Big Sky Conference

DEFINING HIS OWN LEGACY: Kupp returns to EWU for relationships, not records


Editors note: This story originally ran on September 10, 2016. As Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp closes in on a historical college career, we continue to breakdown the statistics and stories on and off the field of this legendary Big Sky Conference player. This week EWU hosts the Montana Grizzlies for the last time in Kupp’s illustrious career. Kupp is 2-1 in his career against the Griz, including 16-57 loss at Montana in 2015, a 37-20 win in Cheney in 2014 and a 42-37 victory in Missoula in 2013. 

His future weighed heavily upon his body and his mind. He could sacrifice the durability and health that enabled him to shatter record after record. Or he could leave behind the Evergreen State and all the talent he had cultivated during a lifetime there to pursue his ultimate dream.

As he sat through a 24-hour fast, praying with his parents Craig and Karin and his wife, Anna, Cooper Kupp felt the magnitude of his memories made on the Palouse rush through is consciousness.

The faces of all those who influenced him flashed through his mind. Five years ago, Brandon Kaufman and Nick Edwards took him under their wings as the unheralded kid from the inner-city high school in the most crime ridden town in the state, the latest in a torch passing that has become entrenched among Eastern Washington’s record-setting pass catchers. Now Kupp is the monarch of the Eagles, the man challenged with setting the example and keeping the flame burning for those who look up to him.

As Kupp remembered all those he crossed paths and all those he still wanted to influence during his time in tiny Cheney, Washington, he felt overwhelmed. During his fasting and his time of prayer, Kupp remembered the words of his pastor. The holy man constantly reminded the deeply devote 23-year-old that only three things last forever for a man of faith: God, God’s will and the people the man walks with in his life.

He decided he wanted to be there to define himself as a leader of men. He wanted to be there to perform at an optimal level every second of his time between the white lines to satisfy the coaches who work so hard to better his future. Kupp wanted to be there as Eastern Washington chases its ultimate goal, the only pursuit more lofty than Kupp’s NFL aspirations: a national championship.

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10)/by EWU Athletics

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) vs Washington State in 2016/by EWU Athletics

“People will define success under their own terms but if you can walk off the field on your very last play and say, ‘I did the best I possibly could on every single snap every single day from the moment I set foot at Eastern until the moment I stepped off the field’, that’s a success,” Kupp said in July. “Anything past that is out of my control.”

Nine days after Eastern Washington fell to rival Portland State to stamp the first three-game losing streak of Kupp’s otherwise championship-laden football career, with the recent recollections dancing between his ears, Kupp relinquished control. He ignored the hype of NFL Draft pundits who assured him he would be at worst a third-round selection. He resisted the temptation of the seven-figure checks that would come with turning pro. The best player the Big Sky Conference has ever seen made his seismic decision: Kupp would return to terrorize the FCS for one more season.

“It’s a weight lifted. I don’t have to worry about what happens after this year,” Kupp said. “There’s nothing past this year that I can control at all. I can just live in the moment and that’s a beautiful thing. It’s already been the best seven months of my life. And the best part hasn’t even happened yet.”

If Kupp plays weightless as a fifth-year senior, the rest of the FCS is certainly in trouble. His final season is already rising like a rocket ship after a 12-catch, 206-yards, three-touchdown performance in EWU’s opener against Washington State, his latest dominate performance against a Pac 12 opponent. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder already has more yards (4,970) and receptions (323) than any player in the history of the Big Sky Conference. His three touchdowns last week in Eastern’s 45-42 victory over Washington State gives him 59 in his consensus All-America career, one more than New Hampshire’s David Ball, a record that stood for nine years before Kupp shattered it with at least 10 games remaining in his illustrious collegiate run.

He enters Saturday’s matchup needing 72 more catches and 280 more yards to pass former Elon standout Terrell Hudgins (2006-2009) for the all-time FCS marks. Those records would double as all-time marks for Division I football, FBS or FCS. He needs two more scoring grabs to pass former Rice standout Jarrett Dillard (2005-2008) for the all-time Division I touchdown mark. Kupp’s average season during his first three years at EWU: 104 catches, 1,588 yards and 19 touchdowns.

