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The raw numbers of Quinton Cooley’s performance in Southern Nash’s second-round loss to Eastern Alamance in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A football playoffs are jaw-dropping on their own.
Cooley ran 33 times for 413 yards and four touchdowns in the game that saw the Firebirds’ unbeaten season come to a shocking, earlier-than-expected conclusion with the 57-56 loss. The rushing total would tie Cooley for 26th all-time in NCHSAA annals.
What will not make it into the record book is how the 5-foot-8, 186-pound junior amassed more rushing yards in a game than any player, not only in Southern Nash history, but of any 11-player team in The Wilson Times readership area. Shortly after Firebirds senior Zonovan “Bam” Knight, the North Carolina State University signee and career and single-season rushing leader, exited the game with an ankle sprain, Cooley found himself on the sidelines with a dislocated shoulder.
Cooley managed, with help, to pop his shoulder back in place. The only problem is that it wouldn’t stay there and he had to keep popping it back in, a painful procedure, almost every time he was tackled.
“It was very painful when it happened the first time because I knew it was hurt when I was nearly in tears, but I knew I couldn’t give up,” Cooley said. “I had to go back in. I understand that ‘Bam’ has a scholarship ahead of him and he’s a good player, but I had to go back out there and fight really hard for our team and see if we could go out there and pull out a win. And that’s what I did. I don’t care if I was hurt or not, I had to go through the pain.”
Cooley, who was an All-Big East Conference selection as a linebacker last season, carried his team on his shoulders, one good and one bad. While Cooley played almost exclusively on offense this season, his performance and courage merits him the Times Ironman of the Year honor from the sports staff at The Enterprise’s sister newspaper.
“I’ve played or coached since I was 6 and I’m 51 and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Firebirds head coach Brian Foster. “He just gave everything he had. It was just amazing!”
Cooley was rock solid all season for the Firebirds as he returned to the position he played on the junior varsity team as a freshman. He ran for 1,756 yards and 30 touchdowns on 149 carries for an 11.8 yards-per-carry average, forming a formidable duo with Knight.
Cooley also had a team-high seven receptions for 115 yards and three more TDs. For good measure, he completed both of his pass attempts for 91 yards, including a 54-yard scoring toss.
Foster said that he intended to get Cooley plenty of reps on defense but with the Firebirds winning by an average of more than 33 points, it was more prudent to keep Cooley on the bench in the second half of most games.
“That was the whole plan was to play him more and more (on defense),” Foster said. “We just didn’t think we’d be beating people the way we did. I promised those guys I wouldn’t take them out until the end of the fourth quarter this year, but you can’t do that. Some games we were winning by 50 or 60 at halftime.”
When Cooley was on the defensive side, he made his presence known. During the third game of the season, at Bunn, Cooley was on the field for four snaps and made two tackles for loss. He finished with nine tackles on the season, including four in the Firebirds’ biggest regular-season win, a 35-21 victory over Rocky Mount that all but assured them of their third straight Big East crown.
While Cooley’s shoulder is still sore and the disappointment of that second-round playoff loss hasn’t fully subsided, his performance that night was one of legend, borne of his love for his team.
“I tell our kids all the time that if they don’t love me, they don’t need to play for me and if I don’t love them, I don’t need to be coaching them because, at some point, we’re going to let each other down because we’re not going to fight for each other,” Foster said. “I think he really loves me! No, I really do. I think he loves our family and loves our kids and he loves Southern Nash.”