Bert Cooper and the Golden Age of Darby Township Sports

I’m a few months older than Bert Cooper… We grew up in what is, in effect, “South Southwest” Philadelphia… Darby Township begins where Southwest Philadelphia ends. When 84th Street turns into Hook Road, you have entered Darby Township.

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A small two stop light town of about 3,000 nestled against the SW corner of a city with 1.5 million residents.

Sports was a way of life…  Bert Cooper grew up in the Golden Age of Darby Township sports. All he knew was winning… The town was blessed… He was destined to become one of the greatest boxers in the world. Like so many of my childhood friends, Bert was blessed with God-given athletic talent and gifts. His rise was preordained.

When we were about 10 years old in 1975, Darby Township won a state Championship in basketball. These were different times. There was no travel ball… There was no recruiting… I could stand in front of my house and hit damn near every player’s home with a rock. We knew everyone on the team… We knew their Moms, Dads and all their siblings.

I had just begun to think seriously about sports… Like most boys in Darby Township I was getting into basketball. But for the most part, I was into bikes. Poppin’ wheelies with David “Top Job” Crawford and Donald Barton was my primary preccupation. So was Bert Cooper. We had minibikes. We didn’t follow any of the established safety protocols… We rode on the streets… We rode on the sidewalks… We used to ride through the park at full throttle… No helmet… Shit… My minibike didn’t have working brakes…

Carroll Buter had a dirtbike… Clarence “Poochie” Wilson had a Binelli minibike… I had a “Cat” 3.5HP minibike… Bert and his brothers had dirtbikes, minibikes and motorcycles…

Life was good… Who knew what Bert would become?

Muhammad Ali was the Heavyweight Champion of the world… He had just knocked out the big, bad, invincible George Foreman to regain the belt. His challengers were Ken Norton, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers and Leon Spinks. These guys were bigger than life itself.

The notion that Bert would challenge for same title held by Ali was incomprehensible…

Little did we know that God had a plan for Lil’ Bert Cooper to enter the pantheon of great heavyweights… And… Bert did it from the muscle… Boxing wasn’t the sport of choice in the Darby Township.

When we were 12, the Darby Township HS basketball team was undefeated until losing in a Final Four game to Bob Stephenson and Elk Lake.

By the time we were 13, Darby Township High had an undefeated football team featuring Cardell Baskerville, Vincent Clark and Gary Gadsen. They were so good, that we believed we were HIGH MAJOR! These guys were so talented and performed so well, we didn’t realize we were the poor, little Black school… Seriously…

All we knew was that there was absolutely nothing you could do once Gadsen handed the rock to Baskerville or Clark. They were going to run through you, over you or around you. Unbelievable how much talent God packed into this tiny tight-knit community. Baskerville and Clark both rushed for over a thousand yard. They both imposed their will on opposing teams with a combination of quickness, speed and power at the point of contact.

Booooom! That first hit is not bringing either of them down… Now what?

As fall faded into winter, the balls started bouncing in the gym. After a season that saw Darby Township’s undefeated campaign thwarted by Elk Lake, Alton McCoullough was ready to lead the Eagles back to Hershey. Mission accomplished…

Just too much… Alton was just too much… With super sophomores Kevin Gale and Derick Loury on the wings, the Eagles trounced the competition and once again played for the state title.

This is what Lil’ Bert Cooper saw when he was 13… Winning… Domination… Little Darby Township held it’s own every time out…Why not him?

Track season came around… What else? State Championship…

The Eagle’s finest sprinter Ward Crump and running back Vincent Clark would be featured in Sports Illustrated a couple months apart from one another.

Darby Township… A Lil’ Louder Now…

By 1980, Kevin Gale is the best basketball player in Delaware County and the Eagles are once again in the State Championship game.

Bert fucked around on the court… But he wasn’t a basketball player… His little brother Jimmy was a magnificent player and his older brothers Monte and Jonah were both good players. But, Burt played basketball like he boxed. Nonetheless, he was usually not far from one of the courts…

When we were around 15 or 16… Bert started bringing boxing gloves to the basketball court. Lex Jones and Robert Bell would “spar” with Bert in the park. Lacking any real boxing skills and possessing an overabundance of heart, these guys used to beat the shit out of one another for hours.

