For a team with the choice at or near the top of every round in the 2013 NFL Draft, it's been a strange subtext to a magical season that the 9-1 record of the Kansas City Chiefs has little do with its draft class. Instead of any real impact from the incoming crop (besides Eric Fisher and the occasional Knile Davis sighting), the rookie making waves was instead a preseason waiver claim from the San Francisco 49ers. His name is Marcus Cooper.
Cooper has undoubtedly been the gem among a batch of rookies that have yet to make their mark. The Chiefs have turned things around largely on the backs of their veterans, both coaches and players. With impact performances in multiple games, Cooper's story is a surprising and necessary one for a team that needed one more dynamic performer in the defensive backfield.
In a recent conversation with Cooper's agent, Bill Baldini, we got the story of his collegiate career, the numerous teams interested in him and even why he wears No. 31. The story below comes from an interview with Baldini.
"I'll tell you my story," Baldini said in a recent phone interview.
"I was in law school. I was a football player in college and I broke my neck. Fractured six vertebrae in my neck, herniated two discs and I was never allowed to play again. It was a very severe injury and football was always such a big part of my life that I couldn't get rid of it. So I was always around football. I always tried to stay around it. I was coaching a semi-pro team in law school when I decided at the time that I was going to try to be an agent.
"At that time I really didn't know anything about being an agent. I didn't know anything about registration, and the NFLPA. I didn't really know anything, but all I knew is that's what I wanted to do. I talked to the agents around the area in New York and just tried to get an idea of what I needed to do. And everybody was very nice and took their time out and really liked me and wrote me letters about how, 'In the summertime, give me a call,' and stuff like that.
"And then I asked this one guy, Joe Solano -- I don't know if you know that name, but he's an old-timer, is from the Philadelphia area and has like the entire 1980 Eagles team -- so I asked him, 'How did you get into being an agent?' And he goes, 'You grow up next to a first-round draft pick.' And I go, 'Seriously?' And he says, 'No. I'm telling you that it used to be so much easier and now it's gotten so much harder.'
"Well the truth of the matter is I kind of did. Anthony Becht was a guy that I grew up with and I was actually a year older than Anthony. I was a cornerback, he was a tight end. And I used to line up against him when we played. There was one game where I absolutely abused him because, back then he was 6'2", 6'3", 180 pounds, and I wasn't a big guy, I was 5'11" 175 pounds, but I was a lot more compact than he was and I loved to hit, so I hit him on every play to the point where his mom called me a bully.
"Fast forward two years, he grows four inches and puts on 85 pounds to the point where the next time I see him I don't even recognize him because he was at West Virginia. But we had always stayed close and there was that thing said between friends and around people that we're friendly with, it was like, "Hey, Baldini should be your agent, ha ha." And it was something I didn't even think of. I said, "You know what? I don't know anything about it. I wouldn't even think about being somebody's agent when I don't know anything about the business. This is his career; I'd never do something like that.
"And if I had known then what I know now," Baldini continued, "I would have probably shopped him. We would have done it together and been like a package deal to a big firm. But I didn't, and I didn't push it, and Anthony went with ...I forget who it was ... Mark Chmura's agent is all I remember, and he was drafted in the first round by the Jets.
"And my second year of law school, Jerry Maguire came out, and all of a sudden, everybody wanted to be an agent. These guys that were having 45-minute calls with me were now not even talking to me. They would send these letters back saying, "Sorry, we have so many resumes now." One guy called me back and he said, "Listen, I would love to talk to you, but I have 500 resumes on my desk and two of them that I just put to the side were a Harvard and a Yale law school student." So I'm just like, okay, this is going to be a tough road for me.
"So I go forward and get into corporate law and negotiating contracts and I work for some big companies and am known for being this negotiating guy that loves to do it. So it kind of fit in well, but I never really had an opening to do that. It was always in the back of my mind, but I never really had an opening.
"What I did was I talked to that same agent again and he was like, "Yeah, I'm not really in it anymore. I'm just teaching." I was trying to save up for an engagement ring for my wife and was looking for extra work to do, so I was on Craigslist or something and there was an attorney that needed a review of his contracts from the weekend. So I went on his website and it turns out he was an agent as well. And he was in the business for like 35 years.
