades encompassed nine varsity letters between 1949-1951.
Cooper is already in the Pioneers school hall-of-fame for his pigskin exploits.
He’d go on to sign a contract to play professional football with the Detroit Lions of the National Football League, Cooper said.
“I played three exhibition games,” he said. “But they drafted me.”
The known story behind that is fortuitous.
In 1953, Cooper was just one of 12 in his unit lucky enough to report for duty in Germany. The other 188 soldiers at Camp San Luis Obispo, California were shipped to Korea, a war that eventually claimed 40,000 Americans killed in action.
It was following his tour in Germany and 21 months in the service — he said he “tore up his knee” while playing football overseas — that Cooper hung up the cleats after a few more stabs at professional football, including a short-lived stint in the Canadian Football League.
By 1956, however, the rudimentary stages of the one they call “coach” started to unfold. He took a physical education teaching position at Rifle High School.
“I had some good kids,” Cooper said. “It meant a lot to me, coaching 31 years there.”
The ink from Cooper’s 2020 induction to the Colorado Dugout Club Baseball Hall of Fame isn’t even dry. In fact, Rifle Parks and Rec Director Tom Whitmore spent a recent Friday afternoon installing a commemorative plaque inscribed with Cooper’s name at a baseball facility at Deerfield Park.
The main field, of course, is unsurprisingly named Cooper Field.
That impressive diamond worthy enough to host Colorado River Valley Little League majors used to be a classic town fixture at its old home near the Garfield County Fairgrounds. It then became the site of government offices, and Cooper had to help raise money to find it a new home.
Doesn’t matter. Today’s all football for Coach.
Moments prior to the procession, a nursing home administrator confided that after Cooper’s surprise party he’d spend the rest of the afternoon listening to an undefeated Bears team take on Basalt, another sleeper powerhouse likely to give Rifle a run for their money.
“One o’clock,” Cooper immediately mumbled in response to what time kick-off was. “Maybe I can relax. Of course, I’d like to see Rifle win.”
Cooper, who retired in 1987, spoke of what it takes to triumph.
“I think being fair to the kids,” Cooper said. “Let them know who their boss is. And, of course, you have to have good kids in order to win.”
His infinite wisdom also takes aim at athletic success.
“Consistent pressure on himself to do what is supposed to be done at the time it’s supposed to be done,” he asserted. “And be a fair person, against all opponents.”
Cooper’s wife, Vanda, died in 2011, but they raised two sons — Steve as well as Shawn.
Now well into his senior years, Cooper has a trick to living so long.
“Clean living — no drinking or smoking,” he said. “It’s alright, I guess, to chase the girls.”
As the procession ended, Cooper went back inside. After all, the Rifle Bears game would soon be on the radio.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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Local teams just missed out on qualifying for state as teams but will be sending individual representatives following Friday’s regional meets.