At the epicenter of the sports media industry lies an ever-growing, trendy concept that is the professional athlete making a transition to broadcasting upon retirement.
In recent years, ex-players who have next to nothing in broadcast knowledge have found themselves in the booth with a microphone and a hungry, vast audience at their fingertips. Regardless of how short or long of a period it is between retirement and throwing on the headset, former athletes will always be under great scrutiny and criticism during their transition periods. Sometimes it even follows them throughout their entire career. It all seems to revolve around the built up stereotype which constantly questions the effort and intentions of former players in the booth.
Former Redskins Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley has been an exception to this stigma since joining the Team 980 family in Washington, D.C. Over the last five years, the 35-year-old has served as color commentator on the Redskins Radio Network, while also co-hosting “Cooley and Kevin” with Kevin Sheehan from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday-Friday.
Fellow 980 on-air personality Steve Czaban jokingly told Cooley, “I give you eight months,” at the start of his broadcasting career. Like any transitioning athlete, the Redskins’ all-time receptions leader at the tight end position needed to make adjustments accordingly.
“He’s willing to do the extra work that other ex-athletes won’t,” said Czaban.
Coming from a veteran radio broadcaster like Czaban, that’s a strong compliment.
As a viewer or listener, the average sports fan can usually gauge the quality of content being produced from a former professional athlete. Think back to Tony Romo’s first season in the booth for CBS. One of the central reasons people are so high on him is because of his ability to illustrate the logistics behind football scenarios using a jargon even non-football fans can relate to.
Cooley has a very similar approach on the radio. He mixes his football IQ and general knowledge with a slight sense of humor when on the air with his broadcast team.
Voice of the Redskins Larry Michael began calling games for the Redskins Radio Network the same year Cooley wore the burgundy and gold for the very first time, 2004. The two have been close ever since and Michael was quick to sing his color commentator’s praises.
“Chris is an extremely intelligent person and when it comes to football he’s beyond intelligent. It was a natural step for him to take what he knew about the game of football and describe what he’s seeing to listeners in real time,” said Michael.
Another quality of Cooley’s Michael hit on is his humility and humble nature inside and outside the broadcast booth. When he joined the broadcasting team, he understood he was replacing the great Sam Huff and how respected Sonny Jurgensen was among the Redskins fan base and within the organization.
“He (Cooley) was very aware of the protocol with Sonny being the longer tenured member of the broadcast group. That piece of chemistry could have needed a lot of work but it didn’t turn out to be that way. Sonny has always loved him,” said Michael.
The man who was coined “Captain Chaos” during his football years has been anything but that in the booth alongside Michael, Jurgensen and Doc Walker on the sidelines. 980 Program Director Chris Johnson, who serves as Cooley’s boss, also had glowing words to share about his host.
When asked about Cooley’s transition to the broadcast booth, Johnson added, “I don’t really consider Chris to be an athlete turned broadcaster. Chris is a broadcaster that happened to play football as a professional.”
One thing Johnson went into great depth on is Cooley’s unique ability to break down film the week after Redskins games.
“Chris goes through and dissects the game from all angles. It’s not just the x’s and o’s. These segments have led to new revenue and listenership. People come up to me and say they won’t get out of their cars while Chris is breaking down film,” said Johnson.
Yet again, here is another instance of Cooley’s ability to explain the game without going above people’s heads. Fans enjoy this type of listen and more importantly, appreciate it. These segments aren’t just thrown together on a whim, either. Cooley told me he dedicates “four or five hours to each side of the ball” following Redskins games.
Director of Sports Programming at 105.7 The Fan and Redskins Radio Network Executive Producer Chuck Sapienza, formerly of Team 980, saw Cooley up close in both his roles as co-host and color commentator.
“I can’t imagine listening to Chris without learning something. He’s the guy you want to have a beer with,” said Sapienza.
As far as what Cooley’s future holds, Sapienza suggested, “In a perfect world, I bet you he ends up coaching high school ball somewhere and doing the Redskins games.”
Cooley did have a brief stint on FOX NFL broadcasts as a color analyst in 2015. Led by play-by-play announcer Sam Rosen, Cooley was a member of FOX’s analyst rotation, along with Matt Millen, Brady Quinn and Kirk Morrison.
“It’s awesome. I loved it but I don’t need that. A lot of people have that competitive drive, but I just love being part of the Redskins,” said Cooley when asked about his experience calling games at the network level.
While the business of broadcasting remains competitive and at times treacherous for former athletes, Chris Cooley’s steady and consistent work ethic has solidified his voice in the D.C. sports media market for years to come.