Growing up in Houston, Cooper Brannan was a constant presence at the Astrodome. The original Killer B's—Jeff Bagwell, Derek Bell, and Craig Biggio—were his favorites. Like many children, he wanted to be a professional athlete, and he’d tell his parents that one day his dream would come true. The road to becoming a pro, though, had a few odd turns before coming to fruition.
Brannan was a three-year letterman in football and baseball at Highland High School in Gilbert, Arizona, where he had moved to live with his father. He had generated some interest from junior colleges, but was unsure of what direction to go. He had never been guided to pursue a college education or continue playing baseball, and high school graduation was upon him. He had not signed a letter of intent.
“Reality kind of set in once I graduated,” Brannan says, “It was, ‘OK, where do I go now?’ or ‘Where do I go from here?’”
He chose to enlist in the Marine Corps in July 2003, and graduated from boot camp in October as a platoon honor-man. After he completed the School of Infantry in December, Brannan was assigned to Twentynine Palms, California in January. One month later, he was shipping out for his first tour of duty to Hitt, Iraq, and was stationed on the front lines.
“There are not really any good experiences in a war environment,” Brannan says. “We’re over there to do a job, and it’s not a place where you say, ‘Hey, you should party over here’ or ‘You should go on vacation there.’ It’s not like we can go to town and buy souvenirs to bring back home to our families.”
Letters from home and being around those he was stationed with did help to keep his morale higher.
“It [morale] definitely comes with the camaraderie and getting letters from back home, getting pictures, knowing that there’s something more to your tour,” he says. “When you come home, you’re just happy to see your loved ones and it’s definitely a big part of it. Your friends and your family are the ones who are going through it.”
In October, Brannan returned to Twentynine Palms, his tour safely completed. It was not the end of his time overseas, though.
Brannan had risen to the rank of corporal and was an infantry squad leader when he was redeployed to Fallujah, Iraq in September 2005. Positioned on the front lines again and in charge of a 12-man squad, it was the 20-year-old Brannan’s job to make sure that each person had proper battle equipment. This responsibility turned into a costly one for him just two months later.
While conducting a pre-combat inspection in November, Brannan found that one of his young squad members was missing a flash-bang grenade (used to incapacitate opposing forces by temporarily blocking their senses). Using his left hand, Brannan reached inside his flak jacket and removed one from his supply. The grenade exploded in his hand, mangling his hand and severing his thumb, ring, and pinkie fingers. Two of his fingers—the thumb and ring finger—were recovered and sewn back on, but his pinkie was a loss. Doctors amputated the remnants of the finger and the medial part of his left hand.
Brannan was transported to the Naval Medical Center San Diego for three follow-up surgeries and rehabilitative therapy. While he was there, the injuries of his recovering comrades inspired him, and he began to play baseball again with the All-Marine Corps and USA Military All-Star teams.
“When I was lying out there, obviously I had a major injury, but when I looked around, mine was my left hand,” Brannan says. “My other limbs were great. Walking around and seeing a lot of these kids that were 18 and 19 years old—they had worse injuries than me. Seeing guys getting better and hearing their stories, just being able to talk to other guys about it, the ones who went before me, I saw pictures of how they looked and just seeing what they looked like now, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’ I couldn’t believe it, that they used to look like that.”
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after recurring nightmares of his time in Iraq. Though his condition has improved, it is one thing that he believes most soldiers go through, even if they will not admit to it.
“It’s like asking a guy if he’s afraid to go into war and he says no,” Brannan says. “Nine times out of 10, that guy is lying because you’re not human if you’re not a little bit scared. I was young and nervous going over there, and I still get nervous thinking about it. It’s one of those things. For me, I get nightmares of my hand incident and situations where we got in a firefight.”
The Marines celebrated their 231st anniversary in November 2006. To commemorate the anniversary, Brannan and a friend, Pfc. Jeff Huben, were invited to a San Diego radio station. Also in attendance were San Diego Padres CEO Sandy Alderson, a four-year Marine veteran who served in Vietnam, and manager Bud Black.
After the show concluded, Huben struck up a conversation with Alderson, raving about Brannan’s pitching and said that he needed to try out for the team. Alderson agreed and arranged a December tryout with area scout Brendan Hause.
Armed with a power pitcher’s physique at 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Brannan did not blow high-90s heat in his tryout, instead topping out in the mid-80s, but Hause saw potential and recommended Brannan’s signing.
“They saw a guy with no professional experience as far as coaching or pitching coach-wise,” Brannan says, “and they just saw something that they could possibly open out and potentially be a good pitcher.”
Brannan set to work to bring his velocity up a few ticks. Under the tutelage of Poway High School coach Dominick Johnson, he started to sit around 89 mph with his fastball.
The Padres made their intent to sign Brannan public on February 13, 2007, at a press conference at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, though he was not able to sign an official contract because he was not due to be discharged until late May. Some questioned the Padres’ announcement of signing a member of the armed forces, but the Padres praised his abilities while Brannan kept his concentration on the field.
“Some wondered if it was a ploy by Sandy Alderson and the Padres,” says Denis Savage of MadFriars.com, who covered Brannan during his time with the Padres. “He let others do the theorizing so he could focus on the game. He never used the military as a symbol that he deserved to be given a chance. He legitimately wanted to be great in baseball.”
For their part, the Padres were happy for the chance to sign a young talent.
“This is a great opportunity for both parties,” said Padres vice president for scouting and player development, Grady Fuson, at the press conference. “He's a young and athletic Marine with a solid build, a promising arm and a great breaking ball. The Padres love taking chances on athletic players and we're excited to have Cooper in the organization.”
The announcement that he had agreed to terms with the Padres came at a busy time in Brannan’s life, but it was a new opportunity, one of the many new things in his life.
