TAMPA — As best as Cooper Kupp can recall, the first pass he ever caught as a young wide receiver was off a throw from a former NFL quarterback. So was the second, the third and most of the rest of the first several thousand.
Such is life when you grow up the son of a one-time NFLer.
Even the most die-hard Dallas Cowboys and Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals fans probably don’t remember Craig Kupp. He was a backup quarterback for both teams during the 1991 season, his only season in the NFL.
He still had plenty of arm left when his son Cooper was born two years later, though, and around the time Cooper turned five years old, Craig’s daily after-work routine consisted of throwing a football to his son.
Those father-son moments in the backyard have certainly paid dividends.
Though he was largely unrecruited out of high school and played his college ball at little-known Eastern Washington, Cooper has emerged as one of the top pass-catching prospects in the 2017 NFL draft class.
Most analysts have the 6-foot-2, 198-pound native of Yakima, Washington ranked among their top five wideouts, which means the Kupp family is all but certain to make history during this year’s draft.
Only four families have ever had three or more generations of athletes drafted into the NFL, but if Cooper gets grabbed the way his father Craig (1990, Giants) and grandfather Jake (1964, Cowboys) did, the Kupps will become the fifth.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago, though, that anyone could have imagined that being a possibility.
When Cooper first walked onto the campus at Yakima-Davis High School as a freshman in 2009, he stood 5-foot-4 and weighed 119 pounds, and four of those pounds were a result of the 2-pound ankle weights he was wearing to strengthen his skinny legs.
When he went out for the football team, coaches literally told him he would never make it. Some even told him he would be better off if he changed his goals, at least as far as sports were concerned, because football was not in his future.
No way, Cooper said. He’d been dreaming of playing of playing football, indeed dreaming of playing in the NFL, since his father first started throwing short soft passes to him when he was five years old, and he wasn’t about to give up on that dream. Certainly not then.
“I set my goals laughably high,’’ Cooper said while speaking with reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine last week. “I want to pursue those things (that people say I can’t do) and my work ethic off the field is going to reflect the goals I’ve set for myself.’’
Those ankle weights are proof. He wore them for two years, thinking they would make him better and stronger. He’s convinced they did, but with his size and strength disadvantage, he knew initially, at least, that he needed to stand out in another way.
That’s where catching all those passes from his father came in. By the time Cooper had reached high school, he had developed a good catching technique, a soft pair of hands and some route-running skills that most high schoolers could only dream of having.
“I saw that my body may not have been where it needed to be but I (knew) that I (could) still create a ton of separation by understanding how routes are run and understanding coverages,’’ Kupp said.
“And so now, with my body developing, I’ve pushed myself to where I can now be stronger and faster than guys and still have that route-running ability and that separation just keeps getting bigger and bigger.’’
Kupp first began to truly separate himself from other players shortly after he arrived at Eastern Washington, which was one of only two schools (Idaho State was the other) to offer him a scholarship after high school.
In the wake of his red-shirt freshman season, he was named to nine different All-America teams, all as a first-teamer, after he set national records for FCS freshman receivers by catching 93 passes for 1,691 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Kupp produced similar results as a sophomore, junior and senior and finished his career holding the NCAA all-division record for receiving yards (6,464) as well as the FCS marks for receptions (428) and touchdown catches (73).
In all, Kupp set 15 FCS, 11 Big Sky and 26 school records during his stay at Eastern Washington, where he also proved he can produce against top-level competition as well.
Kupp played in four games against Pac-12 teams during his stint at Eastern Washington. In those games – against Oregon State (2013), Washington (2014), Oregon (2015) and Washington State (2016) – he caught 40 passes for 716 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Then he went to Mobile this year and did more of the same at the Senior Bowl, where he was one of the most talked about players during the week of practices and made NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock’s “Made Money’’ list after the game.
“I like this kid,” Mayock said while working the event. “He’s fast. He won deep, he won shallow, he beat press coverage. He can win at all three levels. And he gets it. I believe he’s going to play and play well very early in his NFL career.’’
Mayock’s belief is only half as strongly as Kupp’s is. Few players seem to be as confident about their abilities as Kupp, who believes he will provide an NFL team a complete package of receiving skills.
“I believe what I bring to a team is something that no one else brings,’’ Kupp said at the combine. “The reliability, the versatility – someone who is going to be productive play in and play out.
“I’m one of those guys, I don’t just play in the slot. You watch the film and I’ve been playing all across the field. And I’m willing to step in on special teams and be a part of that. I’m excited to be a part of that.
“I want to be a receiver who can play everywhere and can do everything and be productive wherever I’m needed. I don’t want to have to come off the field. Any system I step into, I want to be productive in it.’’
Thanks to his dad and his own diligence, he probably will be.