To get to the moment Thursday night when Jonathan Cooper engulfed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, refusing to let the most powerful man in football go as he rocked from side to side, you need to start in the maternity ward in a hospital in Wilmington, N.C.
Michael and Velma Cooper had four children by 1989, and they desperately wanted a set of twins. They were good, God-fearing people who went to church and prayed a lot. They thought asking for twins wasn’t too much.
During one visit late in Velma’s first trimester, their local pastor told the Coopers that twins weren’t likely, but while they prayed Michael said he heard a voice. It said something about a giant.
When Jonathan was finally born on Jan. 19, 1990, a month past his initial due date, he weighed 11 pounds, 12 ounces.
The Coopers didn’t get twins, but they got their giant.
“He was as big as two,” Michael Cooper said with a chuckle.
Because the hospital wasn’t equipped for a baby of Jonathan’s size, they kept him in the neonatal intensive care unit as a precaution. It didn’t take long – about an hour after he was born – for other new parents who stood outside the nursery’s window to notice Jonathan.
“It was the funniest sight in the world because parents were coming to see their newborns and all the parents were gathered on one
There it began, inside the maternity ward in a hospital in Wilmington, N.C., Cooper was barely an hour old and he was drawing the attention of everyone who laid eyes on him.
Cooper stood in front of an auditorium Friday afternoon at his introductory press conference for the Cardinals, dapperly dressed in a dark suit, checkered shirt and red tie, knotted earlier by Cardinals President Michael Bidwill. When he was 5 years old, Cooper, who looked like he was 9 at the time, walked up to his father and made a proclamation: He wanted to play football and, when he grew up, he wanted to be in the NFL. Every week – sometimes daily, sometimes just once or twice –Jonathan reminded his parents of this until one day, three years after he started, it stopped. He didn’t bring up the idea of playing football or in the NFL again.
It was around the same time Cooper was told he wasn’t allowed to play youth football.
He was 30 or 40 pounds heavier and a head taller than most kids his age. It was an unfair advantage other parents exclaimed. They wondered aloud why a teenager nicknamed John John and Big John was trying to play with their 10-year-olds.
The words started to bite harder. Children, Michael Cooper remembered, could be mean. But so could their adults.
They called Jonathan fat. They bullied him. They picked on him. Sometimes it’d be three or four on one. When they were around, his siblings came to the rescue. Joshua is a year older, Jasmine is three, Michael Jr. is four and Regina is 15. Nobody, Michael Cooper said, wanted to mess with Jasmine.
From the time he was about 2, Cooper’s parents taught him to be easy, to be nice. Even as a toddler he was so much bigger than his classmates in preschool. Michael and Velma taught him to be caring and respectful. Jonathan wouldn’t fight back, instead retreating into a book. He picked up reading as a way to escape the bullying and would read mysteries under his covers at night. When Michael took a book away from him when it was time for bed, Jonathan had another one waiting in the sheets.
But football began to be his release. He played tackle in the yard with older brother Joshua and his friends, including one named Saint Lloyd, but he was still too big to play organized football.
When Joshua started playing, Jonathan would go with, soaking in the plays. As his father likes to put it, instead of being bitter, he became better.
Michael Lloyd, the coach of Joshua’s youth team and Saint’s father, allowed Jonathan to participate in the team’s conditioning drills then put a jersey on him and made him the manager. Except whenever Joshua, a receiver who briefly played college football at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, made a play, Jonathan would take off down the sideline following him.
“He’s very tight with his brother, Josh, and everything Josh did John John had to do,” Lloyd said. “If Josh was working on his game, John John was out there working with him.”
It started to pay off. Not only did Jonathan improve but he started to emerge from his shell. He stopped getting bullied and started to run with the neighborhood kids. Literally.
“That’s how he got so agile and speedy,” Michael Cooper said. “He forgot he was so much larger than them because they all grew up together. He could keep up with all but the fastest neighborhood kids.
“In Jonathan’s mind, he’s 190 pounds. He thinks he’s a little guy.”
Cooper had always been big he gained 40 points and grew four inches during a growth spurt between seventh and eighth
“And his career was on,” Michael Cooper said.
Or so the Cooper family thought.
When Cooper was about 14, he told Velma he wanted to quit football because he wasn’t playing up to his caliber or potential.
“She said, ‘Oh good, you can devote all your time to your school work,’” Michael Cooper said.
That was all Jonathan needed to hear. He retracted his statement and went on to be an All-American lineman and a state champion.
Cooper played three sports in high school besides football: Lacrosse, wrestling and track and field. He was among the state’s best shot putter and won a state title in the heavyweight division as a wrestler.
“Just seeing his ability to wrestle was impressive to me,” longtime friend Saint Lloyd said. “Being that big and being able to maneuver and do some of the things wrestlers can. But it was always weird to me seeing him so big in one of those leotards.”
Robert Tate, who coached Cooper at Laney High School in Wilmington (Michael Jordan’s alma mater) for his freshman and sophomore years, saw two sides of Cooper. Tate later joined the University of North Carolina as a strength and conditioning coach when Cooper was a guard there.
“He was just another big kid but what we felt was special about him was most kids who never really played football before don’t know how to work hard,” Tate said. “The reason we knew he’s be special is he did everything and anything we told him to do. That’s what made him special from any other big kid.
“The two things that I knew that he had, he could jump for his size and he had quick feet.”
Tate started coaching Cooper when he was at 260 pounds as a high school freshman and remembered him at 310 when he was at UNC. But Cooper’s desire and drive never wavered.
After years of his weight being an issue, Cooper’s now getting paid to be big.
He’d rather play at more than 300 pounds, but impressed Cardinals coach Bruce Arians with his ability to control his weight, dropping to 287 during last football season and then getting back up to 311 at the NFL Scouting combine in February.
“I told him he never had to get back to 285,” Arians said.
Cooper couldn’t have been happier.