Life was good…

They were just fucking around… Or, so we thought…

Little did we know, a spark was lit in Bert… He found his calling…

Knockin’ dudes out!

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He sought out the great Joe Frazier and embarked upon a pugilistic career would earn him respect across the globe.

It’s the fall 1984, Bert’s been under the tutelage of Frazier for a couple years, we get the call… Bert’s pro debut is in Atlantic City.

What?

Newt waxes the Grand Prix, shines the rims and we’re out…

Spurg, Geoff and about 3 car loads make our way to the AC expressway… Couldn’t be late…

Seriously, you couldn’t be late…

Bert knocked out his opponent in the 1st round in 7 of his first 10 fights… Another one ended with a 2nd knockout and yet another ended in the 3rd.

Of course… we had a ball!

We drank too much… We smoked too much… We ate too much… We’re from Darby Township!

It got to a point where Newt, a lil’ tipsy, challenged Joe Frazier in the hotel room. “I can knock you out,” he said to the former heavyweight champion of the world.

You can’t make this up…

Surrounded by his friends, fresh off a knockout… Bert was smiling ear to ear… He had “FAT” roll with a couple hundred dollar bills surrounding about a thousand ones bulging in pocket.

These were the first steps on a legendary journey… Henry Tillman? Got ‘em… Willie de Wit? Got ‘em…

Eventually in 1989, they put my man from round da’ corner in with Big George Foreman… That one didn’t end too well… Sensing Bert’s out of the ring issues probably impacted his training, Foreman punished the body… He landed several heavy hooks in round 1 that hurt Bert. In round 2, he continued to attack the body and landed a solid right hook that stung Bert. Bert was done for the night, he remained on his stool and did not answer the bell to begin the 3rd round.

A year later, Bert knowked out Orlin Norris… He was back in the mix…

His next fight was a historic 12 round slugfest with Ray Mercer… Both men stood there and traded blow after blow with neither retreating an inch… Mercer won on points… They spend the night with each other in the emergency room…

Bert, just two months later, jumps in the ring with Riddick Bowe… Bad move… Bert was not fully recovered from his war with Mercer. He was knocked out by Bowe in the 2nd round.

Imagine what a healthy Bert Cooper could have accomplished? Imagine if Bert had been able to conquer his demons?

Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World! From Burton Avenue…

After reeling off 4 straight wins, in November 1991 Bert finds himself fighting for the title. He’s agreed to face one of the greatest boxers ever to grace the planet. Evander Holyfield was at his peak.

Bert, from Burton Avenue, was fuckin’ around… You’d see him here… You’d run into him over there… You heard about this… You heard about that…

The demons… Those fuckin’ demons…

But on that night you were there… Glued to the television…

Yeah… Yeah… Yeah… Holyfield is the shit… Yeah I saw the Olympics… Yeah I saw the Qawi fight…

Matter of fact I watched it with Bob Welsh and Brian Bacon… We got fucked up that night… So what?

I liked Bert to knock Holyfield the fuck out!

Seriously… I liked Bert to whoop his ass…

Seriously… I liked Cardell to run over Mean Joe Green…

Seriously… I liked Alton to post up Bob Lanier…

Seriously… I liked Crump to outrun Carl Lewis…

I’m from Township!

Ding!

The bell sounds and “Boom” Holyfield catches him… Bert goes down in round 1…

That’s NOT the plan… Uh Ooooh… Bert won’t stay down though, he gets up and takes the battle to Howlyfield.

Then… It happened… In round 3 Bert caught him and Holyfield is down for the first time in his career.

At that moment… Everyone from Darby Township trying mightily to lift our champion to victory… We were all screaming at the screen… Send telepathic signals through the airwaves… We thought we had it…

Holyfield endured Bert’s onslaught of power shots that very few men could withstand. A true champion he finally recovered and vanquished Bert in round 7.

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Cooper vs Holyfield

As only Darby Township would… We had a fuckin’ parade anyway!

For our champion… Bert Cooper represented lil’ Darby Township on the world stage.

A warrior, a fighter an MAN!

He would continue to fight another 2 decades with varying degrees of success. His fight with Michael Moore has also been elevated to legendary status.

Rest well Champion… You put in a lifetime of work…

I Love Bert Cooper… God Bless the Cooper family.

 

 

A Lil’ Louder Now…

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