Hakeem Cooper couldn’t wait to tell his mom the good news.
The Abraham Lincoln High School graduate was named the head coach of the school’s football team in June and the first thing he did was call the woman who supported him.
First, she showed him her loving side. Then she showed him her football side.
“I called her and I told her I was the new coach, because I was really happy,” said Cooper, who replaces Ed McGettigan, who resigned shortly before the end of the school year. “She said, ‘Congrats!’ Then she said, ‘You know you have to beat Judge.’ ”
That’s the plan.
But it’s just one of many things on Cooper’s to-do list. And while beating the school’s Thanksgiving Day rival is high up on the list, it’s not the top thing Cooper wants to accomplish.
He’s more worried about his players than another team.
Cooper, a 2010 graduate of Lincoln who went on to play football at Marshall, works as an aide at his alma mater. A few years back, the former standout linebacker and tight end was on the track, doing his best to stay in shape. It just so happened that the Railsplitters needed some coaching help.
“I was out there, running because I play semipro football and (McGettigan) asked me if I wanted to help out,” said Cooper, who lives in Mayfair and grew up in Rhawnhurst. “They actually needed someone to call the defense, so I started doing that. I really liked it.
“As a coach, you like to win. You want to beat everyone and win playoff games, but the best part about being a coach is helping these kids. I love my guys. I’ve learned a lot from them and I hope to teach them some things. I was exactly where they were a few years ago. I hope that helps me relate to them and teach them.”
Cooper inherits a Lincoln team that is on its way up.
Three season ago, the Railsplitters won their first playoff game since 1989. The following year, they featured Sammy Karr, one of the top running backs in the city. And last year, the Railsplitters went on to defeat George Washington in the first round of the playoffs before falling to eventual Public League champion Northeast in the Public League 6A semifinals.
When Cooper was wearing a black and gold helmet, Lincoln had some good teams, but the school is enjoying more success these days, not just in football but also in basketball and other sports.
“We’re not stinkin’ Lincoln anymore, that’s for sure,” Cooper said. “A lot has changed. We’ve always had good football, I think, but we’re doing great now. The kids work so hard. They’re out here all the time.
“When I first started coaching (as an assistant), I told the kids I was going to be here at 6 a.m. on the track, working out and if you want to, come work out with me. Sam Karr was the only one who came out. I knew he was going to be special. But now everyone works like that. He’s definitely special, but everyone is starting to work like that.”
Cooper knows a lot about what hard work can get you.
On top of working at Lincoln and coaching, he is going to school to become a teacher. His goal is to get a job at the school he loves, possibly working with special education students. He is also a single father, raising his son, Hakeem Jr.
“I had him when I was in Lincoln, so everything I do is for him,” Cooper said. “He’s like me in a lot of ways, but he’s playing baseball and basketball, no football. I was a basketball player before I got to Lincoln, I never played football. I didn’t try out until Coach (Gene) Kelly heard I was a good athlete and he told me to come out.
“It’s hard, but we’re doing great. My mom was a single mother and she raised me. She helps me when I need it. Being a single parent isn’t easy, but my mom made it look easy. I’ve learned so much from her. She was at all my games and she loves football. She helped me get to where I am today.”
Cooper knows winning in the Public League won’t be easy. The Railsplitters have a tough schedule right from the start, and of course their biggest game is on Thanksgiving against the Crusaders.
As Cooper prepares for his 10-year reunion at Lincoln, he still remembers his last game very well. And he hopes his players leave Lincoln remembering the game for good reasons.
“We almost beat them my senior year, I’ll never forget it,” Cooper said. “It was close, something like 18-6. They were good, but so were we. It was a great game.”
And as bad as he wants Lincoln to be the top team in Mayfair, he’s more concerned about making sure his kids are the best they can be.
He’s willing to work with them to become better football players, but his bigger goal is to make them better students and better people.
According to Cooper, he has great candidates for all of that.
“Lincoln is a great school with great kids and great people,” Cooper said. “That’s why I came back. I love it here. I came back as soon as I could because I know how much the coaches here helped me. I want to do the same for them.
“The kids didn’t want to see (McGettigan) go, but I think they’re happy I’m here. I can relate to them. I’m going to make them work, but they want to do it. It’s going to be fun.”