Sam Cooper: 2021 NFL Draft Prospect Interview Series

Photo: The Draft Network

Every NFL team knows the key to winning the draft is matching value with need and mining the later rounds for underrated prospects from smaller programs who may have fallen through the cracks.

One small-school prospect who should be getting plenty of attention this month is former Merrimack offensive lineman Sam Cooper, who spoke exclusively with The Draft Network about his journey from Nigeria to the United States, the trials and tribulations he’s had to overcome, and why an NFL team should give him a chance.

JM: What are some of your earliest memories of coming to the United States from Nigeria?

SC: My mom and I came here when I was a young kid. It was our dream to come to America. We always had aspirations of living here. I was very blessed to come here with my mom in 2003. We left my father and brother behind in Nigeria. It was extremely difficult for us as a family. We came here for a better opportunity. She chose me to come with her. We came here with the hopes of becoming citizens of this country. I became a citizen in July of 2019. We did it through hard work. I left my brother and my dad behind. I wanted a better opportunity for myself. I found it when I came here.

I came here and worked my tail off. I was searching for something more in life. I was looking for a chance. My brother was diagnosed with cancer in 2006. I wasn’t an athlete at the time. I was an extremely obese child. I came to America and began eating all the McDonald’s I could get my hands on. The next thing you know, my brother is on his deathbed with cancer. I made a promise to him that I was going to become a professional athlete. He dreamed of coming to the United States and becoming a basketball player. He was, unfortunately, unable to live out that dream. I told him that I was going to do it for him.

I made up my mind that day. I began focusing all of my energy into becoming a pro athlete. I was obsessed with baseball in the beginning. I watched a ton of baseball. I played little league. I was really good in middle school. When I went to Archbishop Ryan [High School], I walked into the wrong locker room (laughs). I walked into the football locker room by mistake and found my true passion. Isn’t that crazy? Through serious drive, determination and dedication, I started focusing on a new goal. The football coach started bothering my mom about giving me a chance to play football. I found myself on the team and I had never played a game before. My only football experience up to that point was on Madden (laughs). The next thing you know, it took off for me.

JM: That’s quite the story. What a crazy journey you’ve had. Life eventually brought you to Maine before you eventually transferred to Merrimack.

SC: When I was in high school, from my sophomore to junior year, I transferred from Archbishop Ryan to Conwell Egan. I encountered a bunch of mentors there. I met my head coach Steve Schweiker there. Coach Schweiker was a really good motivational source for me. He motivated and directed me to love the game even more than I already did. I was named a captain after my junior year. I went to a camp at Temple. I met all of the schools I ended up getting scholarship offers from. I received scholarship offers from Sacred Heart, Maine, Wagner, and a bunch of other smaller FCS schools.

One thing that was crazy, I met [current Carolina Panthers head] coach Matt Rhule at that Temple camp. He called me and five other guys out there. He made us do one-on-one drills. We did that. We were battling it out in front of coach Rhule. He actually picked out one kid and gave him a full ride to Temple. I left that camp with other scholarship offers. I received a bunch of additional offers during my senior year. They were all smaller schools at the FCS level. My original idea was to go to Sacred Heart. They had an amazing offensive line coach at the time. I wish I remembered his name. It escapes me at this moment. I wanted to go play for him more than anything. I originally committed to Wagner, though. I de-committed from there and committed to Maine after taking my visit up there.

I’ll be honest with you. I went to Maine because I thought it was the most uncomfortable situation for me. That probably sounds crazy to you. Kids usually pick a school because they love it (laughs). I went to Maine because I thought I was gonna be uncomfortable. I thought everything was going to be harder there. I purposely took the hard road in life. I redshirted my freshman year at Maine. They moved me to center so that I could learn the position behind an All-American they had there. After the first year, I picked up a minor injury. I felt like I could play through it but they disagreed. I wasn’t ready. My last year there, I played some football at Maine. I decided to transfer at the end of the season.

I spoke with Jesse Jones, who I met during a visit to Sacred Heart. He told me about [head] coach Dan Curran at Merrimack. He told me that coach Curran plays the type of football that I would love at Merrimack. He told me that it was a tough, hard-nosed program. He said it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I fell in love with the idea. Coach Curran called me after I was granted my release from Maine. We missed each other’s calls a couple of times. We finally connected when I was on my way home from Walmart this one night. We clicked instantly. We were on the phone for almost two hours. I remember calling my mom immediately. I told her I didn’t care what kind of facilities they had. I didn’t care if they had one dumbbell in the entire gym and a sand football field. I wanted to play football for coach Curran at Merrimack.

Coach Curran is one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever been around. I’ll be honest with you. My love for the game was starting to disappear at Maine. I wasn’t feeling it anymore. At that point, I didn’t love it as much as I did in high school. Coach Curran lit that spark for me again. From our very first conversation, he told me everything that was going to happen for me. It was crazy. He told me I would get a chance to be a captain. I became a captain within one year. He told me I would get a chance to start. I basically became a starter after my first practice. 

He told me I’d have a chance to play in the NFL. Fast forward to today and NFL teams are calling me every single day right now. Everything worked out. I thank God. I don’t regret a single thing. I thank God for everything he’s done for me throughout my life. He put me in this position.

