"Even when he was covered," Peyton says, "you could always loft it up high, and he'd catch it. No defensive back could stop him—he was taller than they were, and he could leap well. This creates a perfect comfort zone for the quarterback. Hey, you think, Cooper's either going to catch the ball or make sure it's incomplete."
Newman's season ended with a 27-21 loss to Haynesville in the state semifinals, and Cooper, who had 76 catches and 1,250 yards on the year, was named Newman's most valuable player. "People today tend to say, 'Oh, Coop, he was the inferior athlete of the three [Manning] boys,' but I can tell you that wasn't the case," says Richard Montgomery, Cooper's friend since childhood and a former teammate at Newman. "Cooper might've been the most talented."
Among the colleges that recruited Cooper were Texas and Virginia, but he chose Ole Miss, undaunted by the expectations destined to be heaped on him. He knew he was good enough to contribute, and he knew that in the long run his father's heroic past at the school would have little to do with his own future there. He would succeed or fail on his own merit. He and Peyton made a pact to light up Oxford in a couple of years the way they had New Orleans. "I know one thing for certain," says Peyton. "Had Cooper played at Ole Miss, I'd have gone there too. The year he was a senior at Newman was the best time I ever had playing football. Playing in college with my brother was something we'd both dreamed about."
It wasn't until weeks after the football season, when Cooper was playing for Newman's basketball team, that he finally told Archie he didn't feel right. "My ball's gone dead," he said. "I can't spin it."
A shooting guard, he learned to adjust his shot and to dribble with his left hand, and he ended up averaging 12 points a game, remarkable considering how little control he had of his right hand. Behind the play of Randy Livingston, a Parade All-America and the co-National Player of the Year (with Jason Kidd), the Greenies won the 2A state championship for the second year in a row. Not wishing to miss a moment of the team's run at the title, Cooper waited until the season was over to seek medical attention. "I kept it a secret," he says of his condition, "because I thought if word got out, players for other teams would figure out how to defend me."
A New Orleans surgeon diagnosed the problem as damage to the ulnar nerve, which runs the length of the arm and controls sensation in the pinkie and ring fingers and part of the palm. Because this nerve travels over the tip of the elbow, it is easily damaged. Football players often injure theirs, usually when the elbow hits the ground or takes a helmet blow. Cooper's problem seemed easy to fix, and the operation went smoothly. That summer he played in the Louisiana high school all-star game in Baton Rouge, impressing fans with a couple of catches. But by the time August two-a-days began in Oxford, his condition hadn't improved. He was feeling as much pain and numbness as ever on his right side, and it was taking even more concentration to catch balls at practice.
"I got a hard break," he says today. "I mean, the one thing God gave me...the one asset I had...was my hands. And now my right hand is taken away, and I'm righthanded? I can't throw a football? Can barely catch a football? I can't shoot hoops? I mean, it was terrible."
An Ole Miss team doctor encouraged Archie to seek other opinions from specialists, so he and Cooper flew to Dallas in September 1992 and consulted with a neurosurgeon and an orthopedist at the Baylor Medical Center. Then they flew to Rochester, Minn., to meet with doctors at the Mayo Clinic, where Archie had been treated for a hyperthyroid condition when he was playing for the Vikings. "We ended up seeing a lot of different people, about six altogether, and everyone had a different opinion on how to treat Cooper," Archie says. "[The visit to Rochester] was a rough trip. Cooper had all these tests done, and they painted a grim picture. Still, he took it better than I did. I could've gotten real depressed had he not kept things loose."
A week later Peyton was scheduled to play for Newman in New Orleans. Ole Miss had an open week, so Cooper, his head freshly shaved like those of all the other freshman Rebel players, came in on Friday with some friends from Oxford. That afternoon Archie received a call from the Baylor Medical Center: Cooper needed spinal surgery and could never play football again. In fact, he never should have played, even as a child. Had he never played the game and been hit so hard, he might've lived out his life without experiencing any problem at all.
As frightened as Archie and Olivia were by the specter of spinal surgery, they understood that Cooper was lucky he had survived the pounding of high school football without serious injury. Archie recalled the blows Cooper had taken on his upper body when he'd caught passes over the middle and the licks he'd put on receivers when he played free safety. Any one of those collisions could have left him paralyzed.