Heading into the 2013 FCS football season, Eastern Washington was expected to be one of the prominent challengers to the early parts of the North Dakota State dynasty. The red-and-white Eagles were the best team in the Big Sky Conference. They knew it, too, throwing a lot of moxie behind quarterback Vernon Adams, a Walter Payton Award contender, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Adams did ball out that year, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards in 15 games.
Adams is now in the CFL, but the majority of his spirals that year were caught by an under-recruited, raw yet undeniably gifted redshirt freshman wide receiver that caught my eye.
His name was Cooper Kupp.
More than eight years later he’s much more widely known. Hard to believe arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL never received an FBS scholarship offer. That’s in part due to geography. He’s from Yakima, Wash., a town way more fun to pronounce than to actually drive to. It’s more than two hours southeast of Seattle. You don’t accidentally end up in Yakima. And Kupp wasn’t undeniable enough on film to get the chartered planes from bigger schools to touch down in his part of the world.
The year before the start of the college football playoff was Kupp’s breakout season, earning the Jerry Rice Award, given annually to the FCS’s best freshman, with Rice himself playing for Mississippi Valley State before becoming the greatest wide receiver of all time. Kupp’s Eagles were eliminated in the FCS semifinals by Towson, my alma mater. But his journey was just beginning. Adams finished as the runner-up for the Payton, with Kupp not making the list of three finalists. The winner was a player Kupp has shared a field with a time or two since then, Jimmy Garoppolo, who played at Eastern Illinois.
Kupp will play in his first Super Bowl on Sunday as a key piece of the Los Angeles Rams. His season was incredible, worthy of being the MVP instead of Aaron Rodgers. A decade ago, Kupp was on Eastern Washington’s scout team. He was one of the players the Eagles’ defensive starters practiced against to learn the tendencies of upcoming opponents. His size was never the issue at 6-foot-2. He’s bulked up since college, now weighing in at around 210 pounds. At EWU, he was fine with a little less weight. He concentrated on bettering his craft after high school. Then again, what else is there to do in Cheney, Washington?
When I covered FCS football in 2014, I got the chance for a one-on-one interview with Kupp. It was your basic question-and-answer session between reporter and player. I guarantee you he doesn’t remember it. The story was published a few days later. Something in my then-22-year-old brain clicked the day of our conversation. I knew we’d keep hearing about him. A list of elite FCS talent never truly made a dent in the NFL. I’m not saying I called it, I just knew from his answers Kupp had the work ethic and mindset where a situation like Sunday would be possible. Something about the way he grinded away from the spotlight makes all the attention he’s getting in Hollywood now fitting.
Much like Boise State’s blue field, Eastern Washington’s is red, one of five Division-I schools to not use a green field alongside Coastal Carolina, Eastern Michigan and Central Arkansas. Kupp tore it up on that field as a four-time first-team FCS All-American from 2013-16. To stand out in the non-FBS to the general college football public, you have to dominate. And that’s what Kupp did, holding the FCS all-time receiving record with 6,464 yards. And he won the Payton Award in 2015, the most recent and only second wide receiver to do so, the other being longtime Atlanta Falcon Brian Finneran.
Kupp’s place in the FCS, and overall college football record books, is long. There’s no need to bore you with facts other than to say no one who has ever played in a college football game at any level, at any time, has more receiving yards than the Rams’ No. 10. Simply put, there’s never been a more productive college receiver. All those records and he was still the seventh wide receiver taken in the 2017 NFL Draft, coming off the board in the third round. Only one receiver drafted before him has also been to a Pro Bowl, Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster. And Kupp’s NFL rise has been steady, not letting a torn ACL in 2018 derail that progress. And this was the year he truly took it to the masses.
Adams eventually transferred to Oregon for more notoriety and is now the starting quarterback for the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes. Kupp has made it farther than even his biggest supporters probably thought possible, being the first player to finish the NFL regular season the league’s leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns since 2005, the receiver Triple Crown. Each defense knows how big he is in Sean McVay’s plans to win each game. And he’s had only one game this season with less than 92 receiving yards. The irresistible force could add Super Bowl champion to his list of accomplishments on Sunday, less than a decade after his redshirt year at Eastern Washington.