When talking to longtime fans of the Arizona Rattlers, the first name that always comes up is Hunkie (Hernandez) Cooper, and it is easy to see why. He spent 13 seasons with the Rattlers, won two championships, and has more honors and awards than most AFL players have seasons, and in 2011, Hunkie Cooper was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame. While all his records and awards are a big part of the Rattlers rich history, these are just a small part of what made Hunkie so loved by Rattler Nation.
As a Rattler, the Palistine, Texas native was named to the All-Arena team six times (four times first team, 1993, 1995, 1996, 2000; two times second team, 1997, 1999). He was named to the All-Ironman team three times (1999, 2000, 2001), as well as being named the AFL Ironman of the Year twice (1999, 2000). Cooper leads the Rattlers all-time in receptions (776), return yards (11,501), total returns (583), and return touchdowns (19).
Hunkie Cooper has since been brought on to coach the wide receivers at San Diego State University, and despite being in season, he was gracious enough to set aside some time to answer a few questions.
What have you been up to since retirement?
Cooper: Lots of things since I retired in 2005. I was blessed to go to Utah with Danny White and work for an amazing family, the Garffs, helping them start and build a new franchise the Utah Blaze. That was a great experience for me and I was able to coach and work with former Rattler greats such as Siaha Burley, Tom Pace, Orshawante Bryant and Joe Germaine.
Can you describe the transition from being a player to coaching?
Cooper: It was an easy transition for me because I felt as if I was a coach on the field for many years and earned the respect of the player. The difficult part was the business side of coaching where after games I had to work and no longer hung out with the players to celebrate with them, they were to celebrate and I was to get us ready for our next contest.
What is your favorite football memory from your remarkable career?
Cooper: So many memories but the ones that stick out the most are the 1994 Arena bowl championship game when our names didn’t appear on the tickets, Orlando had all of the stars and big name players, but walking into the arena seeing limos everywhere for the Predators to celebrate after they won the game and somebody forgetting to tell the Rattlers that we were supposed to lose. Secondly, the America West Arena being filled with Rattler fans supporting us as we won over the Iowa barnstormers and brought Arizona their first professional championship to the city.
The Saturday morning breakfast with (Sherdrick) Bonner, (Mark) Tuck(er), Matt (Anderson) and John (Sing) always gave me an edge. On the flip side, losing great team mates Milton Vaughn, Barry Voorhees and seeing how strong our ticket manager Scott Podleski was through his battle with cancer.
Do you still keep in touch with a lot of your teammates?
Cooper: Yes, I do as much as I can. Everyone is super busy with work and raising families, but a genuine love is still present. We were more than team mates, we loved one another and were a complete family.
What was the best advice you were ever given?
Cooper: The best advice I was ever given was the things you do for yourself will go to the grave with you, but the things you do for others will create a legacy you can’t outlive.
When talking to Rattlers fans, your name is always one of the first names mentioned when they talk about their favorite Rattlers’ memories. Why is your connection with Rattlers’ fans so strong?
Cooper: Because we valued our fans and we were accessible. Our fans were our families as well, our success was based on genuinely caring about every part of the rattlers operation. From the best owners and people in professional sports, the best support staff with Maxine (Royer), JT (Thompson), ticket office, training staff, medical staff, arena security, arena set up team, chapel with Dave Deal to the best teammates and fans ever. To be around a legend like Danny White was great but to be around a pioneer like his Dad was the best ever. Our front office staff was flexible and grew to handling business but in a family way.
Is there anything you would like to say to the Rattler Nation?
Cooper: Your support through the years has been unmatched. You made it easy to come to work every day and for us as professionals to give you our best. In the off-season I could remember training so hard because I knew what was awaiting us in the America West Arena every game we played. In closing it wasn’t about wins and losses but about protecting a brand and building lifelong relationships, the willingness to minimize yourself to better your team, the organization and the city.