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Former Cal Poly football player Cooper found dead

Cal Poly’s Ernie Cooper, shown here in a 2006 game against Fort Lewis, was found dead Thursday morning at his home in Huntington Beach. The cause of death is yet to be determined.
Cal Poly’s Ernie Cooper, shown here in a 2006 game against Fort Lewis, was found dead Thursday morning at his home in Huntington Beach. The cause of death is yet to be determined. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Mark Restelli was video chatting with Ernie Cooper through Skype on Wednesday night, showing his former Cal Poly football teammate the bum knee that’s going to keep him away from his Canadian Football League team for the next nine weeks.

Cooper went into a routine that had to have become familiar by now, cheering up a fallen friend.

Cooper had enough to be cheerful about. A new place in Huntington Beach, where he had just celebrated his 25th birthday a month earlier, was home base for he and a few buddies readying for a night on the town.

The next morning, however, the double-digit number of missed calls greeting Restelli did more to put his knee injury into a wholly unwanted perspective than anything Cooper could have said.

Cooper, a lesser-known reserve on some of Cal Poly’s most prolific offensive football teams, was found unresponsive by a friend Thursday and could not be revived. The cause still to be determined, Cooper’s death sent ripples of grief crashing down on former teammates by Friday.

“I got a prognosis of eight to 10 weeks, but to lose a best friend, that’s just devastating,” said Restelli, a former Mustangs linebacker in his second season with the Edmonton Eskimos. “It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’ve been getting a lot of calls from a lot of the players, and everybody’s just dumbfounded and devastated.”

If not the superstar he desired to be on the field, the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Whittier native was remembered for his inspirational work ethic, his loyalty to friends and an outgoing nature that made him one of the more popular players in the locker room. “I met a bunch of great people in college,” said Restelli, who counts his shared sushi infatuation with Cooper and an afternoon the pair battled wits with the SWAT team in a training exercise at Camp San Luis Obispo among his favorite memories. “But I only had so many people I continued to talk to and hang out with on a consistent basis, and he’s one of those friends.”

Initially recruited to compete for the quarterback job after a standout career at La Serna High, Cooper was shuffled around the roster by then-Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson — going from quarterback prospect to a tactical running back-receiver hybrid and then finishing up as an injury-plagued backup free safety in 2008.

Cooper had five touchdowns combined in limited action his sophomore and junior years before shoulder surgery and concussion concerns forced him into a de facto retirement his senior season, one where he had been competing for a starting spot in spring drills.

He only touched the ball 21 times in his career but made the most of his opportunities.

Cooper’s most memorable performance came filling in for receiver Tre’dale Tolver against Fort Lewis in the 2006 season opener, when he took two end-arounds for touchdowns in the first five minutes.

“That fact that he played three different positions lets you know that he’s one of those guys that did whatever needed to be done,” said Tolver, who testified to Cooper’s popularity with the team.

“He always had a joke or a story for you to laugh at. One way or another, if you were talking to Ernie, the conversation was going to end in you laughing.”

Cooper’s career path was a contrast to his freshman roommate, wide receiver Ramses Barden, who went on to break NCAA touchdown records before being drafted by the New York Giants.

That divergence didn’t diminish the impact Cooper had on his teammates.

“That’s the most important thing to realize is behind every Ramses Barden is an Ernie Cooper,” said former teammate Pat Johnston, now an assistant coach with the Mustangs. “He was loved and respected by all of his teammates.”

Johnston and Cooper were competing for scout team quarterback reps as freshmen in 2004, but that didn’t stop Cooper from calling up his rival early in their first training camp looking to forge a friendship.

“He was just one of those guys that made you feel comfortable to be around him,” said Johnston, who spent Thursday nights his freshman year talking Cooper into line dancing on country night at The Graduate. “He made you feel like you could tell him anything. It’s just kind of like his whole energy was calming to others.”

Cooper also counseled roommates Vince Freitas and Pat Koligian, when they were hurt, leading each to refer to him as their most loyal friend.

Freitas, a former Paso Robles High standout, had an injury-plagued career that saw him spend all but 12 games of his college career on the sideline. Koligian dealt with knee and shoulder surgeries while at Cal Poly.

Both found the compassion they needed from Cooper.

“We had similar stories,” said Koligian, a former Mustangs offensive lineman now coaching at Sanger High. “I got switched around positions, I was injured a fair amount and we kind of joked around about it. You’d be down, but whenever you’re there, you got somebody to pick you up a little bit, especially him.”

Fond of the Friday afternoons they spent teeing off at Avila Beach Golf Resort, Freitas last spoke to Cooper leading up to his 25th birthday in June.

Since Cooper had moved near the beach, he asked Freitas to come by the party and drop off a surfboard. Cooper lent Freitas his when Freitas moved to San Diego for a community relations internship with the NFL’s Chargers.

Unable to make the party, Freitas never got the chance to return it.

“It’s a little weird to walk in my room and see that sitting there right now,” said Freitas, who like the others is unsure how to move forward after the death of his first college friend.

“That’s going to be kind of a tough one.”

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