On June 4, 1996, Markeith Cooper was dressed in a suit and sitting in the Radisson Mart Plaza Hotel next to two of the greatest high school football players in Dade County’s history: Miami High’s Sedrick Irvin (a 4th round pick in the 1999 NFL draft) and Northwestern’s Nate Webster (a 3rd round pick in 2000). The three were the leading contenders for Dade County’s 1996 Male Athlete of the Year, an award that's a lot like the Heisman trophy in prestige, except it takes into consideration an athlete’s success in multiple sports. More than 1,200 people had gathered that morning for the Miami Herald’s All-Dade Athletic Awards Breakfast Presentation. All were eager to learn who would take earn the honor as the county’s top male athlete. In the moments before the winner was announced, Markeith and Sedrick—friends since childhood—teased each other about who was going take home the prize. Both were confident in their chances. Why shouldn’t they have been? Irvin had led his Miami High football team to an undefeated regular season. Along the way, he’d amassed 32 rushing touchdowns. In the winter, he’d played a key role on Miami High’s state championship basketball team. Markeith had also starred on the football field as a running back in 1995, breaking the Dade County single season rushing record previously set by Columbus’s Danyell Ferguson in 1991. For an encore in his senior year, Markeith helped Palmetto’s Wrestling team win its first state championship since 1976 by becoming Florida’s 145 pound state champion. Markeith smiled when the winner was announced. Then he watched his childhood friend make his way to the podium. To this day the two friends still tease each other about the award.
Sedrick Irvin was one of the great running backs in Dade County history. However, in this writer’s humble opinion, Markeith Cooper achieved athletic success during his senior year that not only should have won him the honor of top male athlete in 1996, but it should be considered one of the best athletic senior years in Miami Dade's history.
If he ONLY set the single season rushing record, Markeith’s senior year on the gridiron would be one still worth talking about today. But he also won the state championship in wrestling, beating Orlando University’s Jason Jessee with a 9-3 decision in the title match. The win helped Palmetto secure a state championship for coach David Soderholm, who for the last 20 years has been vocal about who he thought was the best athlete in Dade in 1996.
"No question it was Markeith," Soderholm says. "He led the county in rushing, then won a state title in wrestling. The Herald told me they believed that Irvin would be the better athlete in college and beyond. That's what they told me. Irvin had a great career in college [at Michigan State], but Markeith had the better senior year in high school."
Palmetto's wrestling coach from 1988-2014 has seen a lot of tough athletes. He ranks Markeith among the toughest he's ever coached.
"He's at the top of the toughness scale. Markeith was an amazing athlete and extremely coachable. He had an invisible strength to him. Pound for pound, he was one of the strongest athletes I've ever coached. He also had tremendous balance and leverage. At times he might have started slow, but then he would attack like he was shot out of a gun."
Thinking back to Palmetto's state championship run in 1996, Coach Soderholm recalls how his team fed off Markeith's success.
"He was quiet, laid-back," Soderholm says, "but the team rallied around him. That group of kids had been together for three years. A lot of them played multiple sports together. You don't see that as much these days. But those kids were from the neighborhood. They had a lot of pride in their program and in their school and they were the best in the state that year."
Legendary Speed There’s a gravelly stretch of asphalt behind the Palmetto High gymnasium that’s served as a runway for many of the fastest 40-yard-dash times in high school football history. Legend has it that if you look close enough at its surface, you can see trace remains of the burn marks left by speed demons from the early to mid 1990’s. Tales of sub 4.3 40 times have been handed down through generations of Panther players like lore intended to honor history by remembering the past. Markeith’s exploits on this fabled stretch are as legendary as they come. Those who saw him run his official 40 yard dash during his senior year stand by their eye witness accounts, despite speculation from listeners who claim the time he achieved is impossible. In the pre-season before his senior year, Markeith Cooper ran forty yards in 4.26 seconds.
Tough and Clairvoyant If an athlete’s greatness is measured in his toughness, then few would be considered greater than Markeith. During his sophomore year in 1993, he suffered a dislocated finger in a football game against Southwest High. “My finger is stuck,” he told Soderholm, who also served as Palmetto’s running backs coach. Soderholm pulled off Markeith’s glove and found a finger bent in a position fingers shouldn’t. “Give me your hand,” Soderholm barked. Cooper obliged and the coach snapped the finger back into place. Markeith went back in the game and racked up 225 yards en route to a 30-13 Palmetto win. 1995 was a year of record setting performances for Markeith. He set the single game rushing record with 361 yards against Braddock. 95 came on a play where Cooper called his shot. The Panthers were backed up on their own five yard line. Markeith looked out the back of his end zone and saw friend and teammate Mack Merritt, who had been suspended from the game and was watching from across a fence. “Watch this,” Markeith said to Mack, “I’m gonna take this one to the house.” Then he did it.
With 1,886 yards rushing, a 7.9 yards per carry average, and 16 touchdowns in his senior year, Markeith won the 1995 Nick Kotys Award, given annually to the best football player in Dade County. When interviewed in 1995 by the Miami Herald after breaking Danyell Ferguson’s single season rushing record, Markeith made sure the paper printed the names of the offensive linemen who had plowed the way for him to succeed.