"So I stalked this guy. When I say "stalk," I mean I called him every week for 10 months. And it was to the point where one day he just said, "Fine." And I go, "Fine, what?" And he said, "You start Monday." And I was convincing him that not only did he need me as a lawyer, but he needed me as an agent as well. And he was like, "I'm kind of shutting it down. I don't really do that. I only really work with coaches anymore." And I was like, "Look, I'll learn the business from you, I'll push the business forward, we'll do this." And I worked with him for about three years. That agent that I had talked about before, Jim Solano, was also working with us, so it was me and two seasoned vets and I really got to know the business a little bit.
"It turned out that my style was a little different from theirs, that I wanted to be more aggressive. There were a few things -- I don't want to disparage anybody -- but it just didn't work anymore. I was doing consulting work with a law firm and they tried to convince me to start up a sports agency with them. And if they started it up they just wanted an extra business on the side and they thought I would be a good person to run it. So that's what we did, and at one point Pennsylvania needed us to disclose our financial records and these guys weren't willing to do it. One was going through a divorce and one was the managing partner of the law firm and they were like, "No, I'm not doing that." And they said, "This is your agency now," and so that's how it started."
"My first sign was Anthony. Anthony came over from Drew Rosenhaus. He left Drew and came over to me. Drew had told him he was done and he was out of football for a year at that point, and when Anthony told me he was thinking of doing it I said, "Look I get it. You're going to be leaving Drew Rosenhaus. It's almost like an impossible thing. I'm not going to try to convince you to do it. If you want to do it, that's great. You're either his number whatever, or my number one." And I go, "But what a great story that would be for you to come to me, and after a year and a half of Drew not being able to get you a job I am able to get you a job in a month." And he goes, "Oh you're going to get me a job in a month, huh?" I go, "I will get you a job in a month," and he's like, "Yeah, there's a passion I can hear in your voice," and he was just great with me.
"He gave me a shot, and I got him a workout with the Atlanta Falcons within two weeks, and a lot of people didn't know he was still in football. He didn't get the workout just because he wasn't in shape. Two weeks later he got another one with Kansas City and Kansas City brought him in and he spent another year in Kansas City and really got to play his last year of football and really enjoy it in Kansas City of all places. He wore Gonzalez's number too, and they actually look alike, so it was almost like they just plugged in like a stunt double for Gonzalez.
"But that's really how it got started. And then I found this niche with veterans who maybe their agents kind of gave up on them. That was my niche. Like Anthony Davis, from Virginia Tech, who was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, signed with me, and then Shane Olivier, who's obviously one of the NFL's All-Rookie team for the San Diego Chargers. And Mark Jones who was also with a few teams like the Carolina Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There were just a lot of guys talking to me now and understanding that maybe I would do a little bit more than a guy that had a bunch of big-time talent, and that's really what started it."
"Well, Greg van Roten was a kid from Penn. He's an offensive lineman and he's just a phenomenal athlete, like a freak of nature, but he went to Penn so he kind of got buried. I talked to him and because he grew up in the same town as Shane Olivier he wanted to come with me, and I got this kid from Penn onto the Green Bay Packers. I'm not saying that it was all me, but it was one of those things that people started talking about.
"And then the next year I get a phone call from a kid named Anthony Glaud. I was talking with one of his friends about representing him, and he was sitting in on the conversation, and he said, "When I heard you talking to him, I realized my brother's going to be represented by this guy." And I go, "Well who's your brother?" And he said, Ka'Lial Glaud, the linebacker for Rutgers. Would you be interested in meeting with him?" And I said, "Yeah, I'd love to meet him." And I spoke to Ka'Lial, and Ka'Lial brought around Marcus Cooper.
"I kind of tell the guys right away who I am. I tell them right away that I'm a corny guy. I love football. I have a love affair with football. I'm not just this business guy and I think this is a good way for me to make money. I'm all about the game. I tell them I need my guys to love the game as well because I won't understand you if you don't. If you're looking for a paycheck, I won't get you as a person and I'm not your guy. I'm big on character guys, guys who work hard. I talk to the teammates and I talk with the coaches and find out what kind of kids these guys are before I get into bed with them.
