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Cooper’s character outshines even the bright lights of the Heisman stage

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NEW YORK — Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper didn’t win the Heisman Trophy, but that won’t define his legacy.

Being slighted is something Cooper knows all about. Though he was a 4-star recruit, he wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school after an injury-shortened junior year and a solid senior season. He knows the list of the players who were ranked above him — he wouldn’t say who they were — and uses that to his advantage.

“I’m still feeding off that,” Cooper said. “I want to be the No. 1 player so you have to always find things to motivate you.”

Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota won the 80th Heisman Trophy, and Cooper finished in third. With that result, he will add another piece of motivation to his daily routine. He has the chance to play on the same field as Mariota if both Alabama and Oregon make it through their semifinal games. He wasn’t invited to camps at Alabama, or at many of his top-choice schools, but didn’t let that stop him, and neither will this result.

“I always had faith, even when I wasn’t getting recruited,” Cooper said. “I just always believed I had the gifts to do it, and when things got hard, I always kept that faith for some reason.”

Cooper is still improving, saying the part of his game he needs to work on the most is consistency. The receiver, whose high school teammates say he rarely visited the weight room, is now known for his relentless work ethic, and has a reputation for living in the gym.

“I enjoy it a lot because I know it’s going to pay off,” Cooper said. “It gives me that confidence in the game that when I’m lining up across from somebody I know they haven’t worked as hard as me.”

He learned this work ethic from his mom, Michelle Green. She worked multiple jobs during Cooper’s childhood — as a cashier, and then as a code compliance officer for the city of Miami Beach, a job she still has after 10 years.

Cooper told a compelling story during the Heisman ceremony about not accompanying his mom to the grocery store when he was younger because he was tired, only to see her return home and have marks on her arms from walking miles carrying a heavy load of groceries. That memory has stayed with him for years and stands out to him as a symbol of the commitment to hard work that she modeled for him growing up.

“She just sacrificed so much for us,” Cooper said after the ceremony. “You want to know how much someone loves you, look at how much they sacrifice for you.”

Green said she didn’t get choked up during the telecast or during the emotional story, but back in the hotel, in private, she couldn’t have more glowing things to say about her son.

“I’m very proud,” Green said. “He’s very determined and focused, and when he sets his mind to something, he does it.”

Cooper received 49 first-place votes for the Heisman, compared to Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon’s 37 and Mariota’s 788. The Alabama wide receiver only trailed Gordon in total votes by 227, but trailed Mariota by 1,511.

It was always Mariota’s award to lose. Wide receivers rarely win the Heisman; they haven’t since 1991. But while Gordon’s season is basically over — scheduled to play Auburn in the Outback Bowl — Cooper’s season still has life. He still has something to prove.

After the ceremony, Cooper returned to the hotel and left the noise of awards season behind. Flanked by his mother and his sister and a small village of Alabama football staff, he relaxed on a couch and started checking his phone. He had spoken more words in these last few days than he probably had in months.

A self-described “loner,” he likes the quiet and said he was relieved that this process around the awards was over. Now he can get back to football.

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