After overcoming many hurdles, Ohio State's Jonathon Cooper determined for big ending

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Jonathon Cooper knows how easily his life could have gone in the opposite direction. 

From birth, the odds seemed stacked against him. His body has betrayed him repeatedly. His home life, especially early, had many challenges. 

But thanks to his perseverance, an irrepressible personality and an unshakable bond with his mother, Cooper has overcome the obstacles. After sacrificing his opportunity to play in Ohio State’s football postseason last year, Cooper is back for his final season as a Buckeye.

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He is a captain who was awarded the honor of wearing the “Block O” No. 0 jersey this year as part of a new tradition to honor the legacy of another undersized OSU lineman from Columbus, the legendary Bill Willis. 

Defensive end Jonathon Cooper (0) races toward Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez during last week's game. Cooper is a team captain who was awarded the honor of wearing the "Block O" No. 0 jersey worn by former Ohio State great Bill Willis.

“A no-brainer,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of choosing Cooper. 

Now all that’s left is for Cooper to make the season the breakthrough he wants it to be. 

Family oriented  

Jessica Moorman was a basketball star at Whitehall-Yearling High School with plans to play in college, possibly at Baylor. Then she got pregnant. She was 18 when Jonathon was born, nine weeks premature. He spent two months in the hospital. 

“His chest was completely caved in,” Moorman said. “They said he wasn’t going to recover very well and would have some difficulties growing up.” 

Until the first of his Cooper’s three sisters was born, six years later, his life was just him and Jessica. She put off college for a while to raise her son. A series of men entered their lives, only to leave. Cooper remembers meeting his birth father only once, when he was 13. He and Jessica were a team. 

“We went through a lot of financial struggles,” Cooper said. “We don’t have a lot of other family to rely on, so it was just me and my mom, honestly.” 

Jessica eventually enrolled at Ohio Dominican and then Franklin University and earned an accounting degree. She is now a VP controller in the real estate department at Chase Bank. 

Despite the obstacles, Jonathon was always smiling, always upbeat, Jessica said. 

“You would never meet a happier kid,” she said. “He was always very aggressive. I think he gets it naturally because I’m really aggressive. But he was a happy kid. 

“People just loved him. Teachers loved him. He was a great student, an ‘A’ student. What you hear coach Day saying and what you hear others say about the character, you could see that even as a kid. He’s always been very loving.” 

When his sisters Moriah, Isabella and Judi were born, Jonathon became a doting brother. 

“They’re my ‘why,’ ” he said. “That’s why I work so hard, why I go so hard in football. I do everything I do for them.” 

Cooper played basketball as well as football as a kid. But when he was 14, Jessica could tell something wasn’t quite right with him. A cardiologist diagnosed arrhythmia and suggested that he wear a pacemaker, but that would have ended his football career. 

“I wasn’t going to stop playing football,” Cooper said. 

Instead, he and Jessica opted for heart surgery. In the procedure, called an ablation, the surgeon scars or destroys heart tissue to disrupt the incorrect electrical signals that cause the abnormal heart rhythm. 

Cooper had two surgeries that lasted far longer than expected, one taking eight hours and the other 11. He had a long recovery, but the surgeries were successful. 

“I’m good now,” he said. 

Cooper developed into a star defensive end at Gahanna and was rated a five-star prospect by 247Sports. He committed to Ohio State in 2014 and ranked second in Ohio State’s 2016 recruiting class, behind only Nick Bosa. 

As a local, blue-chip recruit, expectations were high. Cooper struggled to reach them early at Ohio State. He was a solid player, but not a consistently dominating one. 

Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said it was largely a matter of Cooper having to wait his turn behind Bosa and other stars such as Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes and Tyquan Lewis. 

Injury troubles  

Cooper and Johnson expected 2019 to be his breakthrough. But late in preseason camp, Cooper sustained a high ankle sprain that required surgery. 

He returned and played in three games despite not being at full strength. He then faced a choice. The NCAA rules allow a player to preserve his redshirt if he plays in fewer than five games. 

Jonathon Cooper (18) fights through blocking against Michigan in 2019, when an ankle injury limited him to four games.

Cooper by midseason had decided to return in 2020, which meant he could play in only one more game. He chose to play against Michigan and not the postseason. Sitting out the playoff semifinal against Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl was agonizing. 

Then came two issues that ruined his offseason. In late winter, he developed groin pain that was diagnosed as a hernia. He had surgery that would have kept him out of spring practice. It proved to be a moot point when the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March. 

But when the Big Ten canceled the season in August, Cooper was crushed. He’d given up last year’s postseason for what? 

“Why does this happen to me? Why did God choose to put this on me?” Johnson said Cooper asked him. “He asked all those questions, which were all fair questions.” 

Cooper was elated when the conference reinstated the season. That happiness only intensified during camp when Ohio State rewarded him with the honor of wearing the No. 0 jersey. 

Jonathon Cooper

“The number 0, it’s really the Block O,” Day said. “I said that we can’t just give that out to anybody. That needs to be earned.” 

After consulting with his lieutenants in the programs, Day said, the consensus was that Cooper was the obvious choice. 

“When we thought that through, it was a no-brainer for Jonathon Cooper,” Day said. “A defensive end, someone who's been through a lot of adversity here, somebody who is from Columbus. It was just the perfect fit with his leadership.” 

Johnson said Cooper, 22, is so respected that his linemates call him “Dad,” which holds particular meaning because Cooper himself was without one for so long. 

“He’s wise beyond his years,” Johnson said. “He’s highly intelligent, really passionate about what he believes in. He cares for people. He’s very passionate about people. I think that’s who he is.” 

Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Jonathon Cooper (18) poses for a portrait on Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus, Ohio. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Now Cooper has the chance to have the finish to his career that he craves. Johnson believes he has all the ingredients -- talent, technique, experience and determination. 

“He may not have gotten all the breaks, but somehow he found a way to persevere, and that’s part of life,” Johnson said. “Can you bounce back? Jonathon continues to bounce back. We’re just hoping and praying that he has the season he wants.” 

Moorman choked up when speaking about Jonathon and their bond. 

“Unlike anything I’ve ever had in my entire life,” she said. “We’re very close. Nobody gets me like him. He’s my best friend.” 

The feeling is mutual. 

“She’s an amazing woman, an amazingly strong woman,” he said. 

Cooper saw her succeed against tough odds, and he believes that gave him the resilience that has been so necessary in his own life. 

“It could have definitely gone the other way,” Cooper said. 

Jonathon Cooper, here attempting to block an extra-point attempt last week against Nebraska, has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches, who bestowed the new No. 0 upon him this season.

“You realize that everybody goes through hard times. Someone else out there is having it worse than you, so why are you the one complaining? There’s no point in complaining and whining about what’s going on. Do something about it, like work harder, be better. 

“My mom instilled hard work in me very early. If you work hard, you can get where you want to be in life.” 

brabinowitz@dispatch.com 

@brdispatch