"And Coop was kind of a nobody. He was a guy that didn't really play that much, and I looked at this kid and he's just physically very impressive, and his personality was perfect for me. He told me, "I'm the hardest worker you'll ever meet. I don't think anybody's better than me." He's a quiet guy, but he's just got this great smile and great laugh, and he's kind of like me in the sense that I am overly affectionate with people. I'm an Italian guy, and it's like we're cut from the same mould. At the end of our conversation it wasn't just this half-hug, it was an embrace. I hugged Coop and I knew that this was my guy. I talked to everybody on that team and you ask anybody on that team who's the best athlete, they said without hesitation that it was Coop. "He's a great guy. You'll never have a problem with him." So I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna take a shot.'
"He worked his ass off. I sent him down to a training facility in Atlanta and he did great. Funny enough is that at the training facility is Anthony Glaud, he's one of the trainers, and he would give me detailed play-by-plays of what was going on every day, and how hard these guys worked. He told me, 'I really want to get drafted,' and I said, 'You want to get drafted? Jesus Christ [unintelligible] but I'll do what I can.' And then I start talking to people, and teams kind of liked the idea of him and then his Pro Day came and he just killed it. And then I get a few more conversations and I try to talk to the teams and tell them what's going on with other teams and get them more interested in the idea of drafting him."
"The 49ers were definitely the guys that were most excited about the idea [of drafting Marcus]," Baldini said. "The sixth round came and went and then the seventh round they had like five picks, and with their last pick-the 252nd pick, they finally drafted Marcus.
"And this is the part that I just want to tell you about the San Francisco 49ers. A lot of people are dogging them right now because they gave up Marcus Cooper. The truth is they had an idea, they had a plan for Coop. Clearly they didn't think he was going to explode the way he did, but they saw his talent. They saw what was possible with him and they really loved him.
"They wanted to get him behind Nnamdi Asomugha and have him learn how to be a cornerback from a guy with a similar body type, a similar athletic ability, and I think that that really helped him in the preseason. I think he learned a lot.
"As you might be able to tell, he's a quick study; all he needed was someone to take him under his wing. That's what Nnamdi did there and when he got put on waivers I was kind of shocked because I thought I understood where they were going with it. They just kind of hid him in the preseason and they wanted to get him on the cheap, get him on the practice squad and try to get him to learn how to be a cornerback. I heard there were five waiver bids for him and Kansas City had the highest one. Kansas City brought him in and the rest is history."
"The [Chiefs] put him with [Chiefs assistant coach and former NFL CB] Al Harris, and Chris Ballard, a player personnel guy from Kansas City. He just told me, "I looked at him on the field when we played against the 49ers and I said, ‘Watch the way this kid moves. If there's ever any opportunity to get him, we're taking him.'
"He told Al Harris about it, and said, 'This kid reminds me so much of you. I want to give him number 31.'
"A lot of people don't realize it, but that's why he has the number 31, because it's Al's number. Al's been like the best coach and mentor and friend he could have asked for, along with guys like Brandon Flowers. Brandon Flowers, when he got banged up, did as much as he could to help Coop keep that place just because he's a team guy. I think that's what makes Kansas City, especially their defense, so different from everybody else. I feel like the defense really loves each other and they're just trying to make each other better and do whatever it takes to get ahead.
"It was one of the those moments Ballard had where he saw the guy move and he just said, "We're going to get this kid no matter what." I don't know if they would have watched tape or if something would have happened anyway. Maybe they were searching for a tall, long corner like Coop, but whatever happens, it worked out.
"And I'll tell you what, Coop has fallen in love with this city and the fans and this team. He's a kid that deserves it. He's always done everything right. He's always done everything for the team to the point where he screwed himself. At Rutgers, he thought by moving to defensive back, "That's what the team needs, that's what I'll do," and he was a stud receiver, but he made the move because that was the best thing for the team and it really ended up being the best thing for him."
"He's pretty even-keeled," Baldini said of how Cooper was feeling on draft day. "He would ask me what was going on every now and then, and he inquired but he's one of those guys who just says, "Whatever happens, happens." But he let me know that he really wanted to get drafted.
"In the beginning of the seventh round is when they start talking about what I'm going to do for your guy when he doesn't get drafted, and that's what teams start talking about. And then there are other teams that start talking like, "We're thinking about taking him," so rather than me keeping that under my hat, I just let everybody know. I didn't feel like being a jerk about it.
"So I said to the 49ers, "Dallas just called and they're thinking about drafting him, and the Eagles just called and they're thinking about drafting him. I know that you guys have five picks in the seventh round, so are you going to use one on him or not?"