“He’s going to be the greatest receivers to ever play college football,” said Edwards, a former Eagles’ All-America pass catcher himself who piled up 215 catches, 2,634, and 33 touchdowns in a career that ended in 2012 and who now serves as EWU’s wide receivers coach. “If he keeps going, you won’t be able to deny it.

“Hopefully he stays healthy, but I know he will because he takes care of his body. His legacy will be up there for college football. The sky is the limit for the kid’s legacy. If they did statues, he would have a statue out front the stadium in Cheney.”

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10)/by EWU Athletics

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10 vs Washington State in 2016)/by EWU Athletics

Kupp came to Eastern Washington by circumstance, accepting a partial scholarship from the Eagles despite changing the culture of Yakima by leading A.C. Davis High — an inner city school formerly know for its hoops and its hoodlums — to within a game of the Washington 4A state playoffs. After a redshirt season filled with growth, study and relentless polishing of his ever-developing craft, Kupp wasted no time bursting onto the scene.

In his debut as a redshirt freshman, Kupp caught five passes for 119 yards and two touchdowns as Eastern Washington upset No. 25 Oregon State 49-46 in Corvallis, becoming just the fourth FCS team to beat a ranked squad from the FBS. He’s continued to feast on Pac 12 competition in the Northwest, refusing to let the powers that overlooked him forget it.

Last season, Kupp set Autzen Stadium records of 15 catches for 246 yards against Oregon, including three scoring grabs. The year before that he caught eight passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns against Washington – the alma mater of his grandfather, Jake Kupp, who went on to become a Hall of Fame offensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints in the 1970s.

Add in Saturday’s performance and Kupp’s stat line against Pac 12 opponents reads: 40 catches for 716 yards and 11 touchdowns, or roughly 10 catches for 180 yards and three touchdowns per game. Following his 200-yard outing against the Cougars, Washington State head coach Mike Leach called Kupp “the best player on the field.”

Last season against Northern Colorado, Kupp’s powers were on full display. With his team trailing 41-40 with 79 seconds to play, he morphed into a man possessed. Kupp hauled in three receptions against double coverage including a 31-yard catch to flip the field to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired. He finished the game against a team with one of the Big Sky’s more athletic secondaries with 20 catches for 275 yards and three touchdowns.

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp vs Montana State in 2015/by EWU athletics

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp vs Montana State in 2015/by EWU athletics

“He’s a special kid, man,” Northern Colorado head coach Earnest Collins Jr. said this summer. “He’s a phenomenal talent. I think the kid is going to be the next great slot receiver in the NFL. I’m not saying that lightly. I think he’s phenomenal in space. He has a knack for getting open. I wish the kid would’ve came out this year because I think he could contribute a great deal on someone’s NFL roster this year.”

“For those old enough to remember, and I’ve been saying this for years, he is the next (former Seattle Seahawks standout) Steve Largent,” added Idaho State head coach Mike Kramer, who was the only Big Sky coach to offer Kupp a full scholarship. “He’s deceptive and crafty and competitive but instead of 5-foot-10, he’s 6-2.”

For as long as he can remember, Kupp cannot stop the battle within his own mind.

He remembers driving back from yet another basketball tournament after riding the bench as an eighth grader. It made him feel frustrated. He remembers as a teenager his growth stunting and any athletic attention passing him by. It made him feel unworthy. He remembers trying to change the perception at the toughest high schools in one of Washington’s toughest towns. It made him feel misunderstood.

Kupp still remembers the first time he realized just how hard he might have to work if he wanted to live up to his family’s athletic lineage. Riding back from an AAU basketball tournament in Portland, Craig bluntly told Cooper what needed to happen for him to succeed.

