How Super Cooper Kupp went from overlooked to Super Bowl centerpiece

LOS ANGELES – With a wife and two sons, ages 3 and 1, Cooper Kupp looks like a normal guy having another normal family week this week in Southern California.

His in-laws had come to his house to visit. So did his parents, who had dinner with them there on Wednesday.

After football practice this week in Thousand Oaks, the Los Angeles Rams receiver also was able to make the short drive back to his home about 10 minutes away, just like he could throughout the NFL season. He even got to sleep in his own bed as he prepared to play the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl Sunday at Sofi Stadium, about 40 miles down the freeway.

Kupp seemed “as normal as one could be with two little boys, including one who doesn’t sleep through the night yet,” his mom, Karin Kupp, told USA TODAY Sports Thursday.

Cooper Kupp led the NFL in receptions, receiving yards and TD catches this season.

She said that’s been one of their goals this week: “Trying to keep it as normal as they can.”

But that’s the thing about Cooper Kupp. Normal and norms often can be deceptive. Despite appearances, this is the biggest week and biggest game of his increasingly sizzling career.  And despite some of his other outward aspects, Kupp never really has been a normal player, much to the dismay of all the colleges and NFL teams that didn’t sign him or draft him.

Various observers of his journey spoke to USA TODAY Sports about it this week, including his mom, a coach of his from college and a former Pac-12 head coach who regrets not signing him out of high school. Together they tell the tale of the trail that led him here to his peak – as the best receiver in the NFL and only the fourth NFL receiver since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to lead the league in the triple crown of catches (145), touchdown catches (16) and receiving yards (1,947).

'The film doesn't lie’

The history of Kupp, 28, is not quite one of those stories about NFL players who had “something to prove” because they supposedly were disrespected or overlooked. Lots of great pro players initially have been underestimated, including 23 Pro Football Hall of Famers who started their NFL careers as third-round draft picks, just like Kupp did in 2017.

Kupp’s case instead stands out because his multi-generational talent had been on display for anybody to see since 2013, when he began a college career that ended with him as the most prolific receiver in the history of Division I college football.

Pro football talent evaluators just didn’t take it seriously enough for all kinds of reasons that could be summed up in one – a failure of imagination.

He wasn’t what they thought he was going to be, according to normal standards of size, speed and college background. They didn’t even believe the college game film that showed it, even though he still holds the career triple-crown record in Division I with the most-ever catches (428), touchdown catches (73) and receiving yards (6,464 yards), all at Eastern Washington.

“The film doesn’t lie and never will,” said Aaron Best, the current head coach at Eastern Washington, where Kupp played from 2012-16. “But we don’t always believe the film in a weird way.”

They saw other things instead.

He was small

Mike Leach coached Washington State to six bowl games in eight seasons from 2012 through 2019 before moving on to Mississippi State. But his tenure at WSU started with a blunder, now seen in hindsight. Leach could have signed Kupp to his first recruiting class there, when Kupp was in high school in Yakima, Washington, about 190 miles west.

Only two smaller schools from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) would offer Kupp scholarships: Idaho State and Eastern Washington. Like many others, Leach passed on him in early 2012, in part because he said a blizzard prevented him from evaluating him in person and also because of what WSU coaches saw on film – a skinny kid about 6-feet tall and 170 pounds who wasn’t that fast and played in an area that wasn’t known for great competition.

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Ten years later, Leach this week called Kupp “one of the great misses of my career.” At the time, Kupp’s supporters tried to convince Leach that Kupp was the “next Wes Welker,” another relatively small and slow receiver who played for Leach at Texas Tech before becoming a star in the NFL.

“You’ve got to understand,” Leach said. “I’ve been getting this for decades, that 'this is the next Wes Welker.’ Everybody’s got the next Wes Welker. If I automatically give scholarships to all these next Wes Welkers, all I’m going to do is have a team have a team of short, slow receivers. So you’ve got to proceed with caution.”

To be fair, other major college coaches apparently came to similar conclusions, despite Kupp’s athletic production in high school – 60 receptions for 1,059 yards (17.7 per catch) and 18 touchdowns during his senior year, when he also played on the basketball team.

Enter Eastern Washington, whose status as a member of a lower subdivision of college football forces its coaches to hunt for the best talent unwanted by bigger brand-name schools. It also forces them to use their imaginations.

“Seeing what a guy is going to be in five years, not just physically, that’s what we thrived on at Eastern forever,” said Best, who was offensive coordinator and run game coordinator during Kupp’s tenure there. “The big schools are going to overlook a guy who’s not a 6-2, 200-pound guy out of high school. We’re going to build to that, but it’s going to take time to get to that.”

