Cooper's job wears him out, but he's hooked

JOHN EISENBERG

November 07, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

For 23 years now Kenny Cooper has been making cold calls and running clinics in parking lots and visiting hospitals and knocking on unfamiliar doors and pestering passers-by and bouncing soccer balls off his head in shopping malls.

Twenty-three years of selling a game to a country not much interested in buying. Cooper was there in the beginning, when the first American pro leagues surfaced in the late '60s, and now, exactly half his life later, he is still working on the same sell.

His game has changed, from outdoor to indoor soccer, and he coaches now instead of playing goal. But the sell is the same. You shake hands and talk to grandsons and smile for neighborhood groups and agree to anything short of dropping ** out of an airplane without a parachute, all to get a few more people to come watch your team.

The tough part, of course, is that his hair is lined with gray now but everyone still asks the same, tired questions they did when it was black. When, if ever, is America going to buy this game? When, if ever, are all these kids playing soccer -- there are millions now -- going to grow up and start buying tickets?

Cooper doesn't have the answers, but he does know it's a long-odds proposition and he probably will live his life without seeing it fulfilled. You think that would discourage him, but you don't understand. You don't understand there is pioneer blood inside him.

"If you're not ready to die for something you love, you've never lived," he said the other day after a Blast practice, saying this without sounding maudlin, in that voice with so much England left in it. "It turns out I'm going to spend my life as a missionary. That's fine."

The missionary's life hasn't been bad, mind you. It lifted him out of the working man's streets of Blackpool, England, and has delivered him a house in the suburbs, a wife, four children, a love of golf: a perfect slice of the comfortable American life.

But then his league, the MSL, almost folded on him last summer, again, and his body has folded on him three times in the past few years, sending him to the hospital for extended stays. A blood clot in his leg. Diverticulitis. Bacteria in the gullet.

The toll of 23 years of selling? "No question," he said. "Some people have jobs. My job has me. And when you love something with a passion, it can make you sick.

"The fact is you live on the brink selling soccer here. Every day you're on the brink. If you can't adapt, you're in the wrong business. My wife asked if we'll ever have a summer without [league worries]. I told her no."

Cooper long ago grew accustomed to that inconstancy, accustomed to knowing anything could happen on this brink. In Dallas, where he played 11 years, he was once arrested for soliciting while wearing a bright orange Dallas Tornado jacket -- turned out some Joe Bobs didn't like this funny-talking kid knocking on their doors talking about his feet.

Within five years he was singing and dancing in a soft-drink commercial shown nationwide. It was a fast trip from Blackpool, where he'd been looking at a life of selling fish, playing lower-division soccer, going to pubs and playing bingo.

"Leaving home at 23 was the hardest thing I ever did," he said. "We're a close, emotional family. I remember turning around and looking at them in the window, knowing I probably wasn't coming back. That was tough. But still, I'm lucky to have come here and had this life."

This life: 23 years of selling so hard your body finally rebels. But look at the results. Look at an entire generation of soccer-playing kids. Look at the Blast still kicking after a dozen years, with a solid core of fans. Look at the World Cup coming to America in 1994. You can safely say it wouldn't have happened had Cooper and his buddies not left England and jump-started the process.

It's funny, though. The coming of the Cup is the pinnacle of years of pioneering, but now that it's happening Cooper is on the outside, preaching a different game, a disbeliever in the future of American outdoor soccer.

"Not enough scoring," he said. "You have to change with the times. There need to be new rules, more end-to-end. It's just plain arrogant to say, 'This is the game the world plays,' and expect this country to run to pick it up."

He has been around long enough to know this isn't the time for fractious politics, though, that the Cup will help promote all soccer in America. Besides, he couldn't stop now even if he wanted. He's hooked on the sell. Totally hooked.

If his league had folded on him last summer, he would have gone to England to work on getting the indoor game started there. As is, he wants the MSL to expand there. Talk about irony. A pioneer in his homeland. But now he's staying here, and the cycle of the sell rolls on. Hospitals, malls, speeches.

Any semblance of a substantial victory isn't in sight, of course -- not even with a telescope. But that doesn't matter to Kenny Cooper. It just doesn't. He believes. He truly believes there is room for soccer in America.

Go ahead, call him crazy. Others, many others, have gone before you. "I am crazy, sure," he said. "See, the people selling soccer here, we're like boxers who don't hear the bell. We just keep coming. Maybe you don't believe it, but we'll always keep coming."

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