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Rams

From Day 1, Cooper Kupp, now a Rams star, has made a name for himself on football field

Cooper Kupp, top center, sits with siblings (from left) Kobe, Katrina and Ketner in the early 2000s.
Cooper Kupp, top center, sits with siblings (from left) Kobe, Katrina and Ketner in the early 2000s. Football played a central role in Cooper Kupp’s life growing up in Yakima, Wash.
(Courtesy of the Kupp family)

On the day star Rams receiver Cooper Kupp was born, his parents called an audible.

They were on the verge of naming him Cody, and were filling out the paperwork, when Craig Kupp had a change of heart.

“I’ve got the pen and I’m getting ready to put down Cody, when I half-jokingly said to Karin, ‘What do you think about Cooper?’ ” Craig said.

The name Cooper meant something to the couple. They named their first dog that, the dog they lost on the day Karin discovered she was pregnant. It was also the name of Archie Manning’s eldest son, and Craig’s father, Jake, was a blocker for Manning with the New Orleans Saints.

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So, at the last moment, Cody became Cooper.

“I wanted a name that would sound cool over the loudspeaker,” said Craig, 52, laughing his infectious laugh in a sandwich shop in this central Washington town where he and Karin raised three sons and a daughter.

Rams have four players from Eastern Washington on their roster: receivers Cooper Kupp and Nsimba Webster, and linebacker Samson Ebukam.

That rhythmic name, Cooper Kupp — virtually always said in its entirety — is announced more and more these days, as the route-running technician has risen from obscure third-round pick from Eastern Washington to feel-good story, to elite NFL receiver.

Entering Thursday night’s game at Seattle, a 2½-hour drive west from his hometown, Kupp has had three consecutive games of more than 100 yards receiving. Less than a year after reconstructive knee surgery, he leads the team in receptions (32), receiving yards (388), and receiving touchdowns (three).

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His 66-yard reception against the Saints — a stiff-arming, tackle-breaking masterpiece that ended inches from the goal line — was the epitome of “Yards After Catch,” and the kind of YAC so familiar in his Yakima days.

“It’s what we expect from him,” said Jay Dumas, who coached Kupp at Davis High and at Eastern Washington. “When you look back at his tapes from high school and college, that’s the type of play that he made special, the catch and the run after the catch. It’s stuff he’s been doing his whole life.”

That said, Kupp went largely unrecruited out of a high school where basketball was traditionally a bigger deal. He was a tenacious defender in basketball and, as was the case in football, always had a knack for being in the right position to make a play.

He was skilled as a young football player, but so undersized that he had to hide ankle weights under his jeans to tip the scales at 112 pounds at freshman weigh-in. Despite his impressive high school career, he was an afterthought when he arrived at Eastern Washington. It soon became apparent he was a special player, and he finished his college career with a slew of Football Championship Subdivision receiving records, among them career yards (6,464), catches (428), and touchdowns (73).

Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp runs with the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp runs with the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
(Getty Images)

“He’s stronger than people think, and he’s faster than people think,” said Fox Sports host Colin Cowherd, an Eastern Washington alumnus. “He has kind of a wiry frame, and he pulls away from people. The first time I saw him, he reminded me of [former Stanford and Denver Broncos receiver] Ed McCaffrey.”

Kupp wasn’t the only late bloomer in his family. His grandfather was that way too, and wound up an NFL offensive lineman. And Cooper’s father stretched out to nearly 6 feet 5 inches in college, where he played quarterback for Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. Craig was a fifth-round pick of the New York Giants in 1990, and played briefly for the Phoenix Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys.

The Kupp children — Cooper, Ketner, Kobe and Katrina — have an athletic lineage that stems from both parents. Karin Kupp, now a personal trainer who has a business conducting boot-camp workouts, was an All-American soccer player at PLU. The three sons attended Eastern Washington — Ketner was a linebacker in Rams training camp this summer — and Katrina, a high school junior, has a scholarship to play soccer there.

As dedicated as he is to his Rams career, Kupp puts football a distant third to his faith and family. He and his wife, Anna, were in the same high school class, and wed after their sophomore year in college. They have a 14-month-old son, Cooper Jamison, whom they call “June,” as in junior.