Craig, a former fifth-round draft pick as a quarterback by the New York Giants, told Kupp that he would have to find fortitude within his heart if he was ever going to make it as a varsity athlete. He told Cooper he’d have to persevere despite his size limitations — he was 5-foot-6 at the time — and use his drive to succeed.

Around that time, Kupp and his friends decided to make a statement about the environment around them as well.Yakima has four high schools: East Valley, West Valley, Eisenhower and A.C. Davis. When Kupp entered high school, he and his circle elected to enroll at Davis, the high school in the middle of the city. The school has long been known for its basketball, its rough reputation and not much else.

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) vs Northern Arizona in 2015/by EWU Athletics

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) vs Northern Arizona in 2015/by EWU Athletics

A study published by the Congressional Quarterly ranked Yakima alongside notoriously dangerous cities like Compton, California and Trenton, New Jersey as among America’s most crime ridden. The recording of 471 violent crimes and 4,684 property crimes were the single highest figures of any city under 100,000 people in the United State. Davis had the reputation as the city’s most violent high school.

Around town, everyone always talked about Davis High being “nothing but a bunch of gang bangers,” Kupp said. Eisenhower was the “goody two-shoes school”. So Kupp’s group decided to change the perception.

“We had a goal beyond ourselves to reshape what Davis looked like in Yakima. That was in 2007,” Kupp said in an interview in 2015. “We graduated in 2011. This last year, 700 freshman enrolled at Davis and 200 enrolled at Ike.”

Former Eastern Washington receivers coach Junior Adams coached at Montana State for four seasons under Mike Kramer before Kramer’s firing in the spring of 2007. Adams landed on his feet at Prosser High, a 2A program in central Washington about an hour from Yakima. Former Bobcat coach Jay Dumas was coaching at Davis High and he’d tell stories to Adams of an undersized, yet precocious wide receiver with a ton of upside. At the time, Kupp was still just 5-foot-6 and weighed 130 pounds.

In 2009, Adams joined Beau Baldwin’s staff at EWU. By 2012, he talked his boss into taking a chance on a willowy wideout whose only other offer was from cellar-dwelling Idaho State. Before arriving on campus, a growth spurt shot up two inches to 6-foot-2 and gained weight up to 185 pounds.

During his redshirt season that fall, he transformed himself physically, working constantly to get up to 200 pounds and honing his flawless footwork early each morning. Late at night, Baldwin and Adams would have to kick Kupp out of the facility because if they didn’t, he would watch film until sunrise.

All fall, Adams challenged Kupp, telling him he would never make it in a group with such a rich legacy. As he watched Kaufman, Edwards and Greg Herd reach new levels and garner All-America status, he wondered if he could ever compete at the Division I level.

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) vs Washington State in 2016/by EWU Athletics

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) vs Washington State in 2016/by EWU Athletics

“Cooper will be the first to tell you that a lot of people didn’t think he was going to play here,” Eastern senior wide receiver Shaq Hill said in an interview last season. “Coach Adams is the one who said he couldn’t play here. That chip will never be off his shoulder.”

Instead, Kupp laid the foundation for his prodigious legacy by winning the Jerry Rice Award as the FCS’ top freshman. He hauled in 93 passes for 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns, all records for a freshman receiver in Division I, breaking the records previously held by Randy Moss. He’s continued to build, catching 104 passes for 1,431 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014 and hauling in a Big Sky-record 114 passes for 1,642 yards and 19 touchdowns to earn FCS Offensive Player of the Year honors last fall.

Since announcing he would return for his senior season, Kupp said the bad taste from last year’s failures still sits in his mouth. EWU bolted to a 5-0 start in Big Sky play only to lose to Northern Arizona, Montana and PSU in consecutive weeks to miss the playoffs for just the second time this decade.

“We had to rectify it and forget about it,” said Kupp, who still earned national honors during EWU’s 6-5 campaign. “We have to respond to it. We have to forget about last season. There’s nothing last season can do for us now.”