I’ve had so many amazing mentors in my life. John Kalinowski was a strength coach of mine at Conwell Egan. He really helped me transform my body. He came into my life during my junior year going into my senior year. I became super strong because of this man. This man transformed my game (laughs). I received most of my offers after my senior year. I met with all of those schools at the Temple camp, but I blew up after my senior year and it was mostly because of coach Kalinowski. He took my bench press from 315 to 405. He took my squats from like 405 to 555. Everything went through the roof because of him. I need to give him that credit. 

JM: Everything is working out exactly like he said he would. I have to ask you about that viral play. You know which one I’m talking about. You were blocking that guy and you stayed engaged despite the play being like 25 yards away at one point (laughs). I’m sure you’ve seen the clip making its rounds on Twitter. Where does that attitude and technique come from?

SC: I’ve been all about my work ethic my entire life. My dad died in 2009. He was stabbed 17 times in Lagos, Nigeria. I used to watch him leave the house for work at three in the morning and he didn’t come back until 11 at night. When I first started playing football, it was totally new to me. I didn’t know anything about the game. I had to do something to set myself apart from everyone else. 

I’m not the most talented guy in this draft, but I work harder than anybody I’ve ever met. I’ve been doing that block since high school. When I was a freshman, I knew this one player that used to block people through the whistle. I loved his style. I used to watch him execute a blindside block. I remember my best friend and I were sitting together on the bus one day and I told him that I wanted to create a block that was gonna make people nervous (laughs). He thought I was crazy. I told him to watch out for me.

We had a game. I walked up to the midfield for the coin toss. I was always hyped before a high school game. I was wearing those Nike bicep bands. The referee looked at me and said, “No bands allowed in this game. Maybe you’ll be good enough to play DIII football someday. You can wear all the bands you want then.” I saw red. I was furious. I couldn’t believe I was insulted like that.

I knew that was going to be the best high school game I’ve ever played. I grabbed this kid on the first play of the game and I drove him from the 30-yard line to outside the back of the end zone (laughs). I dumped him outside. It became my signature block. I’ve been doing it every year. I did it at Maine. I did it a bunch during my senior year of high school. I did it a bunch of times at Merrimack. It’s how I like to block. I like blocking through the whistle. That’s how football should be played. I respect the game. It’s a block that takes away my opponent’s energy. They don’t wanna play anymore. It sets the tone for the game.

JM: That’s so great. Earlier, you alluded to the amount of interest you’ve been receiving from NFL teams. You had a chance to meet with a few teams in person during the all-star circuit. You also had a bunch of teams at your Pro Day. What’s that been like, and who are some of the teams you’ve met with?

SC: I met with a bunch of teams at the Hula Bowl. I didn’t play football in 2020. Our season got canceled. It was crazy because when I declared, a bunch of all-star games immediately showed interest in me through my coach and through my agent. I got invited to the East-West Shrine [Bowl] game. The Hula Bowl connected my coaching staff. I ended up getting invited to the Tropical Bowl, the NFLPA game, and the College Gridiron Showcase. I didn’t end up going to the CGS game because it was so close to the Tropical Bowl.

The Tropical Bowl was a coming-out party for me. That was the first time NFL scouts had seen me in over a year. That was a great experience. I went there and played a good game. Going back to that block we discussed earlier, I ended up driving a kid from Virginia Tech through the end zone at the Tropical Bowl (laughs).

I didn’t go to the CGS the following week as I said. It was just a little too close to the Tropical Bowl. I went to the Hula Bowl and met with a bunch of teams. I met with the Cleveland Browns out there. I’ve spoken with them a ton. I’ve spoken with the Chiefs. The Dolphins called me. The Texans, Giants, Patriots, and Vikings were at my Pro Day. I met with scouts from the Chargers, Bills, Falcons, and Eagles at the Tropical Bowl. I met with a Giants scout for the second time at the Hula Bowl. I’ve met with the Giants a bunch of times.

JM: There’s a lot of interest in you and it’s easy to see why. I’ve really appreciated your time today. This has been terrific. In closing, why should an NFL team use one of its draft picks on Sam Cooper?

SC: I work harder than anybody you’ve ever met. I’m dedicated. I’ve been through it all. I’ve seen it all. I’m relentless. A lot of people like football. A lot of people love football. I live and breathe football. It’s my life. I downright enjoy it. This is what I do. I wake up every single morning and I attack my goals based on me being a successful football player. Everything I do is based on achieving my dream. I wanna help a team win. I’ve been a leader everywhere I’ve been. I’ve been a captain at every level.

I never played left guard until I went to Merrimack. My coach told me that if I wanted to help a team, I should play left guard. I never looked back. If a team wants me to play center, I’ll gladly do that. I can play both guard positions. I can learn the tackle position. I’m a team-first guy. I’m gonna do whatever it takes to help the team succeed.

Written By:

Justin Melo

Writer, Interviewer

Justin Melo is an NFL draft analyst that cut his teeth at The Draft Breakdown and USA Today's Draft Wire. He specializes in interviewing prospects, but also produces big boards, mock drafts, and scouting reports. He also covers the Tennessee Titans nationally for Broadway Sports Media and SB Nation.

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