Words: Aaron Tyson
Image: Grambling State University Athletics
James Cooper’s initial commitment to Grambling State University began in 2000, where he would embark on the arduous journey of a student-athlete. Similar to the parade of accolades garnered by his then head coach — American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer, Wilbert Ellis—Cooper’s athletic ability as an outfielder awarded him All-Conference and All-SWAC honors during his career. Unbeknownst, that would not be the last award he would be receiving as a member of Grambling State University’s baseball program.
The same sacrifices, determination, and dedication that he would instill in his own student-athletes years later is what propelled him to be drafted in the 33rd round of the MLB draft in 2004.
“I played two years of pro ball in the Houston Astros organization after being drafted from Grambling State University.”
After being released by the Astros in 2006, the Sussex Seahawks favored Cooper, an Independent team in the CanAm Leaugue out of Sussex County, New Jersey, to play one more season. No stranger to the sacrifices and demand that transpire with being a professional athlete, he experienced one particular sacrifice that played a pivotal role in his decision to return to his alma mater.
“When I went up to Sussex and played in the summer of 2007 my son had already been born. After finishing that year my son was seven years old and I wanted to be in his life more. Those last three years of playing pro ball I missed three of his birthdays.”
These are the unannounced compromises and obstacles that professional athletes have to allocate when attempting to balance work and home. As spectators, we are infused by the media with information revolving around injuries, depth charts, front office personnel changes, autograph signings, and broken records — all for the sheer love of watching our favorite teams and athletes compete. We don’t factor in that our enjoyment can mean someone else’s displeasure. Families are stripped away from their significant others, children, parents, and siblings for weeks and months on end.
The thrills of ones sporting career can only last so long, like any other athlete you have to adjust to a new life and a new career. The transition for many can be difficult when they have been identified as an athlete practically their whole lives. Every athlete possesses their own unique circumstances in which they attempt to find their purpose outside of athletic competition.
“I wanted to be more active in my sons life so I enrolled into graduate school at Grambling in the fall of 2007 and received my Masters in Sports Administration May of 2008.”
During this transition period for James, fate intervened, as Barret Rey took over the baseball program at Grambling.
“He actually coached against me when I was a player. He was the assistant coach at Southern University and he offered me the position to be a graduate assistant because he knew I had just came back from playing pro ball.”
Ironically, after three years of working under Barret Rey, Cooper was presented the opportunity to become the head coach after Coach Rey opted out to accept a vacant head coaching position at Alcorn State University to be closer to his family. After making his second commitment to Grambling's baseball programas head coach for the 2010 season, he set the tone right away during his introductory press conference letting the student-athletes know that respect between players and coaches will be reciprocal. Cooper also stressed the importance of determination and dedication on the field and in the classroom. His philosopy served him right, leading the Grambling Tigers to a SWAC Championship in 2010 and SWAC Coach of the Year honors—an award he received for the second time in 2017.
When asked if there was a certain attachment to Grambling, Cooper proudly said, “There is. It’s home for me, it's my alma mater and I would love to see my alma mater do great things. Some of the things I seen and learned from playing pro ball I want to instill in some of the players that have came after me.”
Having been both a former pro athlete and a former Tiger, Cooper has a unique ability to connect with the student-athletes. Some don’t foresee a professional baseball career in their future, while others are driven to prove everyone who has ever doubted them wrong. Understanding both perspectives, Cooper, as head coach, has a fiduciary duty to be transparent when discussing life after sports.
“We are honest with all 35 of the guys on the roster. We let them know that all 35 of you are not going to get an opportunity to play professional baseball and that’s fine. What you guys do have a chance to do is to possibly win a championship and graduate.”
To help prepare his players for their transition away from collegiate athletics, Cooper utilizes various resources to help align them with jobs to make their transition as pleasant as possible. He also leverages his Major League Baseball connections for those who still want to be involved with the game of baseball.
"We want our players to graduate and be a good provider for their family, a good husband to their wife, and also a good father to their kids in that order."
About Aaron Tyson
Aaron Tyson is the Founder of VCG Sports. Prior to establishing VCG Sports in 2016, Aaron worked with organizations such as the NFL League Office, New York Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, MEAC Conference Office, and the Philadelphia Soul. He also received an Executive Certification in Sports Philanthropy from George Washington University.
About VCG Sports
VCG Sports focuses on providing high-quality career and business development services for athletes on the collegiate and professional level, as well as highligting their achivements and involvement outside of their playing careers. We value the importance of personal interaction and take pride in building long-term relationships with the athletes we serve. Our services are cultivated around creating value and preparing athletes for life after sports.
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