FOX Sports Exclusive
HS coach believes Cooper's sorry
Riley Cooper is catching flak from all directions — from fans, the fellow players, his teammates, Kenny Chesney and even the mayor of Philadelphia — over his use of a racial slur during a videotaped outburst that surfaced over the weekend.
Mike Jalazo is the head football coach at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., and he was Cooper’s coach for three seasons at Clearwater Central Catholic before Cooper went on to star at the University of Florida.
In an interview with FOXSports.com Tuesday, Jalazo acknowledged that Cooper’s intensity can be overwhelming at times — he missed his senior baseball season after he injured his arm when he put his fist through a car window — but said he never witnessed racist tendencies out of Cooper during his time with the Marauders.
“You didn’t get a sense of hatred toward anybody from Riley,” Jalazo said. “When he’s on the field to play, he’s as intense as your great athletes can be, and he was raised that way. But off the field, he was very loyal to his friends, and you never got a hint of that.”
Jalazo said he hasn’t spoken with Cooper since the incident — the two text occasionally, but he hasn’t seen him since last summer, when Cooper and former high school teammate and current Tennessee Titans linebacker Colin McCarthy visited him in Florida — but said that he believes Cooper’s mea culpa was heartfelt.
“It was upsetting, but I know Riley well enough to know that his (public) apology and his apology toward his teammates (were genuine),” Jalazo said. “He’s real quick to take responsibility for the things that he does when he’s angry, and he’s not an insincere person. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.
“... He is very much one of those guys who takes things to heart when he does something wrong. You always hear stories of guys who go into counseling, and Riley is the type of guy who goes into counseling because he figures there’s really something wrong that he needs to fix, because this isn’t him.”
Jalazo didn’t go so far as to blame locker room culture for Cooper’s tantrum, but did acknowledge that the current generation of players approaches offensive language differently than players from previous eras.
“When you’re in a locker room, kids will play music that throws the N-word around, and they’ll throw the N-word around to the point where it makes people my age really uncomfortable,” said Jalazo, who also serves as the executive director of Pinellas County Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition, a non-profit that works to assist people who have been released from jail or prison.
“This is a word that doesn’t have the intense meaning to them as it does to people who are older. When I’ve got white kids and black kids who throw this word around like it’s nothing toward each other, it’s definitely a different thing for someone my age, who would be so uncomfortable using it.”
As for Cooper, Jalazo said he expects his former pupil to have learned from his most recent mistake, and hopes that his actions going forward will reflect that.
“He has to be accountable for what he did, and he knows it, but at the same time, you hope he has a chance to move forward and use this as a moment of education and maybe look at it as a way to give back in the community somewhere down the road, somehow,” Jalazo said. “He’s always been sensitive to the fact that he has been blessed with ability and talent, and he has always been respectful of that.
“He’s a very self-actualizing guy, and you hope he takes it to heart and hope he gets a chance to play again. Athletics have been such a big part of his life, and he made a mistake. He’s absolutely someone who absolutely learns from his mistakes, and you hope that he’ll be OK.
“Obviously, no one condones the actions, but we don’t dismiss the person, because this is a person that we all care about, and someone who doesn’t have a history of hatred toward anybody. He’s really not that kind of kid.”
More Stories From Sam Gardner