Tory Cooper was the secret weapon on the best Citadel football team of the last 17 years, rushing for 1,041 yards and 19 touchdowns and catching 33 passes for 351 yards and two more scores on the Bulldogs' 7-4 team of 2007. Now, the small-town kid from Effingham is playing pro football in Innsbruck, Austria, for a team called the Swarco Raiders (www.raiders.at). Cooper talked about Euro-style American football when he went one on one with The Post and Courier's Jeff Hartsell.
After you left The Citadel, what led you to football in Europe?
"Attending my first Citadel home game as a spectator. I always knew I wouldn't miss playing football until that day. What drove me to play in Europe was Europe itself, and a chance to experience living in another country."
What teams have you played for?
"Last year I played for a team in Thonon-les-Bains, France, called the Black Panthers. Thonon is located in the French Alps literally five minutes away from Evian, France, which is famous for bottled water. This year, I am playing for the Swarco Raiders. We are currently the No. 1 team in Europe, and the back-to-back Eurobowl Champions. The Raiders are the only team in Europe that has a partnership with an NFL team, the Oakland Raiders. The Oakland Raiders donate equipment, apparel, and feature a small part on their Web site about the Swarco Raiders. The Austrian League is called the AFL."
What's the level of football there?
"That's kind of hard to explain because of the coaching and training that some of the players have lacked. The Austrian League has the highest level of play because they have the best programs and bring in the best American imports and more American coaches. If I could compare it to college football, I would put it on a Division I-AA level. Germany has probably the second highest level of play."
You've got to be the best player in the league, right?
"(Laughs). I am a very humble person, but I think I am one of the best players in the league. This year the Austrian League has a number of ex-NFL players, so we will have to see after the season."
What are your living arrangements?
"It's pretty nice this year. We live in an apartment in a pretty nice neighborhood with a ski slope behind the house, so we get to watch people ski and snowboard. We have free bus passes to get around the city. They provide one free meal a day at a bar that sponsors the team."
What's the pay like?
"The pay is one thing I wish was better. I would describe it as a monthly stipend. But to me, I think the experience and doing what I love to do is what counts. Everything is pretty much provided for us, so its pretty stress free. I can't really complain about not having to pay rent and utility bills, you know?"
What are the crowds at the games like?
"Austria and Germany have the biggest crowds in Europe. We have the nicest stadium in Europe, I think. I think fans are starting to get into it year after year. They show the Super Bowl pretty much everywhere in Europe, so that might be the only NFL game they can watch. I believe last year the Eurobowl drew around 22,000 fans. I would say that's pretty good."
You must be having a blast.
"Man, it's awesome living here for half of the year. I've traveled to London, Paris, Prague, twice to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and now I am in Austria. My favorite cities have to be Prague, Geneva and Paris. I am planning a few more trips, but the Swarco Raiders take their football program pretty serious, so I will have to find time. I have met some of the nicest people and built some very strong relationships with people during my time here."
What's a typical day like?
"A day in Innsbruck consists of waking up, eating breakfast, then going down to the coaches' office to watch film. Then we go to lunch with the coaching staff. We get back home at around 2:30 p.m., or hang out at the coaches' office or go to the city. Practice starts around 7:30 p.m., lasts until 9:30 p.m. There is a university, medical university and a law school in town, so there are lots of people in our age range. The nightlife is pretty cool also."
What are your goals in football?
"As of this year, my goal is to help this team remain the best team in Europe and win a third EuroBowl. After this season, I will return and try to play somewhere in the States or Canada."
What do you miss the most about the U.S.?
"Maybe Chik-fil-A and Wal-Mart. I haven't found those yet. I miss little things though like ice, and the hours that stores stay open. They don't give you ice at many places here, and everything shuts down at around 7 or 8 p.m. On Sundays, barely anything is open."