“It was crazy,” Brannan says. “It was an amazing feeling knowing that I had a chance to possibly make it to the big leagues. I was nervous and excited, I’d just had my first child about seven days before that, and there was all this press for me… it was very, very hectic.”
Spring training opened in Peoria, Arizona, and with it came a firestorm of media attention. The Marines allowed Brannan to travel to Arizona to train with his new teammates, assigned to play baseball. Savage was impressed with Brannan’s attitude and the way that he handled the media during spring training, where the press would gather in hopes of hearing his story first-hand.
“One of the things that first struck me was how approachable he was,” Savage says. “He would put down his glove to give you his full attention. He wanted to be a part of the interview process rather than being a canned response. Maturity was never a question. He had it and respected the process.”
His first day in camp was memorable in many ways. There was the chance to meet his teammates (who would call him ‘Niner’), coaches, trainers, and a new way of life. Members of the big-league team were mulling around camp, getting treatment and working out. A member of public relations staff was showing Brannan through the training room when Trevor Hoffman, the famed closer, was receiving treatment. Hoffman, recognizing Brannan, stood up and walked over to him.
“He got up and walked over to me and shook my hand and said, ‘Hey, how you doing? I’m Trevor Hoffman, and I just wanted to say I’ve been following you and I appreciate all your service and what you’ve done. I hope the best for you,'" Brannan said. "He told me his dad spent three years in the Marine Corps and retired as a colonel. I thought that was a really cool experience to have a future Hall of Famer and a guy like Trevor Hoffman come up and say that.”
Glove manufacturers offered to make Brannan a new glove with only four finger holes, but after trying out several models, he decided to stick with a five-fingered model. Not filling in each finger made the glove feel bare at first, but as Brannan says, “It didn’t take long to get used to it.”
Brannan’s discharge papers came in May, prior to the start of his season with the Arizona League Padres at the rookie-ball level, and his time in the Marines officially came to an end. During his time in the service, he had won numerous commendations and awards, including: a Purple Heart, Certificate of Commendation, Combat Action ribbon, Global War on Terrorism medal, Global War on Terrorism service medal, Iraq Campaign medal, Marine Corps Good Conduct medal, National Defense Service medal, and two Sea Service Deployment ribbons.
Finally free to sign his contract, Brannan felt the impact of the next step in his life when he walked into the locker room and saw tangible evidence that he was about to live his dream of playing professional baseball. He had to take a moment to soak in the feeling.
“I had a really big shocker when I walked in the locker room and saw how awesome it is to walk into this beautiful locker room,” Brannan says. “When you walk up and see a San Diego Padres jersey with your name on the back of it and your locker has your name on top, and you have all this baseball gear—I just had a moment. I kind of paused and thought of everything, where I was and where I am now. It was an amazing feeling.”
At last, he had an escape from the memories of war. Being on the baseball field served as an outlet, a getaway, someplace to relax and enjoy himself without having to worry about explosions or gunfire. He worked hard to prove himself, and though he struggled in his first season as a relief pitcher (he posted a 1-4 record and 9.69 ERA with a 2.000 WHIP), coaches encouraged him to focus on one thing: pitching.
“Sometimes I worked too hard to where my coaches would say, ‘Hey, just go out there and have fun. You’re not having bullets shot at you or anything. Just go out there and just pitch,’” Brannan says. “There’d be some times where it just looked like I was too tense, too stiff, too overaggressive. They just said to relax and have fun; you’re just playing baseball.”
“I think internally he struggled with it,” Savage says of Brannan’s struggles, “but it never showed, and that is a credit to him. Some people have that vibe—everything they do comes sort of easy. Cooper is that guy. When things weren't working, he did what he does best—gets to work even harder at the craft. Cooper tried to take it from every angle in order to thrive.”
Brannan was competing to have the opportunity to advance to the next level, but he was also competing for those who would not have the opportunity to pursue their dream careers because of injuries they had suffered in the war.
“He took the mantle to carry on a legacy of wounded veterans—once telling me that he was playing for himself just as much he played for others, including friends, who would never be able to reach their dreams because of debilitating injuries,” says Savage.
Despite his record, Brannan was bumped up to Low-A Eugene Emeralds, where he again struggled, though his record improved to 1-0 with a 6.33 ERA. He showed slight improvement in his control and had allowed fewer hits per nine innings than he had in rookie ball. His story made him a continual media attraction, but he was also popular with the children.
“After every home game in Eugene, Oregon, the home crowd stays after and lines up atop the dugout," Savage said. "Cooper was always staying behind to sign autographs. I can recall a few times the trainer would have to call him in, as he was the lone player left on the field while a team meeting was about to begin.”
Cut by the Padres in 2009 even after having a good spring training, Brannan signed with the aptly-named New Hampshire American Defenders (now known as the Pittsfield Colonials) of the independent Can-Am League. His numbers improved again, as he posted a 1-1 record and 5.18 ERA.
At the end of the season, though he had the chance to continue pitching in the indie leagues, Brannan decided that it was time to go home to Arizona to be with his wife and two daughters (a third child is on the way) and pursue a college degree. He’s currently studying pharmaceutical sciences and looking forward to transferring to Midwestern University after he completes his hours at a local community college.
The spotlight of baseball is now off his shoulders and the 25-year-old has focused on the future of his family. During his time in baseball, though, Brannan knew that he was playing for something more, something greater than himself, representing those who could not be out there to follow their dreams. He embraced the role and worked to define the core qualities of a Marine and to define their motto, semper fi, “always faithful.”
“He realized the significance of his jump to professional baseball and never shied away from the attention,” says Savage. “He embraced it. Forget whether or not he made it in professional baseball—he defined what a true role model should be.”