LARAMIE – At this point, Marci Rothe has her football viewing down to a science. Once ball meets foot, don’t bother following the ball itself; always, always follow the referees.
During her son Cooper’s senior season at the University of Wyoming, Marci and her husband, Tracy, have made it a point to attend each and every one of his games.
Since stepping foot on campus as a freshman in 2016, Cooper Rothe has etched his name into the Cowboys’ record books. He has made 55 career field goals, 155 of 159 extra point tries and is on the cusp of becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer. He was a Lou Groza Award finalist a season ago after hitting 94.1% of his field goal attempts, the best mark in the nation. He was firmly entrenched among college football’s elite.
Through the years, Marci has learned that eyes can deceive. The referees, quite literally, know the score. Follow their hand signals, rather than the ball, and you’ll never be led astray.
But Marci has seen with her own two eyes that the final act in Cooper’s screenplay has gone slightly off-script. Cooper has had uncharacteristic misses in 2019 – three of his four career missed PATs have come this season – and he is 11 for 17 on field goals.
His trying season reached its apex last Saturday on the blue turf at Boise State’s Albertsons Stadium. With a chance to extend the game in overtime, Cooper hooked a 37-yard field goal try to the right. Boise State players rushed onto the field as Wyoming players walked to the locker room with their heads hanging down.
The final score was 20-17. UW’s first win at Boise State would have to wait until at least 2021.
Sitting with fellow UW fans and parents, Marci saw the referees signal “no good.” Her heart sank.
But on Monday, not even 48 hours after the devastation, her son sat in a room at the High Altitude Training Facility, smiling from ear to ear. If you looked him squarely in the face, you’d assume he hit the game-winning kick to seal a national championship.
“If something happens, just forget it. Move on,” Cooper said. “Don’t let one thing define you. Just continue to work hard, because you have a bigger picture in life.”
That attitude, an ability to move past moments that would scar lesser men, much less football players, has helped Cooper Rothe deal with an unexpectedly trying year.
Does he wish each of his kicks sailed through the uprights? Of course he does. Does he wish he could line that kick in Boise up one more time? Absolutely.
But there are no do-overs. Football, particularly for a kicker, is the ultimate microcosm for life – nervousness, unpredictability, happiness and devastation, all often occurring within the span of 60 minutes.
Saturday night was just another life experience for Cooper Rothe. And, with the help and support from his teammates, he is determined to learn from it.
“He is an upbeat kid,” his mother said. “Was he heartbroken? Yeah. But I gave him a hug right after the game and said, ‘One play defines nothing. Tomorrow is a new day, and you have to go to work.’ … It’s not a football lesson only. It’s a life lesson.”
”That bad one’s out”
Sitting in the Rothes’ Longmont, Colorado, living room, UW coach Craig Bohl made things rather simple: Cooper wasn’t going to play defensive back for the Cowboys, even if the team really, really needed him to.
Cooper intercepted 18 passes his final two seasons at Longmont High. Kicking, on the other hand, initially started as a hobby and out of need for his high school team. Cooper didn’t even play high school soccer, opting for baseball and basketball due in part to less seasonal overlap. Bohl and his staff wanted Cooper to be a Cowboy, attending several of his basketball games (he played point guard), in addition to football games.
The catch, however, was that it was only going to be as a kicker.
“Bohl said, ‘Let me stop you right there,’” Marci remembered with a laugh. “(He said) ‘You will be our kicker.’ He made it perfectly clear.”
Cooper felt a warmth and comfort emanate from the UW coaching staff. There was a certain authenticity to Bohl and company, even if what he said wasn’t exactly what Cooper wanted to hear. Bohl wanted Cooper to be a Poke; the choice was his whether he wanted to be one under the specified terms.
Marci said her son had an offer to play cornerback at Air Force. He had never met the coaching staff, however. There wasn’t that face-to-face interaction UW provided. Even if it meant giving up defense, Laramie and its people felt like home.
