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Ex-Bronco Cooper turns to fishing to fuel competitive drive

ABACO, Bahamas — Saddled with an insatiable competitive drive, Mark Cooper was a bit lost shortly after ending his NFL career of a productive seven years.

Like many men of his age, he turned to the usual suspects in golf and softball to fill the void of the "gameday thrill" that high-level athletes search for after leaving the game.

But everything fell short of his lofty expectations. Except for fishing.

Cooper, who grew up in Miami and has always been comfortable on the water, soon realized that fishing, more specifically saltwater fishing, was the only activity that provided him with the buzz he was searching for.

Now a regular competitor on the Redbone Series of events, Cooper, who played seven seasons in the NFL for the Denver Broncos and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is completely hooked.

The thrill of the chase is what brought him to Abaco this weekend for the Baker's Bay Marsh Harbour Bonefish Classic, the season-opening event in the ESPN Outdoors Saltwater Series. He has also been to Jamaica, Costa Rica, Brazil and a host of other countries. Simply to go fishing.

"It's part of what makes me tick," said Cooper, 49. "I tried the golf thing and actually got pretty good at it. But I just didn't get the same feeling that I had when I played football. Fishing was the only thing that provided me that excitement. It was the substitute I was looking for when my playing days ended."

It was roughly 15 years ago that Cooper was introduced to Gary Ellis, founder of the Redbone Series. While the Redbone serves as a competitive tournament series, it was created to find a cure for Cystic Fibrosis, from which Ellis' daughter suffers from.

Ellis has made quite an impression on Cooper. So much so that in 2000, Cooper started his own charity tournament out of Colorado, which contributes more than $60,000 annually to CF.

The two have a symbiotic relationship. Cooper donates a good amount of time and energy to support the cause while Ellis' tournaments benefit from their association with Cooper. Cooper was originally drawn to the camaraderie between Redbone competitors; something that he feels is similar to the bond established in the locker room.

Though he loves fishing and spends the majority of his free time obsessing over it, he is still immersed in football.

He writes a regular blog on the Broncos team web site and lives in the Denver area, where many of his ex-teammates still live. And despite his unwavering passion for the game, he is realistic about its current state.

"It's a little sad for the general sports fan and most importantly, the kids who follow the game," Cooper said. "Athletes just aren't as accessible as they used to be. It's definitely a detriment to the game. The perception is that today's athlete just doesn't feel the need to give something back."

Cooper is a realist and while his opinion might not be popular with today's player, like it or not, there is a growing perception that professional athletes are less invested in the fan base. Most recent example is Jay Cutler, ex-Broncos quarterback, which obviously hits very close to home for Cooper.

"I'm glad he's gone," said Cooper, who is quite likely the largest man to ever pick up a fly rod. "The problem with the way he acted was he let down his teammates. He is supposed to be a leader but quite frankly he doesn't have leadership qualities. He acted extremely childish."

Cooper traditionally has a soft spot in his heart for quarterbacks. After all, he protected legends in Jim Kelly — in college at Miami — and Jon Elway at Denver. A valuable cog on Denver's 1987 Super Bowl Team, Cooper protected Elway's blindside and jokingly takes credit for Elway's scrambling ability.

So, what does he prefer? Landing a trophy tarpon — his favorite sportfish — or protecting your quarterback from multiple 300-pound defensive linemen.

"I love them both," said Cooper. "But right now, I'm better suited to be on the water."