Cooper's new team

When Mark Cooper hung up his cleats for a business suit, he had no realistic expectation that he'd ever find the level of excitement and camaraderie he'd enjoyed during his playing days.

He assumed the days of bonding with a close-knit group of guys, all linked together for a common goal —winning — would never again materialize.

Then he discovered competitive fishing. That changed his life, he now says.

"It was like being in the NFL all over again," says Cooper, who did stints with the Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Cleveland Browns. "The camaraderie in fishing is just like the camaraderie in the NFL. Many of these guys fish the same tournaments, so you see the same guys over and over. And they compete against one another on an annual basis. It's exciting."

Aside from taking part in the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series Mercury Southernmost Light-Tackle Anglers Masters Celebrity Tournament trail, he also hosts his own celebrity fly fishing tournament, the Mercury Redbone @ Large, in Colorado, where he makes his home. He also travels widely to be a part of the inshore saltwater tournament scene.

Cooper's tall, athletic build gives away his former profession, which included guarding quarterbacks like John Elway, Vinny Testaverde and Steve DeBerg, among others. But most people who meet Cooper, now a successful real estate salesman, will be pleasantly surprised at the fact that most of his stories surround fishing, not ball playing.

As he tells it, after leaving the NFL, he longed for a sport that gave him the same level of satisfaction that he'd enjoyed in the NFL.

He found it when he picked up a fly rod on a saltwater trip.

"These guys put a fly rod in my hand, and I fell in love," says Cooper, as he sits beside a popular dock in Key West, watching the boats come and go. "I had never found that feeling before I picked up that rod. I was hooked."

He was so in love that, once back at home, he created a casting platform in his back yard to gain proficiency at casting. Apparently it's paid off.

He's now a solid angler, able to make the precise casts necessary for snook, bonefish, tarpon, redfish and permit in gin-clear water.

"The visual aspect, seeing everything happen right in front of you is what I love," he says. "There are so many things to account for: boat speed, wind, fish speed — all those elements have to come together to make for a successful outing."

When Cooper is not traveling or selling real estate, he can be found blogging for the Denver Broncos (www.denverbroncos.com) or indulging another of his passions, writing outdoor features.

He's written for The Denver Post, Florida Sportsman, Key West Magazine and the Redbone Journal.
Make no mistake, though, being an active participant in the sport of angling is his real love. And it's a cause he's taken up with zeal, encouraging anyone he meets to give the sport a try.

"I tell people that if they try it, it will change their life," he says. "It changed mine. A lot of people go through life without a real passion. You've got to be passionate about something, right? This is my passion."