From near-tragedy, perspective
Union football falls in championship game
Union High School junior quarterback Peyton Thompson playing in the Class 6A-I State Championship
The Union High School football team was on a mission.
When the Redskins took the field in front of 14,817 fans at The University of Tulsa’s Chapman Stadium for the Class 6A-I state championship game on Dec. 1, they weren’t just playing for a second straight state title. They were competing for their fallen teammate, Keviyon Cooper, who was cheering them on from the sidelines.
The fact that they came agonizingly close, ultimately succumbing to Owasso 21–14, made the outcome even more painful.
A lot had happened since Union rallied for a 59–40 comeback victory over rival Jenks in the MidFirst Bank Backyard Bowl on the same TU field back on Sept. 9 (as chronicled in the Sept. 20 issue of TTV).
The Redskins, defending state champions, continued to roll, entering the title contest with a 12-0 record, riding an 18-game winning streak.
Their only close game came Sept. 29 against that same Owasso squad, a 44–41 double-overtime thriller. Beyond being a hard-fought triumph over a difficult opponent, that was when Cooper, a senior running back, suffered a traumatic brain injury.
Cooper had just finished a season-best performance, gaining 159 yards and two touchdowns on 30 rushes, when he started to feel strange and then collapsed in the locker room bathroom. He underwent emergency surgery and remained in the hospital for several weeks.
While the Redskins missed his contributions on the field, they kept winning without him as his teammates rallied around the cause of “winning it for Keviyon” (#KevStrong).
“The adversities that took place with Keviyon really helped our team bond,” Union Coach Kirk Fridrich said. “We grew a lot from it. We’re really proud of Keviyon.”
Junior quarterback Peyton Thompson, who completed 22 of 36 passes for 387 yards, was despondent after the loss. Union trailed 21–7 when Thompson connected on an 86-yard touchdown pass to A.K. Wilson late in the third quarter, but he also threw two interceptions, including one into the end zone on the Redskins’ final drive with 56 seconds left.
“When we came out here tonight, it was all about the seniors and Keviyon, and we played hard and fought to the very end,” Thompson said, fighting through tears. “Keviyon was a leader on our sidelines and in our locker room. Ever since he was able to get out of the hospital, everything we do, we’re motivated by Keviyon. He’s an inspiration to us all.”
Cooper has mostly recovered. Although his football career is over, he has progressed through the rehab process and is preparing for track season in the spring. He won the 400-meter race at the Class 6A state championship last year while Union claimed the track and field team title.
“My recovery’s coming great,” Cooper said. “I’m back to running 70 percent, I’m doing physical therapy, trying to get my body stronger and get ready for track.”
With Union behind 14–7 at halftime, Cooper delivered an encouraging speech in the locker room—and his teammates nearly completed the comeback.
“I’m proud of our kids and how they battled back and made a game of it,” Fridrich said. “Just couldn’t get it done. I think it was Owasso more than anything. It’s a good football team.”
Under the guidance of first-year head coach (and former TU coach) Bill Blankenship, Owasso became the first school other than Union or Jenks to win the 6A state championship since 1995. It was the Rams’ first-ever solo title (they were declared Class 3A co-champions in 1974 when they tied the state final, before the days of overtime).
As upset as they were after the defeat, though, both Fridrich and Thompson acknowledged that the situation with Cooper put things in perspective: Maybe football isn’t the most important thing in the world.
“No doubt about it; there’s things bigger than a game,” Fridrich said.
“It can be taken away at any time,” Thompson added. “We’re just blessed we have him back. It was a really dangerous injury, and all of us love him. We didn’t even get to celebrate that win against Owasso earlier in the season because all we cared about was our brother. Everybody was with him all along the way in his recovery, and we’re really proud of him.”
Cooper appreciates the overwhelming support he’s received from the Union football family.
“It felt good, all the support in and out of the hospital,” he said. “I still got the support now. I know these guys have my back and they tried 100 percent.”
It was precisely because of that intense camaraderie the players all share that Thompson was so disappointed the Redskins couldn’t pull out the victory. In the end, it all boils down to the relationships the game cultivates.
“It’s tough,” Thompson said. “I just hate that these seniors don’t get to go out the right way, like they deserve. I’m just grateful to be a part of this team. I love this team.”