Keith Cooley didn’t go to Michigan to be an athlete. He didn’t grow up dreaming of performing in front of fans or going to the Olympics — he went to Michigan to be a physicist, and he left a physicist. Yet somewhere along that journey, he became Michigan’s first Black gymnast in 1966 as a trampolinist.
Growing up, he didn’t have a gymnastics team to play on, or even his own trampoline to bounce on. Instead, he had a friend.
“I lived in Pontiac, which is a pretty rough, poor town, but I had friends who lived in Bloomfield Hills and their dad bought them a trampoline,” Cooley told The Daily. “From time to time my mom brought me out to be with them for an afternoon and I would bounce on the trampoline. From maybe like 13, 14 years old. And so anytime I could do it with them I would go out there.”
That passion extended to his first year at Michigan, where — when unable to join the trampolining class first semester — he found time to go down to the gym and bounce anyways.
“They would leave the trampolines out — you were on your own, if you got hurt it was your problem — but I would go bounce,” Cooley said. “So I bounced probably 4 or 5 days a week. I would go before classes, I would skip lunch, I would go after school’s out and before dinner and I just get up and bounce and play around a bit.”
Cooley received pointers from members of the gymnastics team, who started to recognize the stranger frequenting the gym, and he improved. But in his second semester freshman year, he finally got the proper teaching he needed by making it into the trampolinist class taught by gymnastics coach Newt Loken.
Excelling, Cooley was encouraged by Loken to try out for the gymnastics team the next year. Although Cooley claimed he didn’t have the necessary skills, Loken persisted and rented out a trampoline for him over the summer and sent it to his house. A spot wasn’t guaranteed, but Loken would give the newcomer all the opportunities he could.
“All I had was a book a coach wrote about gymnastics, and in it there was a section called, ‘Trampolining,’ ” Cooley said. “I had to remember to keep my toes pointed, I had to remember how to make your body rotate as a twist or a tumble. I had to make sure I remembered to land full or three quarters, on your stomach or back. But it came along, it came along.”
He made the team, and after practicing with the team for a year due to the Big Ten’s rule against athletes competing their first year of eligibility, Cooley became Michigan’s first Black gymnast to compete in competition. Balancing both an engineering degree and the heavy workload of gymnastics, he competed as the third trampolinist on the squad.
Cooley never felt singled out because of his race on the gymnastics team — there was an “air of respect,” he said — and Loken never tolerated racism, constantly seeking to right the wrongs. But there was one moment where the color of Cooley’s skin definitely played a part.
The year he made the gymnastics team, two of his friends decided it would be a good idea to try out for the cheerleading — then called yell-leading — team and invited Cooley along with them. They said they’d talk to the athletic director, H.O. “Fritz” Crisler. A week of silence followed from his friends, until finally Cooley had to confront the clearly uncomfortable pair over the situation with the yell-leading team.
Crisler wouldn’t let him on the team. Too many boosters went to football games, and Crisler decided a Black yell-leader wouldn’t go over well with the boosters.
“I was a little crestfallen,” Cooley recalls. “Actually, I was a lot crestfallen, but I didn’t press it. I think (Loken) may have gone and asked on my behalf, but he didn’t say anything. Normally for Newt if it was something like that that wasn’t right he would say, ‘No that isn’t right, why don’t you go ask him,’ he was right behind me. And he didn’t say a word, I think he knew that the AD had said no. I was a bit embarrassed and a little bit down about it, but I let it go.”
The same year he could’ve been a yell-leader, his 1966 season, Cooley acquitted himself well on the trampoline. He wasn’t world-class like his teammates Wayne Miller and Vic Conant, he didn’t win the Big Ten Championship or NCAA Championship. But he stood his own in a sport as demanding as college gymnastics.
At the end of the year, though, Cooley came face to face with a decision on what to commit himself to — physics or gymnastics. A professor confronted him about his lax attendance, then proceeded to ask him: Would he make more money as a trampolinist or a physicist?
A third generation Black college student in the 1960s, Cooley prided himself on going to Michigan — when confused people congratulated him on going to Michigan State, it upset him. Physics was a future, bouncing was a hobby.
When he broke the news to Loken, the coach took it in stride. And remembering Cooley’s first year on campus, told him that any time he wanted to bounce he could come down to the gym. Cooley rarely did, trampolining was an addiction and he needed to go cold turkey. The next year, he graduated.
His interviews are ripe with statements about believing in oneself and rooted in his experience as a Black gymnast when there were very few Black gymnasts, as being a Black engineer when there were very few Black engineers.
Cooley lived with nine football players; he partied at Black fraternities. Race and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was often a conversation with his roommates and friends, but was steered clear of on the gymnastics team. His aspirations for social equality, publicly, were modest as an undergrad.
As a graduate at Michigan, he helped start the program Minority Engineering Project Office, to help recruit minority students from schools into engineering and to promote engineering among minorities. In his professional career, he became CEO of a non-profit called Focus: HOPE, to fight for civil and human rights in Detroit.
Cooley’s interviews are laden with motivation, urging people to believe in themselves, to fight for their ambitions, to make bridges where there are none. He ends his emails with the Jimi Hendrix quote, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.”
All those beliefs are fueled by his experience as a Wolverine, from practicing his way onto the gymnastics team to navigating a white college. He went to Michigan to become a physicist and he left as Michigan’s first Black gymnast.