For Kupp, it took him about one or two years. He redshirted as a freshman in 2012, when his mother said he “took every second of that year to get better and stronger.” He eventually added about 30 pounds and was listed in college at 6-foot-2. But by the time his college career was over, he still lacked in another area, according to pro scouts.

He was slow

After being named a first-team FCS All-American during each of his four seasons at Eastern, the NFL took him seriously enough to invite him to the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis, where draft prospects are measured for speed, strength and athleticism. What happened there since has become part of the Kupp folklore. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds, a time that ranked slower than at least 39 other receivers in attendance.

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This only added to the perception many had of him since high school. It’s a perception that also happens to fit with old stereotypes about many white receivers – that they supposedly need to work harder and be smarter to succeed because they supposedly are not as naturally athletic or fast as their Black counterparts. It’s a stereotype that underestimates a white receiver’s potential while also harming Black players because it implies that they can get by with natural talent alone.

“I don’t think it’s a racial bias; I think it’s a speed bias and whatever gets locked in people’s heads,” Leach said.

The thing is, Kupp isn't exactly slow. He just wasn’t the fastest in that race that day, running from Point A to Point B. The fastest player in that race at that Combine was receiver John Ross of Washington, at a record-breaking 4.22 seconds. Ross then rode that momentum to become the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft, selected by the Bengals, who parted ways with him last year after injuries crimped his potential. Ross now is with the New York Giants and has 11 career touchdown catches in five seasons.

Though he couldn’t match Ross in a straight 40-yard dash, Cooper is exceptionally explosive when going beyond Point B, cutting and changing direction on his routes as he creates his trademark separation from defenders. The Rams noticed this and drafted him 60 picks after Ross, gaining an asset with athletic bloodlines, contrary to any perceptions that Kupp lacks “natural” talent.

His dad Craig and grandfather Jake were drafted into the NFL in the fifth (1990) and ninth rounds (1964), respectively.  His mom is a fitness instructor who played soccer in college at Pacific Lutheran in Washington. Her father also played quarterback at Pacific Lutheran, where her mother was a cheerleader.

“Here’s a question I have, and I don’t know if it will ever be answered, because it’s all hypothetical,” Best said. “Instead of running a 4.62 at the NFL combine, if he runs a 4.49 how much does that change his draft stock? Everything else checked out. If he runs a sub-4.5 40, the only knock against Cooper Kupp is the fact that he wore an FCS logo.”

That’s another norm that got in his way.

He came from a small school

FCS schools are limited to giving fewer scholarships (63) than those in major college football (85). They also generally get recruits who were deemed not good enough to play for bigger schools in major college football, such as Washington, Utah and Colorado. That’s generally why they’re playing for Eastern Washington, Southern Utah and Northern Colorado instead.

And no matter how productive they might be at this level, this perception then becomes hard to shake for FCS players when being judged by NFL scouts – that they weren’t good enough to begin with and didn’t play at the highest level of college competition.

A Rams fan expresses her support for Cooper Kupp in front of an image of the receiver ahead of Super Bowl 56.

“Even if they didn’t say it, you know they were thinking it,” Best said of that perception held by NFL scouts. “He wore an FCS logo. It’s unfortunately part of the process to try to convince them.”

Yet Kupp did play against Pac-12 teams during each of his four seasons at Eastern, helping win two of those four games and catching at least two touchdown passes in each of them. He caught 15 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns in a 61-42 loss at Oregon in 2015, then 12 for 206 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-42 win at WSU in 2016. By then, Leach had seen enough. “The best receiver in the nation is Cooper Kupp at Eastern Washington,” Leach said he decided then.

Lots of pro teams still weren’t sold on that then. They are now.

On Friday, Kupp and other Rams players each fielded questions from reporters for about 45 minutes just two days before the Super Bowl. The outdoor media event was held on the campus of Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, near his home, one of the benefits of being only the second team in NFL history to play in a Super Bowl at its home stadium.

He was asked about his journey.  He said he went from being “undersized” to not undersized and then “not being believed in as much as other guys.”

“I think it’s been tumultuous, but I think I’ve been able to learn a lot about perseverance,” he said.

He said he’s cherished this experience after not participating in the Rams' last Super Bowl appearance, in 2019, when Kupp was out with a knee injury. 

“I’ve loved every moment of this, and even before I played this game, this has been so fulfilling for me,” he said.

He also acknowledged Sunday’s game represents an “incredible moment,” though his team strived to “keep it pretty normal” in practice this week.

“Normal” works for him in many ways, even if he’s not.  

“Life doesn’t stop for the two weeks of the Super Bowl,” he said. “I still wake up in the middle of the night to rock my youngest back to sleep … The boys don’t know that this is Super Bowl week. Life doesn’t stop for them… I’m a husband. I’m a dad. So it’s just standard operating procedure I guess.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com