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DU football’s Cooper is a true legend of the fall

Gordon Cooper playing in a night game.

There is little question the memories come with a whiff of sadness every time Gordon Cooper recalls his remarkable football career at the University of Denver.

Those memories, after all, are all Cooper and the former Pioneers gridiron greats have to cherish besides the grainy, fading photos of a program that was shuttered more than 50 years ago. Yet Cooper, a fleet-footed wide receiver whose name remains prominent in the DU football history book, still has an optimistic take on all those statistics.

“At least nobody will break those records,” Cooper says. “That’s one good thing about not having football anymore.”

Cooper was inducted into the DU Athletic Hall of Fame last fall, which allowed him to savor one last time all the accomplishments he compiled as a wide receiver in another era.

A native of tiny McGill, Nevada, Cooper’s course to Denver began when a local newspaper editor, who happened to be a DU alum, notified football coach John Baker about the speedy kid with glue-like hands wrecking havoc in the desert.

It was a connection that forever altered the look of DU football.

In three seasons at DU, from 1949–51, Cooper and quarterback Sam Etcheverry combined to form one of the most dangerous passing combinations in the nation. The numbers they put together still stand as the most prolific in the history of DU football.

Cooper’s total of receiving yards in each of those seasons became the top three single-season marks in the program’s history. He was a first-team All-Skyline Conference selection in each season, and when the football program ended following the 1960 campaign, Cooper held the Pioneers’ career records for receptions (113), receiving yards (1,577), and touchdown catches (18).

“The spirit and everything with football was really good when I was there,” says Cooper, who also competed in baseball and track at DU. “I was fast and had good hands, so it was not a problem for me.”

Another former DU football standout, Max Willsey, played with Cooper’s younger brother, Bert, who in 2007 also was inducted into the DU Athletics Hall of Fame with the entire 1955 squad. And it was Willsey who nominated Gordon Cooper for his Hall of Fame honor.

“He’s a good man,” Willsey says. “I remember Gordon because I played with his brother, and I’ve gotten to know him well over the years at our football reunions. Back then, he and Sam Etcheverry were the talk of the town.”

Cooper’s prowess allowed him to sign with the Detroit Lions after his DU career ended. After playing in three exhibition games, however, Cooper was drafted into the Army. While serving 21 months in Germany, Cooper played competitively at bases and suffered a serious knee injury. When he returned to the Lions, Cooper did so without the speed that had made him such a force in Denver. The Lions cut Cooper, and a subsequent tryout with a Canadian team ended the same way.

Although his playing days were over, Cooper still made a monumental impact in athletics.

After earning a master’s degree in secondary education at DU in 1955, Cooper and his wife — high school sweetheart Vonda — moved to Rifle, Colo., and he embarked on a lengthy career as a teacher, coach and administrator at Rifle High School.

Cooper spent 31 years at the school before retiring in 1987. Still a resident of Rifle, Cooper spends much of his spare time hunting and fishing in the wilds of the Western Slope. Cooper’s connection to DU essentially was limited to reunions with his old football teammates until his Hall of Fame induction last fall.

That moment became even more precious to Cooper and his two sons after his wife passed away April 17, 2011 — just two months shy of the couple’s 60th anniversary.

“It was nice, and I’m glad she got to see that,” Cooper says. “A lot of my family and everyone was there, and it was really, really super. Because of playing at DU, I ended up coaching football, baseball, track, wrestling. We won a few state championships. It has all been a great life.”

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