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While he waited for a flight to take him someplace he once never thought he’d be, Michael Cooper sat in an airport Tuesday and thought about what his son, Jonathan, told him nearly 20 years ago. The words resonated with the elder Cooper, who was on his way to New York City to attend the NFL draft.
“Eighteen years ago,” Michael Cooper said, “Jonathan came to me and was 5 years old, and out of the clear blue sky he said, ‘Daddy, when I get to be a big boy, I’m going to play football. And then I’m going to the NFL.’”
Jonathan Cooper, the All-American offensive guard at North Carolina, will realize that lifelong goal Thursday night. He is expected to be the first college player from a North Carolina school taken in the NFL draft, and it’s not a question of whether he’ll be chosen in the first round, but where.
Cooper’s journey might appear simple. He envisioned this day – becoming a professional football player – for nearly as long as he could remember. And now here he is, just like he said he’d be. It was hardly that easy.
Growing up in Wilmington, Cooper weighed too much to play Pop Warner football. For three years, he served as the water boy for his brother’s team. In middle school, before he grew about four inches the summer between seventh and eighth grade, he spent most of his time on the school football team at the end of the bench. And even after becoming a successful offensive lineman at Hoggard High School, Cooper wasn’t heavily recruited. He was so overlooked that when his first scholarship offer arrived, from East Carolina, Cooper read the letter and then asked, incredulously, “What is this saying?”
“I didn’t get any big-name offers until I attended most camps,” Cooper said. “Carolina – even they would send me junk mail. And I thought, ‘I will never go to Carolina.’”
Michael Cooper remembers well those days when his youngest son carried the water cooler, and he remembers how Jonathan would run up and down the sideline, cheering older brother Joshua.
The elder Cooper also recalled how Jonathan passed the time reading. Other kids made fun of Cooper, as big as he was, and so he’d stay inside. Books were an escape.
“There were times the other children, they would pick on him,” Michael Cooper said. “Because he was a short, fat guy with glasses on. They looked like goggles.”
Even so, the Cooper house in Wilmington became a neighborhood hangout. Jonathan, the youngest of five, outweighed other kids his age by 40 or 50 pounds, but eventually he tried to keep up with them on the playground.
It’s no wonder to Michael Cooper that NFL scouts now rave about his son’s footwork, agility and quickness. Those traits came naturally after a while, because Jonathan never wanted to be left behind.
“He just began to run with the smaller children – he could keep up with the fastest of the smallest kids,” Michael Cooper said. “So the agility and mobility – that set the foundation for this uncanny agility that he has now. Because after a while, he forgot that he was eight inches taller than the other kids, and 50 pounds heavier.
“But who knew that by running around with the smaller children that this would lay a foundation to get his skills that would propel him to just awesome, awesome, awesome heights in life. Who knew?”
Overlooked no more
And who knew, too, that an overlooked high school player would become one of the top NFL prospects at his position? NFL draft analysts can be an argumentative bunch, but there hasn’t been much differing opinion on Cooper, who’s likely to be selected among the top 15 picks.
Mel Kiper Jr., the longtime ESPN personality who made draft analysis a viable career path, recently told reporters that he projected Cooper as a top-10 pick. And if not there, Kiper said, “Certainly top 12.”
“He’s as athletic a guard as you’ll ever find,” Kiper said. “You can see him 30 yards down the field making a key block.”
Michael Cooper saw those things when his son played at Hoggard. Jonathan helped Hoggard win the 2007 state championship his senior season, and Rivals.com eventually ranked him among the top 10 prospects in the state.
For a long while, though, Cooper barely received any attention from college programs. Worse, he was rejected when he’d try to contact them. Scott Braswell, the Hoggard coach, tried contacting schools to tell them about Cooper. No luck.
“Programs he had his heart set on wouldn’t even call coach Braswell back,” Michael Cooper said. “Programs that he loved would say, ‘Well I’m sorry, son, you’re too small.’”
Cooper, now 6-3 and about 300 pounds, eventually earned 11 scholarship offers – from Wake Forest, Duke and South Carolina among them. He chose UNC, the same school that’d sent that junk mail, after former coach Butch Davis began aggressively recruiting Cooper. The way Michael Cooper tells it, Davis eventually won over Cooper’s mom, Velma.
Two years into his time at UNC, scandal erupted that eventually led to NCAA sanctions. UNC fired Davis before the 2011 season, and Cooper wondered about his future. A fourth-year junior in 2011, Cooper nearly left UNC after that season. If not for shoulder surgery, he might have.
“My teammates, of course – they played a major role in (my decision to return),” Cooper said. “I told my mom that I’d get my degree. And then having had the shoulder surgery. That probably was the tipping point.”
Cooper finished his senior season as one of the most decorated lineman in school history. He earned his degree in Communications after spending every semester on the dean’s list, according to his father. And now Cooper is on the cusp of making the words he spoke 18 years ago become a reality.
That’s why Michael Cooper was in the airport Tuesday with Velma, who isn’t getting around well these days. They left a day early for the draft because she has a difficult time traveling. She’s dealing with kidney problems and just last year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“Which, thank God she beat,” Michael Cooper said. “So this is extra special for Jonathan and all of us, because we didn’t know whether she’d be alive. We count ourselves blessed above measure for her to be here, and to be able to even get on the plane – to be able to share in this special time with Jonathan.”