When star college running back Graig Cooper entered the Citrus Bowl to play in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl game, he never imagined his football career would take the turn it did. The University of Miami player was a highly sought recruit and led his team in rushing yards in 2007, 2008 and 2009. Cooper, named “Mr. Football” in Tennessee in 2005, was also expected to enter the National Football League draft after the Citrus Bowl game.
“This case is more of a loss of a dream situation,” Cooper’s attorney Robert Hemphill of the Winter Park law firm Cullen & Hemphill said in an exclusive phone interview.
“Our client was a very talented running back at the University of Miami and this would have been his last college football game before entering the NFL draft,” Hemphill added. “Because he suffered significant injury caused by the condition of the field at the Citrus Bowl, Graig was unable to declare his eligibility for the 2010 NFL draft.”
Representing Cooper, attorneys Robert Hemphill and Kim Cullen filed the high-profile lawsuit against the City of Orlando, in addition to Florida Citrus Sports Association, Florida Citrus Sports Events, Toms Sod Service, Quality Turf Limited Corporation and QGS Development.
During the 2009 Orlando bowl game, “the football field turf was loose, unstable, and breaking away from the soil as the football game was played,” according to Cooper’s legal complaint against the City of Orlando and the other involved parties. Running backs selected in the first two rounds of the 2010 NFL draft signed contracts ranging in value from around $3.3 million to $20.8 million, including signing bonuses according the complaint.
It has been years since the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl game at the Citrus Bowl but Cooper’s major lawsuit stemming from an injury caused by field conditions during the game at the city-owned venue has finally reached a settlement. The case had finished depositions and was preparing to go to trial next month.
“A satisfactory resolution was reached between the plaintiff and all parties,” Hemphill said. He added Cooper was “very pleased” and said the City of Orlando “did the right thing.”
Due to the “dangerous condition of the field turf,” Graig Cooper suffered a signficant knee injury during a non-contact kick-off return. All football players are prepared for the possibility of injury, but no player expects to be injured in non-contact plays due to stadium and turf conditions. The injury was so serious, Cooper never played at the same level he did prior to the injury and that cost him his chance at an NFL career.
Attorneys Hemphill and Cullen were preparing an impressive case and also deposed top local officials including Orlando Venues Director Allen Johnson, Florida Citrus Sports CEO Steve Hogan and senior level city venues staff.
It became clear that city policy and Venues Director Johnson decided to purchase cheaper sod than previously used at the Citrus Bowl prior to the bowl game. It was also discovered that at the time, Johnson’s “turf consultant” Ralph White was the same consultant for the sod companies.
Cooper’s attorneys presented an email from retired city employee Greg Thompson to Ralph White saying: “If I had known they were going to cheapskate us, I would not have used them.” Johnson denied knowing about White’s connection until after the incident, but it appears coordination was happening at all levels. The cheaper sod directly impacted the quality and safety of the Citrus Bowl field.
“The field was not suitable for high level play,” Hemphill noted in his phone interview.
Mike Handlan is retired but served as the field supervisor at the Citrus Bowl and worked for the city for more than two decades. In his deposition, Handlan was asked if he expected to receive the same quality grass from Tom’s Sod and Quality Turf even though the price was less. “When you work with somebody for as many years as I did, you expect the same every year. But understandable that you’re not going to get the same stuff that you did if you’re not going to pay for it,” Handlan said in his deposition.
“It was terrible,” Cooper said about the field conditions in his own deposition. “Everybody was complaining.” In addition to the low quality turf, the field conditions were even worse due to bad weather. “It was slippery,” he added. “I seen the pregame and other guys were, too. If you look you see guys out there sliding everywhere before the game.”
Cooper’s teammate Jacory Harris, University of Miami starting quarterback in the Champs Sports Bowl, also filed an affidavit describing the “terrible condition” of the Citrus Bowl field. “During the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl I frequently saw large chunks of grass flipped over and coming up,” he stated. “The players were frequently flipping the turf over and trying to fill in holes and divots.” Harris called the field conditions “unsafe” and “the worst I have ever played on in my entire football career.”
Graig Cooper had never been injured before. He never even saw a doctor for anything related to his knees prior to playing at the Citrus Bowl. Sadly, despite rehabilitation and training, the knee injury permanently impacted Cooper’s speed and vertical jump. This would be what prevented his NFL dreams from coming true.
In a heartfelt moment during his deposition, Cooper explained when he realized his NFL dream had been taken away from him due to his knee injury. Cooper was asked if he had any realistic hope of ever playing in the NFL.
“I used to until the day I saw [Philadelphia Eagles] Coach Andy Reid telling me — it was in the middle of practice and I was running, you know, I was known as the fast guy, and when I was running one day I hear Coach Reid say, Coop, run faster, run faster, we need you running, running, and in my mind I was running as fast as I could run and I knew that day that my knee was gone,” Cooper responded.
The City of Orlando agreed to pay the maximum they were liable for in the case due to sovereign immunity according to statute, around $100,000. The other parties will also contribute undisclosed amounts.
Graig Cooper is now looking forward to starting the next chapter in his life. Attorney Hemphill said Cooper, who earned his degree from the University of Miami, is excited to start his own personal training business in Miami. Mr. Football may end up training and inspiring a future rising star and NFL draft prospect.