Arizona Rattlers star Hernandez "Hunkie" Cooper's father named him after a war buddy, and he's honored.
By MIKE READLING
Published June 19, 2003
Hunkie Cooper's life is a legacy and it has nothing to do with him being one of history's best Arena football players.
The Ironman of the Year awards (he has two) and the Arena League MVP pales in comparison to the spirit and meaning behind the first name that only two people actually call him by - Hernandez.
It is a story that began in Vietnam, grew in a small Texas town and flourished in the Arizona desert. It is a story that, with every touchdown and honor bestowed upon Cooper, reinforces a promise his father made more than 35 years ago.
It started at the end of James Cooper's 22-year military career when he and his best friend were called to fight in Vietnam in the mid 1960s. Cooper had been through World War II and the Korean War and was ready to begin a life away from the battlefield. Before he did, he made a pact.
Cooper and his best friend agreed that, if either didn't make it back to the States, the survivor would name one of his children using the last name of his fallen comrade.
Hernandez James Cooper was born May 17, 1969 in Palestine, Texas. He was the youngest and shortest of five brothers and three sisters, quickly earning the nickname Hunkie.
It matters little that he doesn't know the full name of his father's best friend. In fact, it seems like more of a tribute to the man and Cooper's father that he doesn't.
"It's sentimental," Cooper said. "That guy had to be pretty important to (my dad) for him to name me after him. That's why none of my three boys are juniors. Hernandez was a name that was special to him and I want it to stay special and unique."
Cooper, in fact, knows little of his namesake.
James Cooper died when Hunkie was 14 - "That's why I wear No. 14, that's when I became a man," he said - before his son was old enough to grasp the importance of the story behind his name.
Hunkie Cooper visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and the memorial in his hometown. He'd like to rub a name onto a piece of paper or at least see his father's best friend on the wall but he doesn't know where to start.
"I see so many names on there," Cooper said. "I don't know where they met or the whole story."
These days Cooper simply is known as Hunkie. It's the name his oldest sister gave him when he was a 3- or 4-year-old bundle of stocky muscle.
The question is which has more staying power? The name Hunkie or the man himself?
After playing quarterback at Westwood High, Navarro Junior College and UNLV, Cooper thought his playing days were done. He graduated from UNLV in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in Criminal Law and Education and took a job at the Gold Coast Casino in Las Vegas.
That's where Pete Kettela, the Arizona Rattlers director of player personnel, asked one of Cooper's supervisors to introduce him to the man who many now consider the greatest two-way player in the league's 16-year history.
"I tried to play in the CFL for a little while but I didn't get the chance to play a lot up there," Cooper said. "One day my boss told me there was this little old man looking for me."
That man was Kettela, a former assistant to George Allen with the Washington Redskins and coach of Pacific.
He signed Cooper, a receiver/linebacker, to a contract and sent him to camp where he began his career as the fourth-string receiver and returner off the net. He finished that season (1993) as the League MVP, a member of the first-team All-AFL squad and owner of the season record with 1,423 return yards.
Cooper is second in league history in all-purpose yards (to former Storm player George LaFrance) and is in the top 10 of four other offensive lists. He has been named first- or second-team All-AFL six times. Is it no wonder Storm fullback/linebacker Basil Proctor said Tampa Bay has to shut him down Sunday.