“I’d always really wanted to spend time making pottery,” Cooley says as he works on his latest piece. “I’ve always liked making stuff, but I didn’t get too into it until a couple years ago.”
He almost didn’t get into it at all. He had initially brought his pottery wheel out to Powell with the intent of leaving it in town when he left to go back east to work out with the Washington Redskins, but a colder-than-normal June trapped him indoors. The wheel was a source of distraction from the miserable elements outside.
“I started by making some pots and really got into it,” Cooley said.
From that seemingly innocuous beginning, a full-fledged pastime has come forth. The tight end known for having hands of glue on the football field is becoming more and more well known for his hands of clay off the field. The hobby has taken on a life of its own.
“About six months ago, my wife said we should open a gallery,” Cooley said. “So we opened one in Leesburg (Va.).”
That opening came in December. In the time since, Cooley has sold some 700 pots.
“I’ve turned into a fulltime production potter,” Cooley says, amazed by the response he’s received. “It’s a good outlet from football. I can go home, just sit down and create. It’s a totally different outlet than football. I can just sit, make pots and enjoy myself.”
It helps that he’s also become fairly accomplished at what he does. For something simple like a coffee mug, Cooley can crank out a piece within a couple of minutes. For larger or more complex pieces, he might sit at the wheel for 15 or 20 minutes trying to get things just right. And that’s just the beginning.
“Then you have to dry them, trim them, make designs and handles,” Cooley said. “I fire them twice. Glaze it. When I’m using the wood fire kiln at the house, it takes 16 hours to fire the pieces and I’m out there having to put wood into it every 10 minutes. There’s a lot of steps that go into the process.”
But it is a process Cooley completely enjoys. He’s even expressed some interest in possibly holding an exhibition of his work in the Powell area at some future date.
“I’d definitely be up for a show,” Cooley said. “I would have to do some work out there, but I would love to do it.”
Cooley’s talents as a potter are gradually gaining him some recognition among the east coast art community. Still, he’ll be the first to admit that his status as an NFL pro bowler hasn’t hurt.
“If I had to guess, I’d say probably 75 percent of what I’ve sold has been bought by people thinking of it as a piece of football memorabilia,” Cooley said. “And that’s fine. I know what I’m making, but people can perceive it however they want. If it makes people happy and they want it, then that makes me happy as an artist.”
Of course, not everybody is happy with the thought of an NFL player with a sideline career as a budding artist. That perception, he notes, speaks to one of the glaring misperceptions people have about NFL players in general.
“Everyone thinks we’re like celebrities,” Cooley said. “From what I’ve been around and what I’ve seen, everyone’s normal. We’re just all normal players, but nobody likes it when there’s something else. They think your only interest should be football.”
And Cooley is quick to point out football is still number one.
“There’s not a balancing between pottery and football,” Cooley said. “There’s football, and then there’s whatever is left over.”
With NFL owners currently locking players out for the upcoming season and the dispute showing no signs of abating any time soon, Cooley has discovered plenty of free time.
“We’re getting together and working out and staying in shape,” Cooley said of his off-season. “Right now though, it’s just a waiting deal and I’m like everyone else. I’m just sitting here waiting it out to see what happens.”
While Cooley has tried largely to stay out of the fray, he says he can understand where both parties are in the dispute. As a player, he has a unique perspective on the game and the current impasse.
“I’m fortunate, because I’ve been paid enough that I can sit out for a year if I have to,” he notes. “It’s not going to hurt me to sit the season. There aren’t other people that can do what we do. Personally, I’ve had a major ankle injury, a knee, three concussions — that’s what I do. I risk myself for that and I feel we should be compensated for the way we risk our body. It’s a short career window for a lot of players.”
While waiting to see how that labor issue resolves itself, Cooley will likely find himself spending more time sitting at the potter’s wheel and exercising his creative talents. As his focus and hands return to giving shape to substance, one can’t help but imagine that’s just fine by him.