How a childhood battle with cancer helped shape Warriors’ Head Coach Greg Cooper
HERRIMAN — Only aged 15 at the time, new Utah Warriors coach Greg Cooper was dealt a brutal hand that he’s since parlayed into a remarkable playing and then coaching career that has taken him and his family around the world.
Cooper grew up in humble circumstances on New Zealand’s North Island when he was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer back in 1981. As could well be imagined, life and perspective for him and his family changed dramatically, as a result.
Cooper immediately underwent treatment which lasted two years before he made the decision to stop the treatment, despite the objections of his mother. He then turned his focus entirely one direction, believing that doing as much would eventually see things work out for the better.
“I really, really became focused on becoming an All-Black, because it was about survival, but I also believed that if I became an All-Black that I could get over this,” Cooper said.
The reference is to the New Zealand National Rugby Team which is commonly referred to as the ‘All Blacks,’ and is well regarded as one of the top national teams in the world.
Cooper moved to the South Island of New Zealand shortly after halting his cancer treatment, eventually joining the Otago rugby organization before fulfilling his dream of becoming an All-Black shortly thereafter. He played for the All Blacks from 1986-1992 and became a standout for Otago, becoming the all-time leading scorer for the organization.
“It’s shaped me. No question about that and it made me grow up pretty quick — quicker than normal,” Cooper said of the entire experience and the chance he took in halting his cancer treatment to pursue a rugby career.
Chief among those things shaped within Cooper from the time he was diagnosed with cancer has been a singular focus which has served him well with rugby, in raising a family and in his business pursuits.
“I became a hard worker and thought about my game a lot. That was really almost my entire focus at that time. And then I thought I’d take that focus into the coaching ranks one day,” Cooper said.
"The future is bright, and we are very excited about where we are going."
— Utah Warriors Rugby (@utwarriorsrugby) August 4, 2022
Cooper entered the coaching ranks in 2001, shortly after his playing career, beginning his journey in New Zealand before spending significant time in France and then to Japan, where he became fond of the developmental aspect of coaching. Indeed, he excelled in the developmental aspect, helping lift the Mitsubishi Dynaboars reach new heights and advance to Japan’s top classification under his tutelage.
As could well be imagined, traveling around the world has been a challenge for Cooper’s family, although the overall experience is something that has ultimately served as beneficial.
“There’s been tough times, but that’s life. We all go through tough times,” Cooper said. “But you put it in perspective, and while you don’t enjoy those tough times, you recognize you have to get through them and get your job done. And then after all that — that’s when you grow, look back and be thankful for the challenge.”
Cooper learned how to overcome adversity much earlier than most, which has led him to both coaching a business success, and ultimately to the state of Utah, where he’s excited for the opportunities ahead of him.
“I love the pace of life here, how friendly the people are, and I think it’s going to be a great experience in that way, and certainly for the rugby reasons,” Cooper said. “I see great potential here and it’s my privilege to just help be a part of it.”
Brandon Gurney is the Utah Warriors Team Reporter. With nearly two decades of experience covering BYU Football in print and on radio, Gurney brings a wealth of experience to the Utah Warriors beat. You can read all of Gurney’s stories on the Utah Warriors throughout the 2022 Season at warriorsrugby.com
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