After the game on Friday night, Archie and Olivia asked Peyton if he wanted to join them when they broke the news to Cooper. "I can't," he said, fighting back tears. "I'm sorry, but I just can't do it."
"Cooper cried when we told him," Archie says, "but for the most part he was a trouper. It was Peyton we really worried about. He was near depression. Peyton was a junior in high school, and he watched what his big brother was going through, and he didn't think life was fair at all."
Unable to face his brother and tell him how he felt, Peyton sat down and wrote him a letter. It was just after midnight on Saturday, and he hadn't slept much since hearing about the doctor's report the day before. "What I'd do to have you back again as a receiver I don't know," Peyton wrote in longhand. "But this is all part of growing up—learning to cope with change. I'll be seeing you plenty, I know, but things will be different. I know other people have gone through losing their older brother or sister before, but I think me and you are different. We're not average. We're Coop and Peyt. We always have been and we always will be, thank God." At the end of the letter he told Cooper he loved him, then signed it, "Your bro and pal, Peyt."
When Cooper returned to Oxford, he made a point of attending football practice every afternoon. While the team was on the field, he went for long runs, then stood on the sideline and watched. Afterward he hung around the locker room. He'd played organized football since he was a fifth-grader in Minnesota, while his dad was with the Vikings, and football was what you did in the fall. Even though it had been reported in the news that he would never play again, Cooper still felt like a member of the team. Weeks went by. One day before practice senior defensive end Jack Muirhead approached him in the locker room. "What the hell are you doing here?" Cooper recalls Muirhead asking.
"What do you mean?" Cooper said.
"You should be out fishing, you should go play golf or something, go chase some girls," Muirhead said, laughing. "Instead you're in the locker room shooting the breeze with the guys before practice."
Unable to think of a response, Cooper said simply, "Oh." But he knew then that it was over. "I cut it off totally," he says. "I was like, It's more painful to go to practice than it is to keep away from it. And so I kept away from it."
The three-hour surgery on his spine was performed in New Orleans in the summer of 1993. When Cooper came to, he could barely move. His left leg was tingling, and he had no strength at all in his right leg. "I remember the back of his head was shaved, and there was a big, long incision," says Eli. "When I saw it, it hit me what he'd gone through. He needed a wheelchair and then a walker and a cane to get around. I try to picture myself in his situation—and to picture Peyton in his situation—and I'm telling you he dealt with it a thousand times better than either of us would have. He never complained. We never saw him cry. Cooper loved football as much as Peyton and I do, but he never let us know how much he was going to miss it."
He attended rehab sessions to learn how to walk again. When he attempted to get around without his walker or cane, he fell to the ground and skinned his knees. He tore holes in his jeans, and blood stained the fabric. "I couldn't tell I was falling," Cooper says. "I'd just get tired, and next thing you know I'd be lying there on the ground. I'd hear people saying, 'God, he's loaded.' I never told them any different."
Before she and Cooper were married, in 1999, Ellen Heidings felder wrote out a list of questions and had Cooper take her to see his doctor. There were times when Cooper's friends hugged him or slapped his back too hard, and his body went numb and he had to sit quietly for a while until the pain passed. It was a scary thing for Ellen to watch. Since the operation in '93, Cooper had undergone one more surgery, a cervical fusion. Even when he appeared to be hurting, he claimed to be feeling fine. When he returned from a visit to the doctor and Ellen asked how it had gone, he always said everything was O.K. His positive attitude seemed to preclude his sharing the hard truths about his health and long-term prognosis.