The Real Thing

November 22, 2011

by Bob Wyss
Rhode Island Monthly

Ed Cooley is PC's latest hope for Big East glory. But who gave this South Providence kid the confidence to overcome the odds and go on to land the best job in Rhode Island sports?

Ed Cooley sought this job. He wanted to be on the floor of the Dunk, with the band playing, the cheerleaders prancing, the crowd screaming and his basketball players huddled around him seeking guidance. Who wouldn't want to be the head coach of the storied Providence College Friars, the premier sports job in Rhode Island?

Yet like everything else in Cooley's forty-two years, this role as sports icon has become a little bit more complicated than he anticipated.

Everyone loves an inspirational story and few can top Cooley's. He was raised in Dickensian poverty, eating sandwiches with only sugar on them and pancakes with water, sleeping with four to a bed in the poorest section of South Providence. He used basketball to scramble out, becoming a star at Providence's Central High School, earning a college degree while leading the Stonehill College team and then moving onto a successful coaching career at Fairfield College in Connecticut.

He's in his first season at Providence with a multi-year contract that reportedly pays $1 million annually, and is faced with the high expectations of Rhode Island's basketball fans, a fan base that's been disappointed now for years.

When he returned to Rhode Island this past spring, both local and national reporters credited Ed and Gloria Searight and their family for providing Cooley with a stable home during his teenage years. When Gloria Searight died last year, Ed Cooley was listed in the obituary as one of her sons. Adds Ed Searight Sr., "Ed Cooley lived here for years. I don't know who took him on their income tax, but it wasn't us."

While no one blames Cooley's mother, Jane Cooley, or his biological father, Ed Smith, those words have cut both of them. Smith acknowledges he was rarely there when Cooley was growing up, but he doesn't like it when his birth son calls Ed Searight dad. "I'm his father," says Smith. "I don't want to hear about what happened in the past."

This is all very painful, but unavoidable, for Cooley. "It is complicated, very, very complicated," he says. "I love them, I absolutely love my parents."

Who exactly deserves to share the credit for Cooley's success?

Ed Cooley lived first in a small frame house on Elma Street, only a block from the Roger Williams housing project, a breeding ground for misery and despair before it was finally bulldozed. He was the sixth of eight children, surrounded by his mother's relatives, the Fairweather clan of the Narragansett Indians.

He was the store-guy, the kid willing to go buy milk, bread, cigarettes or whatever anyone needed with the expectation that he would get the spare change.

"I never remember not having a job," he says. "That's what I think being successful is - working for something." He swept out local businesses, cleaned yards, organized basements, shoveled show, raked leaves, cut grass, worked at the neighborhood pool, the school, the community center and at sports camps and clinics.

He discovered sports early on, playing left field for the Eighth Ward Democrats in the Elmwood Little League, offensive line for the Edgewood Eagles and playground basketball. At first, he wasn't very good. He was slow, he couldn't jump, he had to watch his weight and his back often hurt.

Scott Pena, a childhood friend, remembers being faster on the basketball court, beating Cooley the first few games. "Within a year you couldn't get three points off of him," says Pena. "He improved that much, that fast."

He played basketball constantly, on the playgrounds, in local gyms and in his yard. He and his brothers and cousins would cut out the bottom of a milk crate and nail it to a street post.

His mother was on welfare with eight children, and there were times that the house was without hot water and heat and had very little food. Pena recalls going to Cooley's house one day and finding him eating cornflakes with water.

"Why are you eating it that way?" he asked.

"We don't have any milk," replied Cooley.

Yet everyone who knew Cooley speaks of a youngster who always had a smile, was friendly, was willing to do whatever was asked and never, ever complained about what was happening at home.

Sackett Street Elementary, Roger Williams Middle School and Central High School were multicultural, but most whites and more affluent schoolchildren attended local private schools. That left an increased number of students with social problems in the Providence public school system, and it made school lessons more challenging. Cooley hung out with the well-behaved crowds, but he still had problems in the classroom. "I was never the smartest kid in class and I would hide behind my lack of knowledge by making someone else laugh," he says. By the time he got to middle school he was getting much better at sports and beginning to find himself.

"There is no greater equalizer than sports," he says. "It's where you can have common ground and at an early age - I knew that. So many young men and women lose self-confidence when they don't grow up with the basic needs."

Cooley was growing up fast. "You had to find yourself early," he says. "I think that I've always been ahead of my years because of my maturity."

Yet even by high school he was not ready for Paula Milano. The course was tenth grade English and Milano taught it in Room 210, in the back corner of Central, where the desks had years of dents and the room was often oppressively hot. Cooley was a rising basketball star and was used to smiling at and cajoling the teachers to get his way. It didn't work with Milano. She wanted him to turn in his written essays on time, and after several weeks of not getting any work back, Milano told him: No papers, no basketball.

Cooley knew she was serious. Harold Metts was the Central basketball coach and he also made it clear that academics came first.

