Cooper tackles decathlon in first year at Grambling

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 9, 2002

[05/04/02]For most college students, their freshman year includes new experiences like bad cafeteria food, dorm life and tougher classes.

For Terry Cooper, it’s also included learning to throw a javelin and pole vaulting.

Cooper, a former Vicksburg High football and track star, has learned his lessons well this year at Grambling. He is one of the favorites to win the javelin toss and the decathlon at this weekend’s Southwestern Athletic Conference track meet in Shreveport.

The meet began Thursday, and the decathlon concluded Friday. Results were not available. Cooper’s other two events, the javelin and high jump, were scheduled for today.

Although Cooper has done all of the individual events of the decathlon except the pole vault, this will be the first time he competes in the two-day decathlon as a whole. It’s also the first season he’s ever thrown the javelin.

“There’s not a whole lot of meets in the south that have the decathlon. It’s mostly the northern schools that dominate it,” Cooper said, adding that a lack of resources makes it tough for SWAC schools to compete in the decathlon on a national level. “That’s another color barrier that we haven’t conquered in track and field. … Most of the people that you think about in track and field, the runners are from the south.

“Anybody that does track here is usually sprinters. Nobody ever says I’m going to do the decathlon.’ ”

Cooper’s transformation into a decathlete isn’t that surprising. A linebacker and running back at VHS, he possessed a unique blend of size, speed and strength that helped him earn a football scholarship to Grambling.

In track, he advanced to the state meet in the high jump, 110-meter hurdles and the discus in his senior year.

At last year’s state meet, the high jump and discus finals were going on at the same time and there were several delays in the events as he shuttled from one end of Jackson’s Hughes Field to the other.

He finished sixth in the discus and third in the high jump, then turned in a second-place effort in the hurdles later in the day.

“He’s really talented. That’s why we have him for the decathlon. He has the size and strength of a Dan O’Brien,” said Grambling assistant coach Dedrick Evans, referring to the former Olympic decathlete. “Most guys coming from football see that there’s more money to be made on the football field than on the track, but he works just as hard here as he does there. … He works in the weight room with the football team in the morning, then comes out and works with the track team in the afternoon.”

Cooper said the extra work gives him an advantage, but it comes with a price. He had to participate in spring practice with the football team in April and missed two weeks of track. He’s still getting his legs back under him, and that could be his downfall at the SWAC meet.

“It’s going to affect me in the running. In the throwing events and the jumps, it’s not going to affect me as much,” Cooper said. “It may have hurt me in one place, but I still think I can finish in the top two (in the decathlon).”

On the other hand, his football background made him a natural at the javelin. Although Mississippi high schools don’t throw the javelin, the throwing motion for it is similar to throwing a football. Cooper, who played some quarterback in junior high, took to it immediately.

In his first practice throws, he launched the javelin more than 150 feet. He picked up pointers from several experienced throwers at various meets and finished third at the Jackson State meet earlier this season. He hoped to approach 170 feet at the SWAC meet.

“It was more fun than throwing anything,” Cooper said. “It was a new learning experience, and I have respect for everybody who’s ever done this.”

The javelin is only one part of the decathlon, however. The other nine events include a few that Cooper excels in like the discus, long jump, high jump, shot put, 110-meter hurdles and the 400 meters and a few that he doesn’t, like the 1,500 meters.

In the decathlon, athletes receive points based on times, heights or distances rather than from head-to-head competition, and the athlete with the most points at the end wins.

“Hurdles is the money event of the track meet. I run in the 14s (seconds), which will give me 900 points,” Cooper said.

And then there’s the pole vault. When Cooper vaulted at the SWAC meet, it was the first time he’s ever done it. He’d never even practiced it.

“I was kind of hesitant to even do the pole vault, especially after that guy died up there in Pennsylvania. You better believe everybody was talking about that,” Cooper said, referring to Penn State pole vaulter Kevin Dare, who was killed in a vaulting accident at the Big Ten conference indoor meet in February. “That one event may keep people from even doing the decathlon.”

Not Cooper, though. Although the event may keep him from winning the decathlon, he doesn’t fear it and believes he can pick up points from it.

An 8-foot vault about the length of the pole would net Cooper the minimum 500 points and keep him in the running for the overall title.

“In this conference, if he can get over it one time he should be OK,” Evans said.

The pole vault is probably Cooper’s biggest obstacle in the decathlon, but he’s vowed to work on it. Former VHS teammate Chris Withrow, who first suggested to Cooper that he should compete in the decathlon, vaults for Mississippi State and Cooper said he would try to work out with Withrow this summer. Any fear he might have is overwhelmed by a desire to be the best.

“I didn’t think nothing of it. People die of all kinds of things all the time. These are things that happen to you. You can’t do anything about it,” Cooper said. “You can die faster from football than the pole vault. I’m not going to let anything stop me.”