Rivals on the field, friends off
You are Kyle Prater. You play for Proviso West (Hillside, Ill.). You're a senior wide receiver rated No. 43 in the ESPNU 150. You're 6-foot-5, 205 pounds. You can run. You can jump. You break tackles and make big plays. You're a beast.
Now imagine your arch-nemesis. He'd be a defensive back with the athleticism and skill to defend you in man coverage, and he'd have the size and toughness to stick you when you come over the middle. He'd be about 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. He'd be fast, too. And of course, he'd play for Proviso East (Maywood, Ill.).
That's Corey Cooper. He's also your best friend.
Prater and Cooper are polar opposites on the gridiron. But they've been inseparable off the field since fifth grade.
"We've been best friends for a long time," Prater says. "We've got the same aspirations and a lot of the same goals. Corey is cool on the field and off the field -- I gotta roll with him."
The two grew up minutes apart in Forest Park, where Cooper lived on 9th Avenue and Prater on 16th. Once they were put on the same football team at age 10, it was like Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly coming together in "Step Brothers."
"We just got along right away," Cooper says. "We've been hanging all the time since then. It's the same as it's always been."
Now the best buds are right where they want to be. Prater is the top-rated offensive player in the state, while Cooper, also a senior, is the top-rated defensive player. And 51 weeks a year, they help each other get better.
"Competing against each other makes us better," Prater says. "I win some and he wins some, but working out against a player of that caliber can only help you. When you go up against your opponent on game day, you know you can lock him up."
Cooper has been locking it up since he first picked up a football. With his explosive speed, he was a natural on defense and a home run threat at receiver on offense. By the time he reached high school, he was a two-way standout capable of making game-changing plays on either side of the ball.
"We don't take him off the field," Proviso East coach Aaron Peppers says. "He plays offense, defense, kick return, punt team, everything. We have to call timeouts sometimes to give him a rest. We want him out there because he can make an impact in every facet of the game."
As a junior, Cooper had 40 catches for 700 yards and six touchdowns, and his kick return skills were among the best in the area. But his play at safety was even more impressive. Peppers says quarterbacks are smart enough not to throw the ball his way most of the time, but Cooper still finds ways to make his presence felt on D.
"My job as a safety is to be a playmaker," says Cooper, who had 60 tackles, four interceptions and two sacks last year. "If the ball's in the air, I need to make a play on the ball. If someone makes a catch or someone's running, I need to come down and make a big hit. I gotta do something to help our team on every play."
Prater's rise to elite recruit status didn't go as smoothly as Cooper's. Though he's always had the size and the hands, his other physical skills didn't emerge until just last year.
"My sophomore year, a lot of people didn't think I had enough speed," Prater says. "They said I wasn't fast enough. There was one play where I should've had a touchdown, but I got hauled down from behind. I said no one was gonna haul me down anymore."
Prater kicked his training into high gear before last season, and going up against Cooper nearly every day helped bring out the best in him. His speed improved markedly, and soon no one was able to catch him from behind.
Armed with a newfound explosiveness, Prater broke out with 60 catches, 948 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior.
"Kyle was a late bloomer," says Peppers, who coached Prater in youth football and now coaches against him in high school. "He put in all the time -- the weight room, he's on the practice field, offseason workouts -- and now he's like a gazelle when he runs."
The only time Cooper and Prater aren't best friends is during the annual Proviso East-Proviso West game. And they don't really stop being friends. They just go on hiatus until the final whistle blows.
Their conversations are restricted to small talk during the week, and there's no joking around while the game is going on. It's serious business. Prater wants to beat his friend deep and Cooper wants to lay him out and force a fumble.
"We don't say anything on the field," Cooper says. "There's nothing to be said. We just go at it and try to do our jobs. After the game, we're cool."
And like any pair of best friends going through senior year, they field a lot of questions about their college choices. Cooper committed to Illinois a while back, but Prater took his time with his decision. That led to a lot of speculation about whether Prater would choose the Illini as well.
But in the end, it seems Prater and Cooper are destined to be best friends on different teams. While they won't be arch-rivals in college, they also won't be teammates -- at the beginning of September, Prater committed to USC over a group of finalists that included Illinois.
"We're just having fun right now," Prater says. "We try to put all that recruiting stuff to the side and kick it. I'm focusing on improving and putting on a show this year."
Besides, no matter where they end up, Prater knows Cooper will have his back.
"Regardless of what happens," Prater says, "we're gonna be cool."
Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.
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