Jan. 22, 2010
El Paso, Texas - Shorter College fullback A.J. Cooley spent an entire four-year career starring in the NAIA with his spectacular blend of size and speed as a ball carrier.
For one day in February, Shorter's All-American fullback will have his chance to run with the big boys in the Lone Star State.
Cooley, the Hawks' all-time leading rusher and most decorated athlete, has been selected to participate in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Texas vs. the Nation All-Star Challenge on Saturday, Feb. 6 at Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, Texas.
"First of all, this is a great moment for A.J.," said Shorter head coach Phil Jones, who witnessed first hand Cooley's development into arguably the nation's top back. "He deserves this opportunity and has worked extremely hard to accomplish what he has. I am so proud of him and excited for him."
The Bowdon, Ga., native will suit up for the Texas squad wearing No. 2 and join 113 other Division I-A seniors eager to showcase their talents in front of over 40,000 fans and hundreds of National Football League scouts.
"When I found out that I was playing in this game I was ecstatic," said Cooley. "All I can think about is this being my big opportunity to make my childhood dream [of making it to the NFL] come true, but ultimately it's just another chance to play the game that I passionately love."
The Texas vs. the Nation All-Star Game, which pits top collegiate players originally from Texas or who played college football in Texas against top players from around the nation, began in 2007 and has a strong reputation for featuring the nation's best athletes.
The game has grown in size and significance at a rapid pace: 21,548 fans came to the inaugural game in 2007 as 79 players signed NFL contracts.
Last February, in the game's third year, more than 40,000 fans made the trek to El Paso while 111 out of the 119 participants went on to sign NFL contracts.
"A.J.'s character and determination will make him successful should he have an opportunity to play at the next level," Jones said, noting that Cooley's success on special teams - he had two kickoff returns for touchdowns this season and averaged 33.3 yards per return - could make him a valuable commodity in the NFL. "NFL squads have to have great athletes and because of his success as a kick returner, he has a great chance to make an impact."
Cooley will have a chance to perform in front of coaching staffs packed with star power.
Former Dallas Cowboys All-Pro and University of Tennessee standout Bill Bates will lead Team Texas while the Nation will be coached by former University of Miami head man, Howard Schnellenberger, who guided the 1983 Hurricanes to the school's first-ever national championship.
"Since learning about the coaches, I've been amazed by their resumes," Cooley said. "I feel honored yet excited at the same time to have the opportunity to play for Coach Bates and against Coach Schnellenberger.
"The hype of this game does add motivation to prepare harder and play up to my full potential."
Cooley unleashed that full potential on opposing defenses over his entire career as a Hawk and has certainly earned his place alongside his new NCAA Division I counterparts.
He finished his career with 4,111 yards and as the holder of every major Hawks' rushing record. Cooley carried a school record 743 times over his four-year tenure, scoring 50 rushing touchdowns and averaging 5.5 yards per carry.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pounder tallied single-season records of 1,558 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns in 2008, earning him Sporting News Preseason All-American prior to the 2009 campaign, when he rolled up 1,429 yards and 17 TDs while picking up 6.3 yards per rush and averaging 129.9 yards per outing.
"His physical makeup is a big plus and he has great vision, which gives him the opportunity to see subtle cuts," Jones said about Cooley, who was honored as the school's first-ever American Football Coaches Association All-American following the 2009 season. "Beyond that, he has a tremendous determination to be the best he can be and is never satisfied with where he is.
"A.J. is always pushing to get better."
Cooley ranked second in the NAIA in total rushing for the second straight year, finished third in the country in scoring and fourth in rushing yards per game. He eclipsed the 200-yard mark three times in 2009, including a school record 255-yard, four-touchdown effort in a win over Belhaven College that earned him NAIA National Player of the Week honors for the second time in his career.
Cooley was named the Mid-South Western Division Offensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, joining classmate Logan Lollis as Shorter's only two-time recipients of the league Player of the Year award.
"I'll be the first person to admit that without my teammates, none of this would be happening," Cooley said. "I understand that no matter where you play or who you play against, that no one player can win a game by himself. The thing that I will take with me from Shorter is the relationships with my teammates and coaches - it has been such a special experience for me."
Kick-off on Feb. 6 is scheduled for 2 p.m. EST, and CBS College Sports, who also broadcasts the NAIA Football National Championship that is held at Barron Stadium in Rome, will televise the contest.
The chance to play one more college game alongside the best football has to offer, all while representing his alma mater, is definitely a thrill for the Hawks' Lucky No. 7.
"This game will be my biggest honor as a Shorter College Hawk," said Cooley. "It gives me an opportunity to showcase Shorter in front of the entire nation and it also gives me the opportunity to continue playing the game that I love."