METAIRIE, La. — It was Nolan Cooney‘s passion for sports that motivated him most when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs during his junior year of high school.
The New Orleans Saints‘ rookie punter was a three-sport standout at East Greenwich High in Rhode Island. He said he wasn’t scared when he got the diagnosis and trusted his doctors, but the only information he researched was stories of athletes like cyclist Lance Armstrong and third baseman Mike Lowell, both of whom successfully underwent treatment for testicular cancer. Cooney was thrilled when he got the chance to speak with Armstrong on the phone, and when New England Patriots cancer survivor Joe Andruzzi came to visit and let him wear his Super Bowl rings.
And sure enough, Cooney reached his goal of returning to the basketball court in time for the playoffs — just days after he finished his two months of chemotherapy treatments. The scene was triumphant, with the crowd chanting his name in the stands.
“We didn’t have to lift his spirits,” Cooney’s parents, Joseph and Janice, agreed while discussing the positive outlook their son has maintained. “Our spirits were lifted by him.”
But nobody in the family ever dreamed that Cooney might become a NFL punter seven years later, signing with the Saints as an undrafted rookie out of Syracuse.
Because, well, Cooney had never punted before.
The three sports he played at the time were basketball, baseball and soccer.
“People say everything happens for a reason,” said Cooney, whose dad suggested he visit a local punting and kicking camp during those months of draining chemo treatments.
“Who knows what would’ve happened if I hadn’t really stumbled upon this during what would seem for a lot of people to be a tougher time [in my life]?” Cooney said. “But maybe it was the greatest thing to ever happen.”
— Nick Coit (@NCoitABC6) December 5, 2020
Cooney (6-foot-3, 202 pounds) always had a strong leg from his years as a soccer goalie, and he had a natural spin on his kicks that made him good at punting the ball when he messed around in the yard. But there was a local rule that prevented him from playing both soccer and football in the fall, and he chose soccer.
When Cooney got healthy, he started teaching himself how to punt by watching YouTube videos — as if his story isn’t remarkable enough.
“You can learn a lot from studying film of other punters,” Cooney explained, “and hopefully they’re willing to speak to things that work well for them.”
Cooney attended his first camp in the summer before his senior year of high school, where the instructors told him he showed real promise as a punter (and less as a place-kicker). Then he continued to attend camps, even though he went back to playing soccer in the fall.
Cooney had opportunities to play college baseball as a catcher at smaller schools. But he wanted to pursue punting, so he signed up for a postgraduate year at Bridgton Academy in Maine to actually play on a football team for the first time in 2015.
“He’s a special kid,” said Trevor Coston, a former NFL safety who served as a coach and counselor at Bridgton and became Cooney’s personal assistant when they would shovel snow off the field in the mornings to work on his punting and send tapes out to colleges.
“He’d be up there shoveling the pathway before I’d get there,” Coston said. “It wasn’t like a lot of schools were opening doors. He just kept knocking. And a person like him, if you know him, his story, his background, betting on himself with everything he’s gone through, it was pretty easy that he was gonna make it once he had the chance to show anyone what he was gonna do.”
Cooney was especially persistent with Syracuse, which was the only FBS school that wound up offering him a walk-on opportunity.
Not only was Syracuse his mom’s alma mater, but Cooney had also met former Syracuse and current New York Giants punter Riley Dixon at a camp. And he credited Dixon with passing on his information to some of the coaches and administrators. They sent him an email inviting him to walk on about three weeks before practices started in 2016.
“He basically was like an unrecruited walk-on that kind of just showed up at our door,” said former Syracuse special-teams coach Justin Lustig, who is now at Vanderbilt. “This kid’s unbelievable. One of my favorites I’ve ever coached. [His makeup] is just through the roof, man. Like every category. I haven’t been around a guy that works harder than Nolan.”
Lustig said Cooney started out fourth on the depth chart as a redshirt freshman and gradually worked his way up behind current Atlanta Falcons punter Sterling Hofrichter, while also serving as a holder. When Hofrichter got drafted in 2020, Syracuse offered Cooney a scholarship for his senior year. And he became a third-team All-ACC punter, averaging a school-record 44.8 yards per kick.
Cooney led all FBS punters in total punts (74) and yards (3,314), with 24 downed inside the 20 and only three touchbacks.
He also started a podcast last year featuring a variety of guests who talk about overcoming obstacles. The name of the podcast, fittingly for a punter and cancer survivor, is “Power Through.”
In New Orleans, Cooney will compete with Blake Gillikin, last year’s undrafted rookie, to replace longtime standout Thomas Morstead, who was released in a wave of salary-cap cuts this offseason.
“It’s pretty surreal,” Janice said of her son’s unlikely path to the NFL. “If only they let him play soccer and football, we might have known this a little earlier.”
Meanwhile, the rule that prevented players in East Greenwich from participating in both sports has since been changed. Joseph said some school officials referred to the switch as “the Nolan Cooney rule.”