His talents were such that he turned the 50-yard indoor war, which is what the Arena Football League is sometimes called, into a 50-yard minor skirmish. Hunkie Cooper’s versatility was tailor-made for a style of football in which playing on both sides of the scrimmage line is mandatory.
At UNLV, he played six positions — quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive back, punt returner, kickoff returner. He was a football Swiss Army knife, a Veg-O-Matic in shoulder pads. In arena ball, he sliced and diced to 8,559 receiving yards, 776 receptions, 20,587 all-purpose yards, 500 kickoff returns. All were league records.
He was the league MVP, won two Arena Bowls and was Ironman of the Year twice — only one fewer time than Robert Downey Jr. was the same in his Avengers franchise.
In Texas, where he’s from, “We just call it playing football,” said Hernandez James “Hunkie” Cooper, who on Friday night will be inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame — not just for being the fifth greatest arena football player in history, as he was voted in 2012, but also for starring at UNLV and making a difference in young lives, which he did on and off the field at Las Vegas’ Canyon Springs High.
When he was football coach, 100 percent of his players graduated. He is way more proud of that than having guided the Pioneers to the playoffs in each of his six seasons.
Before ducking into a meeting at San Diego State, where he coaches wide receivers, Cooper said he had never heard of arena football before a former UNLV assistant coach named Pete Kettela talked him into trying out for the Arizona Rattlers.
The Canadian Football League hadn’t panned out, and he was working at the Gold Coast and finishing his degree at UNLV when he joined the Rattlers as a fourth-string wide receiver.
Hunkie Cooper would quickly move up the depth chart.
“It reminded me of growing up in the projects (in Palestine, Texas),” Cooper, 50, said of playing football in a confined space. “We played football on asphalt — when you caught the ball you had to make quick moves, you had to change direction. It was just going back to what I had done as a kid.”
After he learned to catch a football over his shoulder off a giant end zone net, it was an easy transition for the former three-sport athlete (baseball, basketball, football).
“The game kind of came to me. Arena football was my fit,” Cooper said. “I wasn’t always the fastest but I could catch a 5-yard hitch and make a guy miss. And it helps when you have a really, really good quarterback named Sherdrick Bonner.”
Bonner played at Cal State Northridge, but Cooper said it seemed most of his Arizona teammates were from Texas or UNLV (Randy Gatewood, Doc Wise, Greg Gales). It was almost like throwing the football around with one’s brothers — which, having grown up No. 8 among nine siblings, was familiar to him.
His father, James, died when Hunkie was 14 — Cooper wore jersey No. 14 at UNLV and with the Rattlers as a tribute. James Cooper was one of the first African-American buck sergeants and fought in three wars. Hunkie was named for his father’s best pal in the service.
James Cooper and this guy, Hernandez, had made a pact: If one should be killed in Vietnam, the other would name a son for the one who did not come home. James Cooper died of heart disease before sharing that story — or his buddy’s first name — with his son.
Cooper’s mother, Mae Ester, held the family together by working as a hotel maid for 25 years. She died this week after being in hospice for 11 months.
“Our home was built on love and respect and trust,” said her son with the quick feet and excellent hands. “She would say some people may have more than you, but that doesn’t make them better than you; some people may be more talented than you, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to outwork you.”
Nobody outworked Hunkie Cooper.
Perhaps only Gordie Lockbaum came close.
Lockbaum played on both sides of the ball at Holy Cross just before Cooper started doing it at UNLV. He finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1986 and third in 1987 despite playing only five positions to Cooper’s six.
When I mentioned that, Hunkie Cooper began to laugh.
“Gordie probably had better publicity,” he said.
Class of 2019
Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame 2019 inductees
■ Golden Knights, Las Vegas’ first major league franchise
■ Steve Carp, sports writer
■ Hunkie Cooper, UNLV, arena football star
■ Manny Guerra, baseball scout
■ Mike Martin, baseball player, instructor
■ Steve Stallworth, arena director