During one of Eastern Washington’s first meetings of spring drills, Kupp asked the EWU coaching staff if he could address the team. He stood in front of the room and asked his teammates to take a pen to paper and answer three questions: What is your ultimate goal? How does it benefit you and your team? Who is the biggest opponent in you reaching that goal? To Baldwin, it was a sign of the only way the otherwise peerless football player has taken another step toward greatness.

“I think what defines success going into his senior year is why he came back: how can he truly develop as a leader of men as a senior? How can he lead as a senior, make a difference with these guys and bring other guys the way an incredible point guard can bring everyone around them and make their team better?” Baldwin said. “That’s one of the reasons he wants to come back. He gets one shot in his life to lead as a senior in college and he’s going to do it.”

Kupp has become the tone-setter for his team, in particular the wide receivers he spends most of his time with. If not for Kupp, players like Hill and Kendrick Bourne might be household names around the Big Sky. But the group has collectively decided to chase one common goal.

“We brag on best in the nation,” Kupp said. “If you are not trying to be the best at what you do, you shouldn’t be doing it. I come in every day and strive to be the best. That’s something our receiving corps does too. We make sure we are studying the greats. We have cut-ups of Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green, Antonio Brown, Larry Fitzgerald. We are in there studying to see what we can get from their games that can separate us even more from the pack.”

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) vs Montana State in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) vs Montana State in 2015/by Brooks Nuanez

Baldwin has spent most of the last 14 years at Eastern, including the last eight as EWU’s head coach. During that time, the baton of stellar wide receivers has been passed from Eric Kimble to Aaron Boyce, from Boyce to Kaufman and Edwards, and now from his predecessors to Kupp. Edwards, an All-America as a junior in 2011, has run out of technical things to show Kupp or ways to challenge his effort. Instead, he encourages is pupil to pass the tradition-laden torch to those behind him.

“Feed the knowledge back to the other players,” Edwards said. “It’s not about him anymore. It’s about the other teammates now. If we can get other people to take attention off you, the more balls you are going to get. Any time you are one-on-one in any scenario, no one can stop you and he understands that.”

Quite literally no one has been able to stop Kupp no matter who lines up next to him or in front of him. He already has more catches, touchdowns and yards than Jerry Rice did at Mississippi Valley State. Kupp has caught at least one touchdown in 33 of 39 career games and has surpassed 100 yards on 23 different occasions.

The 4.0 student in high school maintains a 3.62 grade-point average in economics and is closing in on his degree. He’s sure to be taken on the first two days of the NFL Draft in the spring, but his stock continues to rise. Last week, Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports suggested Kupp is a dark horse Heisman candidate. Moss was a Heisman finalist in Marshall’s first playing in Division I-A back in 1997.

“You don’t have to worry about the kid off the field, he’s technique driven and he’s a student of the game,” Edwards said. “I’ve been there, I’ve seen it what kind of talent level you have to have and he has it. He will get drafted. If he plays well, he could go in the first two rounds. He would’ve gone that high if he would’ve come out early.”

As the accolades continue to pile up and the records continue to fall like Seattle raindrops, the legend of Cooper Kupp continues to grow. Following the Wazzu win and the career record, EWU’s sports information department was bombarded by interview requests for their superstar. Kupp is aware he could’ve foregone another year of enduring the hype machine and studying for tests and being the marked man on scouting reports and trying to avoid physical catastrophe. But then he would have missed out on the one thing he values most.

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp/by EWU Athletics

EWU wide receiver Cooper Kupp/by EWU Athletics

“Records are meant to be broken,” Kupp said. “Week in and week out, records are broken and names fall. Slowly, the guy who set the record, 100 years from now, he might be 20th on the list. Records are meant to be broken and records don’t confirm anyone’s legacy. To me, your legacy is defined by your relationship with people.

“To be able to be here at Eastern with the guys I’ve been around, the relationships I’ve build with my teammates and my coaches, that’s the legacy I want to leave.”

Photos courtesy of Eastern Washington Athletics or noted. All Rights Reserved.


About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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