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Amari Cooper paved his own way to Alabama

Amari Cooper was supposed to end up at Louisville. At least that was Billy Rolle’s plan.

Rolle, who coached Cooper at Miami [Fla.] Northwestern High School, thought he’d send his budding receiver 1,000 miles north to learn under Charlie Strong, then the head coach of the Cardinals. There, he would rejoin former prep teammates Teddy Bridgewater, Michaelee Harris and Eli Rogers.

“In my mind, I was going to package him up with the Louisville deal,” Rolle explained. “Those guys were only a year ahead of him. Coach Strong was right back at the school trying to get Amari.

“But Amari didn’t want to follow a bunch of guys he’d already been playing with. He kind of wanted to make a name for himself.”

Such is the way of Amari Cooper: quiet, confident and supremely determined. It’s what led him to Alabama and later to the Heisman Trophy presentation in New York City. He didn’t win the famous bronze statue earlier this month, but he did walk away with the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s most outstanding receiver.

“It’s the typical story, five or six brothers in a two-bedroom home in a projects situation,” said Rolle, who is distant cousins with Cooper’s mother. “He grew up in Coconut Grove, and we have a few project homes in the Grove and he grew up in one of them.”

But maybe more important than how he lived was where he was situated. Rolle estimated that Cooper’s neighborhood park was roughly 100 yards from his front door -- a football field away.

You couldn't drag Cooper to the mall or to the pool, Rolle said, but you had no trouble getting him to practice.

"He's just determined," he said.

At the park and in his backyard, Cooper would hone his craft, developing the sneaky-fast speed and precise route-running he has become known for.

His teammates at Alabama would later marvel at his skills, saying how it was impossible to look at his feet and know where he was going. It was too “confusing,” said safety Landon Collins, an All-American in his own right.

“That’s an instinct now,” Cooper said, recalling the beginnings of his nifty footwork on the playground. “That’s where I picked up good footwork and that ability to read defenders’ leverage to know which way to go.”

Many thought he’d go to Louisville or nearby Miami, but Cooper went another direction, to the SEC and powerhouse Alabama. He ignored suggestions that the Tide's run-first mentality would bury his talents. Now he’s a sure-fire bet to enter the NFL draft as a junior where he's projected to go in the first half of the first round.

Three years, 29 touchdowns and 3,392 yards later, he could cap off his career with another national championship, starting on Jan. 1 when he and the Crimson Tide face Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal.

“I’ve always kept in mind, team first,” Cooper said upon arrival in New Orleans this past weekend. “You have one goal, and you want to win a national championship.”