Twenty years later he asked that we show their faces:
The Birth of “The Lizard” When Markeith arrived at Auburn in 1996, former Tigers running backs coach Rodney Allison saw in Cooper a lightning quick back with knack for hitting daylight like a lizard. A nickname was born. As a true freshman at Auburn, Markeith “The Lizard” Cooper gave head coach Terry Bowden reason to believe his team’s running game was in speedy hands. He averaged nearly 5.5 yards per carry and rushed for 3 touchdowns in 1996.
An injured shoulder suffered in the first week of his sophomore year hampered Markeith for much of the 1997 season. The Auburn coaching staff moved him to the slot receiver position, one he’d never before played, for his junior season. Results were lukewarm. Tommy Tuberville replaced Bowden as the Tiger’s head coach for Markeith’s senior season in 1999 and never gave him the opportunity to prove himself as the team’s featured rusher. “The Lizard” managed nearly 6 yards per carry as a running back, but only carried the ball 10 times during his senior year. As a kick returner and receiver, however, Markeith was an integral part of the Tiger’s offense during his senior year.
Oh, Canada. No Canada. Following his senior year, Markeith signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football league. Despite making it to the final round of American cuts (league rules limit the number of Americans Canadian teams can keep on their rosters), Markeith was cut in June of 2000. Markeith spent the year away from football, pondering his playing future. In 2002 he was picked up by the Toronto Argonauts, whose roster included Derrell Mitchell, one of the best slot backs in the CFL at that time. Despite a strong training camp, Markeith was released before the start of the season.
The 50 Yard Indoor War Faced with the prospect of retiring from football, Markeith sought the advice of his brother, Lamart, who’d starred at Palmetto in both football and wrestling when Markeith was still in junior high school. Lamart, who’d famously run a sub 4.3 40 while playing receiver at Palmetto in 1991, had made a name for himself in the Arena Football league. In 1996 while playing for the Iowa Barnstormers, Lamart was a go-to target of future Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner. The elder Cooper convinced his brother to give Arena Football a chance. Markeith then signed with the Macon Knights of the Arena Football Developmental League (af2).
Macon coach Kevin Potter introduced Markeith to fellow Knight Marcus Whitehead and the two began working out in Atlanta to prepare for the upcoming season. Soon after, Markeith met Cliff Green, a defensive back for the Georgia Force--Atlanta's franchise in the more prestigious Arena Football league. Impressed with his speed and ability, Green convinced Markeith to try out for the Force at an open workout.
After wowing the Force’s coaches with his speed (he ran a 4.28 40) and agility, Markeith was offered a contract.
Now a member of the Arena Football league, Markeith met and befriended Tyronne Jones, who was the Force’s primary offensive specialist. Jones trained with Markeith and schooled him on the details of the indoor game. For three years, Markeith excelled in the pass-happy league. It was during this successful run when Markeith learned about the business side of professional football. Believing Cooper could carry the team’s offensive load at a lower salary, the Force released Tyronne Jones—the friend and mentor who had guided Markeith to professional success. As the primary offensive specialist, Markeith led the Force in 2004 with 85 receptions, 1,089 yards and 24 touchdowns. Despite his big numbers, the Force’s new owners didn’t renew his contract for 2005, forcing Markeith to sign with the New York Dragons. Hamstring injuries slowed his 2005 and 2006 seasons.
In 2007, Markeith retired from professional football.
Father Speed These days Markeith spends most of his free time running from one of his kids’ activities to another. His two youngest boys, Malachi and Tyler, are chasing their dad's records in youth football leagues in Troy, Alabama. (See game video of Tyler HERE.) His daughter, Hannah, attends high school in Atlanta, and his oldest son, Markeith, junior attends college at Troy University.
The role of father has been the most gratifying position Markeith has played in his life.
“My kids are everything to me,” Markeith says, “I try to give them everything I have, so they can grow up to be like me…only better.”
The Greatest Individual Athletic Year in Dade High School History Whether he was the greatest running back or wrestler in Dade County history is a matter we can debate until the Internet runs out of server space. But in 1996, Markeith Cooper broke the single season rushing record for Dade County and won the state championship in wrestling. Prior to 1996, those two feats had have never been attained by the same person in the same school year. I doubt they will ever will again. That’s why Markeith Cooper’s senior year in 1995/96 was one of the greatest in the history of Dade County athletics. Period.
Miami Palmetto Senior High Class of 1996
237 rushes 1,886 rushing yards 7.9 yards per rush 16 TDs
Set the Dade County single game rushing record (361 yards) and single season rushing record.
First Team All-Dade County
1995 Nick Kotys Award Winner
Florida State Champion 145 pound
Part of Palmetto's 1996 State Champion Wrestling Team
What to read next:
From 1992-94 Fred Smith played with and against some of the greatest football players in history as a member of the Palmetto Panthers. His debut novel, The Coolest Labels, is loosely based on his experience as a teenager in South Dade County in the early 1990s.