By Tris Wykes

Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021

HANOVER – It’s an old story and one Jamal Cooney has experienced firsthand. 

High school star commits to Dartmouth College football, turning down bigger programs to enroll at the Ivy League school. The youngster expects to still be a standout, because really, how hard could it be to surpass a bunch of nerds?

Upon arrival, however, said star discovers Ancient Eight gridirons are loaded with guys just like him. Not only is the academic load overwhelming at first, but those bookworms can really play. Forced to endure a backup role, the once-touted recruit has no choice but to sample humble pie.

For Cooney, the unexpected meal at least appears to have been nutritious. The junior receiver is the Ivy League special teams player of the week after returning three punts against Sacred Heart for a combined 128 yards and a touchdown, the most yards by any NCAA Football Championship Subdivision player this season. 

The Miami native would have had even better numbers, but his first return, which initially resulted in a 62-yard touchdown, was reduced to 22 yards after  a penalty. Cooney, who leads the FCS with an average of 42.7 yards per punt return, was also flagged on the play for removing his helmet to celebrate while still on the field.

“He’s an excitable guy and he said he didn’t know,” said Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens, whose 2-0 team opens Ivy play at Pennsylvania on Friday night during a game televised by ESPNU. “He was probably the only one in the universe who didn’t know that, but he’s learned his lesson.”

Said a contrite Cooney: “I got confused with game-winning plays I’ve seen where guys take it off. After that, I got super motivated for the next return and wanted to make up for it.”

Catching a punt is challenging in itself, for the ball can rotate, spin and drift in subtle ways that cause sudden shifts of descent. Now try doing it with a couple of dozen players running your way, half of them intent on tackling you as hard as possible. The pounding footsteps, the shouts, the crowd noise – it all adds to the degree of difficulty.

“It comes off as terrifying when you first start, but once you get the drops out of the way, you build confidence over time,” said Cooney, adding that he’s done the job since youth football. “I believe in everybody who’s blocking for me and I just look the ball in and do my thing.”

Being relaxed, keeping your eyes glued to the ball and aligning it with one’s torso are all keys to a successful catch. A split second later, the returner has to make sense of the swirl around him, identify an opening and hope a sprinting opponent doesn’t enter it at the same time.

“I try to go full speed, north and south,” Cooney said. “One of the (Sacred Heart) punts was short, but I didn’t want to fair catch. So I caught it and said ‘Lord, if they kill me, they kill me.’ But their guys thought I fair caught it and they just chest-bumped me and I took off.”

Cooney is one of 12 children and attended three high schools, the first being public powerhouse Northwestern, which has produced numerous pro athletes. He finished at Fort Lauderdale’s St. Thomas Aquinas, where he was good enough to attract recruiting attention from the likes of Vanderbilt, Rutgers, East Carolina, Northern Illinois, Toldeo and Florida Atlantic. Nearly 20 STA graduates play in the NFL.

“I’m ready to go into the Ivy League and dominate,” Cooney told the South Florida Sun Sentinel after he and 23 of his teammates committed to various colleges and universities, including the starting quarterback to Harvard. “I backed off the (bigger) D-I schools after I got hurt this year and thought about life after football.”

Cooney stood out during preseason practices his freshman year and Teevens proclaimed him “ready to play”. Turns out, Cooney caught one pass and returned a few punts while playing in only five games. When Ivy League play arrived and the receiving rotation solidified, there weren’t many snaps to be had on a team that eventually shared the 2019 Ivy title.

The league didn’t play other sports during the 2020-21 school year but Cooney began the current campaign in typical fashion. Boisterous and wearing tight shorts and bushy sideburns, he was noticeable during practices but battled a groin strain and has yet to catch a pass in a game. He posed for his Dartmouth head-shot photo wearing a silver lamé sports coat, no tie and a thick gold chain with a “JC1” pendant, a nod to his uniform number.

During practices the weeks before and after the season opener at Valparaiso, when Cooney wasn’t listed among the top six receivers on the depth chart, he took to wearing a long face and sitting off by himself when not participating in drills. With nearly 130 players on the Dartmouth roster, however, there are dozens not seeing any game time, and sulking is usually ignored.

“He’s an up-and-down guy and such an emotional person and there’s a maturation process he has to go through,” said an understanding Teevens, a former Dartmouth quarterback who didn’t play regularly until his senior year. “But he’s a good guy to have on a team.”

Cooney hopes to keep his return game sharp while also catching some passes at Penn. He’s steeling himself for the arrival of colder weather in a place he describes as “being surrounded by a bunch of woods”. He’s trying to not to feel as isolated as he did last year, when Covid precautions all but wiped out Dartmouth students’ social interaction. 

“I’ve had to deal with some adult-life situations early, but I appreciate those trials and tribulations,” Cooney said. 

Notes: The return of sophomore receiver Jarome Sutherland doesn’t appear imminent. The New Orleans native injured a knee against Sacred Heart and was at practice this week wearing a full-leg brace… Everyone at Penn’s Franklin Field on Friday must attest to being vaccinated and wear face coverings… The Franklin Field track, home of the world-famous Penn Relays, underwent a $3 million renovation two years ago… The Quakers are 1-1 but not viewed as one of the league’s stronger teams this fall… Kickoff is scheduled for 7:03 p.m… Dartmouth has won the teams’ last three meetings.

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