During his standout career, guard Jonathan Cooper learned many lessons

The game was over, but Jonathan Cooper wasn’t quite ready to begin his final stroll off the Kenan Stadium field. So he lingered.

The Bell Tower, now lit in the sky, peaked through the stately pines that surround the stadium he’d learned to call home. Fans celebrating North Carolina’s season-ending 45-38 win against Maryland remained, singing the alma mater he’d heard so many times before. But this time, the last time, it was different.

“I was happy to win the game but sad that it was my last game with that Carolina blue uniform on,” Cooper said. “I was really just trying to soak up the atmosphere.”

Ten years earlier, Cooper was unable to play football because he was bigger than all the other kids his age. Now, he’s one of three finalists for the Outland Trophy, the award given to the nation’s best interior lineman, and is a projected top-15 selection in the upcoming NFL draft.

Enduring early mornings on the practice field, a tough course load and a demoralizing two-year NCAA investigation into the program to which he so diligently devoted himself have ensured that Cooper isn’t the same man he was when he first walked onto UNC’s campus three and a half years ago. It’s likely that soon, after a few life-changing words from the NFL commissioner next spring, he’ll finally be able to see just how far he’s really come.

Cooper appreciates what roadblocks along the way have done for him. He thinks through each step of his journey, regarding them as not just means to an end, but as distinct events that have helped shape the person he is today.

“It hasn’t been an easy road,” Cooper said, “but it’s been a good one and one full of lessons.”

‘It’s nothing personal.’

During UNC’s 2011 campaign, the Tar Heels were beating Wake Forest handily late in the game, one they’d eventually win 49-24. Still, Bryn Renner longed to get back into the end zone. So before snapping the ball, the fired-up quarterback encouraged his teammates in the huddle to score once more.

Cooper had another idea.

“(Jonathan’s) like, ‘Guys, I kind of feel bad. We’re beating them pretty bad. Let’s kind of kneel on the ball,’” Renner recalled.

Cooper blushes when he hears the tale recounted. But his heart is what Cooper’s teammates love the most about him.

Growing up in a tight-knit family with four brothers and sisters, Cooper was raised in a home of huggers. Cooper prides himself on being “a lover, not a fighter.” Those were the qualities around which he was raised. It’s all he’s ever known.

“When Jonathan was young, he was always the biggest and the strongest, and my wife and I had to teach him to be easy with other children his same age,” said Cooper’s father, Michael Cooper. “That type of thinking is ingrained in him. So he brought it to the football field.”

In almost a decade of playing team football, Cooper has never been flagged for a personal foul. And though he’s not one to be responsible for penalties against his team, Cooper concedes that his “soft” image has been a knock on his potential professional career. That’s why lately he’s been focusing on developing a fiercer attitude on the field.

Cooper longs to help those who can’t help themselves. He’s reminded of his duty to give back to the community whenever he looks down at the bracelet from the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center, a place he frequently visits, that he proudly wears on his wrist. He sees it in the faces of the children to whom he takes time out of his day to read.

But when he’s on the football field, Cooper does his best to suppress that version of himself. After all, he’s learned, it’s nothing personal.

“I’m not trying to do anything flagrant or anything unnecessary, I’m just trying to block you to the best of my ability till the whistle blows, try to put you on the ground,” Cooper said.

“I may help you up, but on the next play, I’m going to try and put you right back down again.”

Team first

Cooper doesn’t score touchdowns. He’ll never be on the receiving end of a game-winning Hail Mary or make a first-down scamper. So the fact that he’s nominated for a slew of college football awards is a pleasant surprise to him.

“It’s rare for an offensive lineman to get recognized,” Cooper said. “I feel like I was treated like a king.”

There were times during his career at UNC, though, when he hasn’t felt that appreciated.

For more than two years, he was part of a team that was heavily scrutinized by the NCAA for a variety of infractions committed by some of its members. It’s hard for Cooper, whose peers describe him as the type of guy who does everything right, to put into words just how difficult that experience was.

He’d go home to Wilmington and strangers would ask, “Do people really do your work for you?” Once he was reading an article online and saw a comment about himself posted by a reader. “He probably can’t even spell his own name,” it read.

“It’s tough to be associated with the guys who have done wrong,” Cooper said. “It really made you question, ‘Was this the right place? Do I stay?’ But it was a learning experience.”

After interim head coach Everett Withers and his staff was replaced in December 2011, Cooper gave serious thought to leaving UNC early and entering the NFL draft. In fact, when offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic took over under coach Larry Fedora, Kapilovic said making sure Cooper stayed in Chapel Hill was his first order of business. He considered Cooper his “No. 1 recruit.”