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Craig and Karin Kupp, parents of Rams receiver Cooper Kupp, at the high school stadium in Yakima where Cooper played his games.
(Sam Farmer / Los Angeles Times)

Last season ended in dramatic and disappointing fashion for Kupp, who suffered a torn ACL in his left knee against the Seahawks and missed the final nine games, counting the playoffs and Super Bowl.

He had to re-learn how to run after surgery, and used that as a way of eliminating the imperfections in his stride. He meticulously studied video of his form, breaking it down in super slo-mo, and the results were astounding. He said he’s between 1.5-2 mph faster than he was before his injury.

“It’s a little crazy,” said Dr. Neal ElAttrache, who performed the ACL reconstruction. “We’ve never had this GPS data until the last few years, but I can tell you that’s typically not the way it goes the first year back. He’s surprising everybody.”

Surprising everybody, that is, except Cooper Kupp. Since early childhood, he has kept a list of football goals, most of them absurdly lofty, that he constantly reads through. As a kid, he had them posted on his wall. But they became increasingly private.

The Rams’ Marcus Peters was checked for a concussion, Taylor Rapp injured an ankle and Bryce Hager had a neck/shoulder injury against the Buccaneers.

“When I started writing down my goals, I wanted to be as outlandish as possible,” he said. “I wanted to make sure before I went to bed that I’d see my list of goals and feel good when I put my head on the pillow that what I’d done that day was pointing toward achieving those things. I set them outrageously high because I wanted to have an outrageous work ethic about how I went about my day.”

NFL teams took notice of Kupp’s numbers at Eastern Washington — and how he had some of his biggest games against Pac-12 opponents — but future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning played a role in raising his profile too.

Kupp worked as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy for five years, and Peyton quickly recognized he was no ordinary receiver. When Kupp was heading into his sophomore year of college, Rams general manager Les Snead stopped by the Manning camp and overheard Peyton stake a claim to the sure-handed target before a passing exhibition.

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Peyton Manning gives instructions to Cooper Kupp at the Manning Passing Academy, where Kupp participated for five years as a camper then a counselor.
(Courtesy of Kupp family)
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“Peyton mentioned to [his brother] Eli, and all the subsequent college QBs, '`Hey Cooper Kupp’s my guy. Y’all can figure out who y’all are throwing to, but Cooper’s mine,’ ” Snead recalled. “At that point, you took the note to follow the kid. Because Peyton’s a perfectionist, and he was definitely going to have someone who was going to be where they were supposed to be, and make the catch when he was supposed to make it.”

Recalled Peyton Manning: “Eli and I would argue over who got to throw to Cooper, because all of his routes were very precise. He had great control of his body. You always knew where he was going, when he was going to break out or break in. For a quarterback and receiver, sometimes it takes a while to develop that timing. But he was one of those guys who right away for me and Eli the timing was easy. And of course he caught everything as well.”

That blip on the radar screen grew brighter as Kupp assembled his record-breaking college career. The Rams were light on both receivers and draft picks in Sean McVay’s first season, and they were worried that Kupp wouldn’t be around for them to take in the third round. So they were actually relieved when Kupp ran an underwhelming 40-yard dash at the scouting combine, covering the distance in a relatively sluggish 4.62 seconds.

“I don’t know if I gave a fist pump, but I do know I made a smirk,” Snead said of his reaction to that 40 time. “I said, '`We’re going to be able to get Cooper Kupp now because the football world overvalues 40s.’ If there’s one thing we do wrong in scouting, it’s putting too much value on how fast someone runs the 40-yard dash.”

Reminded this week that the Rams were pleased he ran slow, a bemused Kupp said: “Man, they should have let me know. I could have saved myself some embarrassment.”

Kupp is plenty fast these days, studying everything he can about angles and positioning and route precision in an effort to separate from defenders. He’s obsessed with repetition and the smallest of details.

“Ever since he was a little kid,” his mother said, “Cooper has always been determined to finish whatever he starts.”

Kupp knows how to finish. Those defensive backs in his wake, vainly clutching at air, understand that better than most.


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