Dan Cooper’s career has seen its share of trophies, including three Vince Lombardis and Lord Stanley’s Cup. And as gratifying as those NFL and NHL championships with the Cowboys and Stars were for the 1977 Highland Park graduate, he’d likely put the Jerry “Hawk” Rhea Award he recently won right alongside them.
The Rhea Award is given annually to the best team physician in the NFL. Cooper, who has been the Cowboys’ top doctor for 13 seasons and has worked for the team for 22 years total, was “flabbergasted” when he heard the good news.
“I was very humbled and totally shocked,” Cooper said. “I greatly appreciated it, because it comes from NFL trainers who are in the trenches and who deal with all of the problems that we all deal with. You work with agents, players, coaches, and doctors. For them to express their appreciation for me really meant a lot. We work together at the combine and games. We all know each other really well. It’s a pretty tight fraternity.”
Cooper, who was a captain for the Scots tennis team and went on to play for the University of Tennessee, knew from an early age that he wanted to get into sports medicine. And being a huge Cowboys fan, his dream job was the one he eventually landed while also serving two stints as the Stars’ team doctor between 1993 and 2011.
“I always liked to fix things,” Cooper said. “My dad set a great example to me as a physician. My aptitude and interests were different than his, but I was always drawn toward working with my hands and being mechanically oriented. From a pretty young age, I was interested in orthopedic surgery and sports medicine. That was my goal when I set out. Along the way, I considered a lot of different things. I always seemed to gravitate back toward that kind of life and profession.”
Cooper’s first job working with a professional team was with the New York Giants. After he was awarded Cornell University Hospital’s prestigious Orthopaedic Sports Medicine Fellowship, he trained under his mentor, Dr. Russell Warren, the team physician for the Giants, for two seasons. Cooper joined the Cowboys in a supporting role under team doctor Bob Vandermeer, who retired in 1999.
“Dan has been a very valuable part of our organization for more than two decades,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. “He is recognized around the country as being among the very best in his field, and his expertise and skill have helped extend the careers of many of our players through the years. He is a valued asset to our football team and to the entire community for his dedication and professionalism.”
Cooper, who still lives in Highland Park, said he loved growing up in the Park Cities and being a Scot.
“People outside of Highland Park don’t understand what Highland Park stands for,” Cooper said. “They think it’s a collection of spoiled rich kids — it’s anything but that. There’s certainly affluence, but there’s a lot of middle-class people there. What I see is a group of kids that are super-high achievers and hard-working kids. Many times, they are discriminated against because they’re affluent or Caucasian. … Good public education is great. Highland Park is at the top of that list.”
Cooper said he spends two days a week at Valley Ranch during the season, in addition to his time at games. It takes away about six weeks from his practice at the Carrell Clinic. And while it’s been a tough few years for the team, he still relishes the opportunity to help get world-class athletes back from injuries.
“When I was young and interested in doing it, that was probably more of the pie-in-the-sky mentality,” Cooper said. “I thought, ‘Wow, that would be great to do that.’ I did kind of have to pinch myself a little bit. It’s a very challenging job. There’s a lot of stress involved, a lot of commitment, and a lot of personal sacrifice. Most people don’t realize what all it entails. I’m very blessed to have the opportunity to take care of athletes. The challenge of it is the thing that keeps you going.”