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Las Vegas connection comes full circle at San Diego State

On a wall in Jeff Horton’s den hangs a photo of Hunkie Cooper, the former UNLV football star and Canyon Springs High School football coach (and Arena Football League legend) who played six positions for the Rebels, on both sides of the ball — and in his first game at UNLV, scored four touchdowns against Southwest Missouri.

On the photo is a heartfelt inscription from Cooper that mentions how Horton believed in him, and how much that belief and the friendship they developed (and would nurture) meant.

The feeling was mutual. Horton says he and his wife, Teri, don’t have children, except for Hunkie. And if that is where this story ended, it still would be a wonderful story.

But this story has chapters that still are being written.

After the diminutive Cooper was named one of the greatest players in indoor football history, he would become head coach/molder of young men at Canyon Springs in hardscrabble North Las Vegas.

One of the young men he molded was a running back named Donnel Pumphrey, who, like Cooper, was on the diminutive side.

So a phone call was made. Former protege to former mentor/father figure.

Donnel Pumphrey signed with San Diego State, where Jeff Horton had landed as a top assistant under Rocky Long. If Pumphrey rushes for 108 yards against Houston’s rugged defense in Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl, he will break Ron Dayne’s NCAA career rushing record of 6,397 yards.

Maybe Pumphrey’s still in this spot were it not for the photo on Jeff Horton’s wall. Most likely, he’s not.

Horton said Pumphrey exhibits the same traits Hunkie Cooper did at UNLV — toughness, character, integrity, versatility. “I knew he had to be a heck of a competitor, having played for Coop.”

Most times in college football it’s about five-star recruits and facilities and well-heeled boosters with initials for first names. And running up the score against Disco Tech to impress the playoff committee.

Once in a while, it’s about paying it forward before paying it back.

I once wrote that people didn’t know Hunkie Cooper’s backstory. About how his dad, James, fought in three wars, and that James Cooper died when Hunkie was 14, leaving Hunkie’s mom, Mae Ester, to raise eight children on a $13,500 annual salary she earned changing sheets at the Best Western in Palestine, Texas.

Hunkie got his nickname from a sibling, who was first to comment on his small frame. His given first name, Hernandez, was the surname of his father’s best pal in the service.

The buddies agreed that if either should be killed fighting the Viet Cong, the other would name a son in honor of his fallen friend.

Sometimes, the Canyon High kids Hunkie Cooper coached and molded would get caught in a crossfire.

“These are kids that when they hear a gunshot, they run to it,” Cooper said when he was a high school coach. “But take them to Lake Mead — let them hear a coyote howl or a fish turn over in the water — and they’re in the tent with you.”

Hunkie Cooper was in Jeff Horton’s tent, and now Donnel Pumphrey is in San Diego State’s, with a revered all-time record within sight. Because when Coop thought he might want to coach in college, who do you think is the first guy he called?

“Our relationship lasted 26 years, and he’s been like a son to me, and now people are talking about Donnel and Hunkie and their relationship, which is just like the one we had,” Horton said as the Aztecs boarded a bus for San Diego International Airport and a flight for Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Hunkie Cooper rattled off the names of his coaches who inspired him after his father died. He mentioned Jeff Horton last.

“Coach Horton is like my dad, and I see him as a dad and his wife, Teri, as a mom, because they accepted and treated me as their son from day one. The impact has been everlasting, and I will forever be grateful to them,” said Cooper, in his second season as Aztecs wide receivers coach.

“So when people said DJ (Pumphrey) was too small, I told Big Daddy — that’s what I call Hort — I have a kid in a couple of years that will be the best player you or I have ever coached …”

Donnel Pumphrey signed with San Diego State after his junior year at Canyon Springs.

Pay it forward.

Pay it back.

Hang a picture on the den wall to remind you of what’s really important long after the final score becomes a footnote in the media guide.

 

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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