"I talked to [someone on the 49ers] and that was the guy that really saw something and he said, "I'm working so hard. I'm going to try to get him. I'm going to try to get him." And I said, "Listen, the fact that you guys have been talking about him so much, if you don't take him, I don't know how he's going to react to that."
"That's one thing about Coop, he gets chips on his shoulder. He'll get a chip on his shoulder because he wasn't drafted by a team, or because he was waived or because he didn't play that much or because he didn't get the scholarship offers he thought he deserved. I love that about him, and I kind of warned him, I said, "I don't know if this is going to happen. There are teams that are calling that are going to throw money at us if he makes it through."
"So then they said, "Okay, we're going to make sure we get him."
"People talk like that all the time, and when Coop's pick came they said, "This is the one we're taking him on," and I said, "I won't believe you until I see his name on the screen." But sure enough, it happened, and as I said, Coop's even-keeled, but that was one of those moments where it was just the beginning for him. And he knows it. Just because they're talking about Defensive Rookie of the Year and there's people talking about how great he is in Kansas City, he doesn't let that get to him. He just wants to get better. He's a film rat and he's a student. He just wants to sit there and learn as much as he can. That's what's going to make him great.
"I think he's going to make his money not giving up on passing lanes. I don't know if you've noticed but guys will have the ball in their hands in the end zone and he does not stop moving his hands. It's one of my favorite things about him is that he doesn't give up on a play until a ref tells him to stop playing. He's made a few good plays because of that. I couldn't be happier for him. He comes from a great family. He's the only boy with two sisters. The family is a tight-knit group and I've gotten really close with them, so it's just a perfect fit. A real perfect fit for each other."
"I watch football in a completely different way than I ever used to because I really do care about these guys," Baldini said. "I watched him go in [to the Giants game in Week 4] and start playing, and I got nervous like it was my son playing. I know that as a rookie, there are some moments that can either build your confidence or crush you, and obviously I didn't want anything to crush the kid.
"And then it was just a pure hustle play to get to that ball for the touchdown [on special teams against the Giants], and it was a moment of who wants it more? And he was not going to be outdone by anyone, he wanted that ball, and then he gets the interception. In the fourth quarter he made himself real big, but I watched those games at the edge of my seat, sweating and biting my nails.
"I know that I missed the touchdown for the Raiders in the beginning of the game and I just texted his Mom at the beginning of the game and said, "Was that Coop?" And she said, "Yes," and I was like, "No!" I talked to Coop afterward and he goes, "I got put in a bad position. That guy is just fast," and I go, "Yeah, he's a speedster." He said, "He was just so fast. I've never missed somebody and not had any chance to catch up to him before." It was one of those growing things."
"The truth is he had his welcome to the NFL moment in his first play as a San Francisco 49er," Baldini continued. "He was driven out of bounds on a punt. He was on the punt team and he was a gunner and he got driven so far out of bounds, I don't know, he might have been drinking Gatorade on the sidelines at one point. He was so far out. And I laughed. It was a preseason game, it was his first play, it didn't change anything that happened during that play, so it was a good thing that happened early. But he doesn't feel like a rookie anymore, he feels like he belongs. He's not trying to be somebody he's not, he's not out there trying to prove himself to anybody. He's just trying to be himself. And that's how I always try to end a conversation with him, by saying, "Just be you."
"You guys are much nicer out there, but in Philadelphia if somebody has success all the reporters try to get him to say something stupid. It always happens. But I tell him, "Look, I don't think anyone like that is going to try to talk to you, but just in case, don't let yourself get cornered into saying something in response to a question like, ‘Do you think you're better than Sean?' Don't say a word about it. If anyone asks you, ‘Do you think you should be playing safety and not corner?" don't say anything about it.
"You say, ‘Coaches are going to make all the decisions. I'll do whatever I can do. Whenever I get in there I'm going to play as well as I can." And he's like, "Bill, Bill. I got you." And I'm like, "You know what? I don't even need to have these conversations with you," and I stop myself and just say, "Just be you."
"He's gotten himself this far. He's got such a great personality and he's such a smart kid. He's not going to make those missteps. He's never going to be a character, he's always going to be the hardest worker on the field. He's a pleasure to be around and I say to his parents, "You should be proud of him as an athlete, but you should be more proud of him for the fact that he's as good of a man as he is, because he is a unique human being."