Finally, Cooley brought in a paper. It was not very good - none of them were at that point - but at least Milano had something to work with. They would sit in Room 210 after school, painstakingly going over each sentence. That task was never easy, but over time the quality of his writing, and then his reading, improved. "His problems were not that different from other kids," she says. "But Eddie was truly hungry. Once we got through that initial nonsense, he enjoyed it."

Milano and Metts helped Cooley enroll in Upward Bound, a program based out of Rhode Island College for disadvantaged high school students. Each Saturday from October to May, Cooley had to take two buses and then walk to the RIC campus in North Providence by the 8:30 a.m. starting time.

"I was in for two years and I got thrown out once because I was not showing up on Saturdays," Cooley says. "I wasn't going and Mariam Boyajian was tough. But I begged to be let back in and she let me back."

Boyajian, the director of Upward Bound, says, "Some students go through here and you wonder if they're the real thing. He definitely was."

Central High's Knights had been Rhode Island's elite basketball dynasty in the 1970s; Cooley and the teams of 1987 and 1988 brought back all of that success. "I knew they were developing," says Coach Metts, "but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that they would win the state championship as juniors, or go undefeated as seniors."

Cooley was team captain and all-state both years. He received the Most Valuable Player award during championship finals two years in a row. He had grown to six feet-four-inches and was a shooting forward. In his final high school game - the championship game of his senior year - a news story described his "sensational thirty-three point, thirteen-rebound effort" in leading a narrow victory over Bishop Hendricken High School.

He'd overcome his lack of talent by developing his hand-eye coordination and by simply outsmarting his opponents. He'd also become a natural leader both on and off the basketball court.

"He was very spiritual and he usually led the prayer before the game," says Metts. "Rather than just pray for the team, he would sometimes pray for someone he knew who was in trouble, someone in the neighborhood."

At the start of his senior year in September 1987, Cooley was practicing at the YMCA gym when he suddenly collapsed. He spent ten days in the hospital for treatment of migraines.

In addition to basketball and his attempts to catch up educationally, Cooley had overloaded his schedule with several part-time jobs. He even worked part-time as a janitor at Central so that he could have the keys to the gym and practice more. Plus, his family life had taken on new levels of complexity.

When Cooley was about ten or eleven years old, he began sleeping over at friends' houses the nights before football or baseball games. He would spend nights with the Penas, the Abdullahs, the Sanchez family and others.

That was about the time when he met Eddie Searight Jr. "We started hanging out, playing basketball together, and then we were on the same Little League team," Searight remembers.

The occasional visits and overnights with the Searights continued to evolve; by the time he was about thirteen he'd moved in with the family. "I changed my mailing address to 117 Sassafras," he says. The relationship, he adds, was "genuine and very natural."

Ed and Gloria Searight had four children, Eddie Jr. being the oldest. While the living room was cramped, that's where they gathered, often around a TV set tuned to a ball game. "For who they were as people, it was the right place at the right time," Cooley says.

Eddie Searight Jr.'s sister, Rita, remembers what they called the "Cooley Special," tomato on a piece of toast with a slice of cheese, a combination that few in the family could abide.

"That's why he did it," says Corey Searight, a younger brother, "because he knew we weren't going to ask for a piece of it."

"That's what he was used to, making sandwiches out of the minimum food," Rita adds.

She also recalls when they celebrated Cooley's fourteenth birthday. "He said that he had never had cake and ice cream for his birthday before," she says. "He never had a birthday party."

Stories of families that take in a struggling youngster are heard all over the country, especially since the release of the book and later the movie, The Blind Side. The true story revolves around a family that takes in a homeless teenager. The young man develops into a talented high school football player and then goes on to play professional ball.

Cooley developed a special affinity for the Searight matriarch, Gloria. She began taking an interest in his schooling while he was still in middle school and she was instrumental in convincing administrators at Central High School to move Cooley from a ninth grade vocational track into a college preparatory plan by the next year.

Sometimes the two would sit in the kitchen and talk about the neighborhood's chief malady - its drug dealers. Says Rita: "He used to observe what was going on and he used to talk to Ma about it." Gloria Searight would tell him, "You don't want to do that."

"Gloria would say that education is the way to go, have fun while you are doing something, have joy in life," says Cooley.

By this time, Jane Cooley had moved from the house on Elma Street and was living in a small apartment in Wiggin Village in Providence's West End. She declined a request to be interviewed but others have tried to defend her.

Scott Pena says she "was always nice, always smiling. When you were in her house, you never heard her screaming at her kids. His mom had an awful lot on her shoulders while he was growing up."

"I think she is a good person," says Ed Searight Jr. "She did what she could with what she had. She tried her best, with what her skills allowed her to do."

"She's alright, she's good, but I think guilt can distract you, too," says Ed Searight Sr.

"She probably wishes she could have been more," adds Rita.

Sometimes Jane Cooley would call the Searights' house and ask to speak to her son. She would tell him she needed to see him. "He didn't want to go," says Ed Searight Sr. "So I would say,