“It’s good to feel wanted,” she said. “And I think that was it.”
Bohl is not only the head coach of the Cowboys, he is also the team’s kicking coach. The bond he shares with Cooper is unique. Bohl likes to use golfing analogies when discussing the intricacies of kicking – the swing, the placement, the pressure of the moment are analogous in his eyes.
There has been no hesitation to send Cooper out for kicks this season, even if the senior hasn’t looked as invincible as he did in previous years. Whether it’s a chip-shot or a long drive from the fairway, Cooper is Bohl’s kicker and will be until the clock runs out on his college eligibility. That much has been clear for the better part of four seasons.
“He has a great deal of experience and a lot of really good kicks. Occasionally, you’re going to miss one,” Bohl said. “That bad one’s out, and we’re going to get a bunch of good ones in … I wouldn’t say (he needs to) get his confidence back. But he needs to hit a game-winner.”
”Everybody has their bad days”
UW’s team plane landed at about 3:30 a.m. Sunday. By about 4 a.m., Cooper was driving around in his car, by himself. He needed some time to decompress. Given its size, Laramie isn’t the kind of city you really drive around. Within five minutes, you’ve pretty much hit every traffic light.
Cooper doesn’t normally reset his mind by taking drives. This time, though, it just felt right.
He eventually got into bed and didn’t set an alarm; after the night he had, he needed to sleep in. The tendency for some in a funk like Cooper found himself in might be to want solitude. It would be hard to blame him if he wasn’t in a particularly social mood.
But redshirt sophomore quarterback and close friend Tyler Vander Waal refused to let that be the case. Now more than ever, Cooper needed to know his teammates had his back, not just as a football player, but as a human being.
Vander Waal and a few other teammates took Cooper to see a movie and grab dinner Sunday night. At dinner, the conversation wasn’t about what happened less than 24 hours previously, it was about life.
If anyone can relate to the trials and tribulations football can present, it’s Vander Waal, who has gone from UW’s starting quarterback to the bench and back to starting quarterback in the span of about 12 months.
“I told him I was always there for him,” Vander Waal said. “I think the relationships that we’ve made extend past the field. … Knowing that one play is not going to define who he is and it’s not going to change how I feel about him or how any of these guys feel about it.”
Immediately following the game last weekend, players exited the visiting locker room in Boise, one by one, each with red eyes, tell-tale signs of crying. But, to a man, each defended Cooper, particularly senior linebacker Logan Wilson, who shared the story of his own missed kick in the 2013 Wyoming Class 4A state championship game. Cooper needed to know he wasn’t alone. He didn’t have to go through heartache by himself. And above all else, the loss was not his fault.
Nothing can take back the kick or allow for a redo. But having the full support of those closest to him is the next best thing.
“We can tell him that it’s going to be OK, but it really comes down to him getting through that, and when he needs help, he needs to also reach out,” Wilson said. “We still have all the confidence in the world in him.”
Even Marci got texts from players and their parents, checking in on her and Cooper. When your son spends four years in a city, pours his heart and soul into what he loves and builds relationships, it’s reassuring to know that he will never be going through the bad times by himself.
“It’s all the team. Even if one kid does something awful, they all rally around each other,” Marci said. “And I saw it the other night.”
Family and warmth are what brought Cooper from Colorado to Wyoming. They are the same things that keep him positive. Family, whether it be by blood or not, is there for each other through thick and thin.
It was family that let Cooper know life is bigger than a made or missed field goal. It’s about what you learn from the ordeal that defines you.
“Everybody has their bad days,” Marci said. “Whatever you make of it afterward, that’s your life lesson.”
And no one is more ready for what’s next than Cooper Rothe.
“It’s in the rearview mirror. Coach Bohl always says he has confidence in me, all my teammates have confidence in me,” Rothe said. “Looking back, you wish you had a second chance, but that’s the life of a kicker. That’s the life I chose. There’s no going back.”