Xavier Cooper is gearing up for his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns. But he’ll be sticking to his own playbook for life, starting with: Believe in yourself. And he’s determined to take that message to kids with learning and thinking differences everywhere.
After all, that’s how Cooper made it to the National Football League, he says. That’s how he succeeded in school even though he struggled and was diagnosed in eighth grade with learning and issues.
“Everybody learns differently, and that’s OK,” Cooper says. “That’s why I want to talk to kids at every chance I get.”
Cooper, 23, is a defensive lineman and a third-round draft pick for the Browns. Right now, he’s looking forward to playing a preseason game against the Chicago Bears with his family in the crowd.
He’s proud that he’s only eight credits away from a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Washington State University. And he’s planning a future, after professional football, as a high school teacher or principal.
But first Cooper is heading home to Tacoma, Washington, during his summer break to give back to a community that he says gave him so much. Over the next month, he has talks lined up at Boys and Girls Clubs and youth football programs to share his story and let kids know that it’s OK to be different.
“These days, everybody wants to be something they’re not. There’s a lot of pressure from social media to fit in,” he says. “But it’s important for kids with to know that although they might struggle with one thing, they’ve been blessed with a lot of other abilities.”
Cooper says school was tough for him, especially by the time he reached eighth grade. “I would read something five or six times before I could tell you what it said,” he recalls. “And I couldn’t write on an eighth-grade level, either.”
Cooper’s parents always stressed the importance of education for him and his two older sisters. When they saw him struggling, they pushed to get him the special education services he needed. And they used sports as a way to keep him interested in school.
After graduating from high school, Cooper attended Tacoma Community Colleges for a year before enrolling at WSU. That’s where he met his academic advisor, Heather Erwin.
He credits her with helping him figure out how to manage his time on and off the field. She worked with him to pick out classes that were suited to the way he learns best, and encouraged him to speak with professors when he needed additional help.
“When I got to WSU, I thought I had it all figured out,” Cooper says. “But I quickly found out I needed someone to help me manage my time. Heather has been awesome.”
Cooper credits growing up in a home with two supportive parents with helping him stay focused. But he has a word of encouragement for those who don’t have that opportunity.
“Even if you don’t have two parents, you’ve got to find that mentor or that person who is going to be a positive influence in your life—whether it’s a teacher, coach, neighbor or friend.”
That’s the role he wants to play for the kids he meets. “I want to be a guy who affects the lives of others in a positive way,” he says. “I want to start a foundation and help kids academically because an education is so important.”
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About the author
About the author
Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for