But if the NCAA investigation and its consequences had taught him anything, it was that the team should always come before yourself. So Cooper, who also underwent offseason shoulder surgery, returned for his senior season.

As an interior offensive lineman, Cooper tends to blend in with his surroundings. That’s just something that comes with the territory, he concedes. It’s a position that doesn’t come with a lot of opportunity for individual glory. Instead, it facilitates the glory of others.

No one understands that more than Giovani Bernard. With the help of Cooper, who was awarded the ACC’s 2012 Jacobs Blocking Trophy, the tailback rushed for more than 1,200 yards for his second straight season.

And Bernard knows just who’s responsible.

“He honestly deserves each and every single yard that each and every running back puts up, ”Bernard said. “I’m lucky to be able to run behind those guys, and I tell them each and every single day.”

The possible dream

Too big to play Pop Warner football as a child, Cooper was forced to live out his athletic prowess in the backyard with his brothers.

He couldn’t play on a real team, but that didn’t keep him away from the game. Instead of putting on a helmet and joining the other kids on the field, Cooper stood on the sidelines at his brother’s games, handing out water and towels to members of the team he longed to be a part of.

Every time his brother caught a pass, Jonathan would drop the supplies and run the down the sidelines cheering him on. Supporting his brother helped Jonathan accept the fact that he couldn’t play himself.

During the summer between his seventh and eighth grade years, Cooper’s time had finally come. He grew four inches, and his frame filled out.

“His football coach said, ‘It’s a miracle!’” Michael Cooper said. “And the age of Jonathan Cooper dawned.”

When Cooper arrived at Wilmington’s Hoggard High School two years later, head football coach Scott Braswell saw through the sophomore’s inexperience and put him on the varsity squad.

“He was such a physical specimen,” Braswell said. “Yet at the same time, he was very raw. He was still trying to find his way on the football field.

“When you put the raw talent alongside a great work ethic and humility, you kind of felt like, ‘This kid is going to be great.’”

And he was. When he graduated from high school, Cooper was ranked the eighth best player in North Carolina by Rivals, and he helped lead the Vikings to a 4A state championship during his senior year. With Cooper’s help, three Hoggard running backs rushed for more than 600 yards that season.

Still, when Cooper received his first Division I scholarship offer during his junior year of high school, the unassuming athlete couldn’t believe the words of the letter he held in his hand. So he made his father read it to him to prove it was really happening.

“People come in and they talk to your team and they’re just like, ‘Only one of this whole group will probably make it to play college, and point so and so will make it to play professional,’” Cooper said. “I really did think it was just a dream.”

Just six months away from accomplishing both, Cooper will soon be the exception to the words of wisdom given to every aspiring athlete. It’s something he still can’t entirely wrap his brain around. As far as Cooper is concerned, even if he’s drafted, he’ll still be ‘Jon Jon’ to those he loves the most.

After ending his career with a UNC record 47 starts, Cooper was selected to the All-ACC team and was named an All-American by the American Football Coaches Association.

Those were accolades the fictional players earned on the video games Cooper played growing up. Now that they’re part of his reality?

“I might cry,” he gushed.

A lasting lesson

Cooper anxiously runs his hands up and down his thighs, rocking back and forth in his seat at the thought of his nearly finished college football career. His future is bright. But trading the life he’s grown so accustomed to in Chapel Hill for one that is, so far, relatively unknown will be a sizable adjustment.

His teammates, many of whom have watched Cooper learn and grow into the player he is now, aren’t ready to see him go.

“If I could, I would find him an extra year of eligibility,” fellow offensive lineman Landon Turner said. “(He) helps me, because I want to be more like Coop. He’s doing the right thing.”

Cooper is grateful for the lessons he’s learned along the journey that took him from the overweight kid on the sidelines to the nationally renowned guard who will soon be playing on Sundays. After a hopefully lengthy NFL career, Cooper looks forward to using the gifts with which he has been blessed to give back to those around him.

But what might be lost on the humble star is just how much he’s already accomplished that.

“For somebody as good as he is, to see how hard he works off the field and on the field, that’s great for the young kids to see that,” Kapilovic said. “Here’s a guy that’s getting it done every week and he’s not resting on his laurels and just relaxing. He’s trying to get better every day. And that’s huge.”

Because while Cooper has spent his time at North Carolina learning from his own experiences, he’s also an example for the Tar Heels he’ll soon leave behind.

And that might be the greatest lesson of all.

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com

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