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Elgin football player to receive autism group's Champion Award
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff

Winfred Cooper's game-winning touchdown at Elgin High last fall brought tears to the eyes of fans on both sides of the field.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/27/2010 12:00 AM

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Elgin High School's famous autistic football player, Winfred Cooper, is headed to Hollywood.

Cooper has been chosen to receive the Champion Award from the HollyRod4kids Foundation, run by actress Holly Robinson Peete and her husband, former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete, who have an autistic son. The award honors people who have been an inspiration to teens with autism.

Next month, the foundation will fly Cooper and his father to California, where they'll walk the red carpet and mingle with celebrity guests at the DesignCare fundraising awards gala, held at the estate of billionaire businessman Ron Burkle in Beverly Hills.

"I'm so excited and happy," said Cooper, 18, who received his high school diploma a few weeks ago. "I've never been on a plane before, but I'm not nervous or anything."

In past years, DesignCare has drawn stars like Magic Johnson, John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson, and featured live performances by Stevie Wonder, Brian McKnight, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds and Jill Scott.

This year's DesignCare will feature "an electric evening reception" with live music by the Rickey Minor Band, a fashion show featuring pieces from the world's top designers, a silent and live auction conducted by a celebrity guest auctioneer, and a surprise musical guest.

Holly Robinson Peete personally chose Cooper for the foundation's Champion Award after viewing the Daily Herald video of his famous touchdown, which had gone viral on the Web, according to foundation spokeswoman Emily Snider.

"Given the Peetes' love of football, Winfred was a natural hit," she said.

Cooper was a popular student at Elgin High, and was a member of both the football and track teams. Even though he didn't get much playing time on the football field, he always attended practices and suited up for games and liked to high-five the players as they came off the field.

He won the hearts of people across the country last September after the Daily Herald reported on his game-tying touchdown against Lake Park High School. After seeing him line up way off the line of scrimmage, and learning he was autistic, Lake Park OK'd a special play just for him. Cooper found an opening, caught a pass and made a 67-yard touchdown run that resulted in a "Rudy"-like celebration in the end zone.

"Coop," as his friends call him, got the game ball, which he slept with every night, and was a hero in the school hallways for weeks afterward.

The touchdown play was named "Driver, Driver," after Green Bay Packers wide receiver Donald Driver. Through a video message, Driver personally congratulated Cooper and presented him with autographed memorabilia.

Cooper, who was diagnosed with severe autism as a toddler, has been an inspiration to people everywhere. His story even persuaded a girl in Washington D.C. to organize a fundraising walk for autism, his family said.

The entire family is humbled and thrilled for Cooper. His grandmother, Evelin Cooper of Elgin, said Winfred is very excited to ride on an airplane and go to California, and jokes that he's going to become a big movie star.

"He hasn't stopped talking about it. He think it's cool ... especially if sports stars are going to be there," she said. "I'm sure he'll have a great time, and I'm so glad. He's my angel."

The HollyRod4kids Champion Award was first given out in 2008 to Jason McElwain, an autistic high school student from New York who shot 20 points in the last four minutes of a basketball game, including six 3-point shots.

This year, Cooper will get the award along with co-recipient Carly Fleischmann, a Toronto teen with autism who is unable to speak but surprised therapists several years ago by using a computer to write about autism and about her life.

This is the 12th year of the HollyRod4kids Foundation's DesignCare fundraiser, which raises money to help provide medical, physical and emotional support to people with debilitating life circumstances, especially Parkinson's disease and autism.

To date, DesignCare has raised more than $2 million.

Award: Actress Holly Robinson Pette personally picked Cooper for the honor