Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Hunkie Cooper would stand on the Canyon Springs High football team’s sideline and look across the Las Vegas High field at the press box bearing the name of one of the area’s greats, “Frank Nails Field.”
The Pioneers’ games at Las Vegas were always closely contested and likely determined the league champion. Along the way, the programs developed a deep respect for each other, especially Cooper in his appreciation for Nails. Nails spent nearly four decades in athletics throughout Southern Nevada, including his final 20 years at Las Vegas High, where the field is named in his honor.
When the two finally met, Cooper quickly realized they had much in common: Both dedicated their lives to helping Southern Nevada youth, using football as a tool to develop character and teach responsibility. Now, they have something else in common, something both never sought out to accomplish.
Cooper on Friday was announced as one of six inductees for the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame, joining the Vegas Golden Knights, baseball coaches Manny Guerra and Mike Martin, entertainment industry leader Steve Stallworth, and sports reporter Steve Carp. Nails was inducted in 2012. The induction ceremony will be June 14 at Orleans Arena.
Cooper remembers his first meeting with Nails, who raved about how hard the Canyon Springs team worked.
That validation was invaluable for the up-and-coming coach.
“Hearing that, from him, meant more to me than anything,” Cooper said.
Cooper wasn’t selected for his run at Canyon Springs, which ended four years ago when he left to join the coaching staff at San Diego State. Rather, it was for his record-setting professional career, where he is the Arena Football League’s all-time leader in receiving yards (8,559), receptions (776), all-purpose yardage (20,587) and kickoff returns (500) with the Arizona Rattlers.
He started coaching Las Vegas-area kids after retiring in 2005, eventually becoming the head coach at Canyon Springs in 2009 and turning them into a perennial winner. He doesn’t know how many games he has won or lost and, quite honestly, he doesn’t care.
What Cooper was most concerned about was the well-being of his players, many of whom needed a little help facing the adversity of the inner city. Cooper during his childhood in the Houston area had a similar upbringing, which made him determined to never quit on a teenager, even if they were a little rough around the edges. His journey in Las Vegas started at UNLV, where he played all over the field — defensive back, running back, quarterback, wide receiver and kick returner — in becoming one of the Rebels' all-time notables.
“My mother used to tell me, ‘The things you do for yourself, you go to your grave with. The things you do for others, you create a legacy,’” Cooper said.
Cooper while at Canyon Springs also worked as the site coordinator for Communities in Schools, which provides community support to students so they can succeed in school and in life. He did a little bit of everything — sending food home with students on the weekends, coordinating doctor visits, bus passes, clothing and much more. He did all this after working graveyard in security on the Strip.
“Most people define success by money,” he said. “I’m not motivated by money. I’ve always been motivated by the outcome. The greatest thing you can give anyone is yourself. What have I done for others? Not, what have you done for yourself.”
This isn’t the lone honor Cooper and Nails will share. Cooper in April will also be inducted into the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association’s Hall of Fame. And, also like Nails, a high school football field has been named in Cooper’s honor. Starting next season, games at Canyon Springs will be played on Hunkie Cooper Field — an honor Nails endorsed with a letter to the Clark County School District, who has the final say on naming fields and buildings.
“I’m completely honored, man,” Cooper said. “I never sought out to be part of the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame. It’s not something I dreamed of. All I wanted was to make the people I came in contact with better. I wanted to make their situation better. I wanted to make this city better.”