Jonathon Cooper had big plans for his senior season. The Ohio State senior defensive end came to Ohio State with big expectations and he was focused on living up to every last one of them this year.
Late in fall camp during an inside drill, however, he had his right leg rolled up on.
Cooper walked it off and never actually went to the ground. By the time the doctors got ahold of him, however, they determined he had a high-ankle sprain and it that would require a “tight-rope surgery” in order to bring the tibia and fibula back together.
After missing the first four games of the season, Cooper finally made his debut for the Buckeyes last week in Nebraska. He recorded one tackle, but also had a pass rush that contributed to an interception.
It was a hard road to get to this point for Cooper, who is generally a happy-go-lucky guy. Returning from this injury, however, had him running through a range of emotions.
“It was a process. I don’t think people really understand what it’s like when a player goes down with an injury, but it’s hard,” he said. “It’s really hard physically and mentally. The rehab process. And especially getting hurt the week before my senior season starts. And knowing this is my last year, it’s been really tough and hard.
“So, I mean it meant everything to me. Being out there with my boys, that’s all I really wanted to do, I just wanted to play with them. I worked extremely hard in rehab just to be able to have a chance to go out there and do anything with them. It just meant a lot.”
No player wants to miss games due to injury, but the pain of missing games as a senior is even greater than the pain of the injury itself.
“It beat me up, man, I’m not gonna lie,” Cooper said. “It had me pretty low, pretty upset. Just because I knew where I was at. I felt myself. I was playing my best football. It is my last year here and I wanted to go out and show the nation what I could do. But things happen and the only thing you can control is what you can control.
“And that’s what my mindset was, just staying positive and just going out there and keeping a positive mindset. Doing everything I can for my team and just knowing that even though things happen, there’s a lot of things out there that are worse happening.”
Cooper’s perspective kept him from getting too low, but also kept him very much engaged with his teammates. As a captain, his duties didn’t go away because of an ankle sprain, and he never shied away from them either.
Even though he wasn’t on the field as a defensive end for the Ohio State defense, he was still every bit the captain he was before the injury.
“On the sidelines I treated game days as if it was a game for me,” he said. “When one of my players got a tackle, I felt like it was me out there. Watching the offensive linemen, watching the offense as they come off the field, I’m coaching them up. I’m cheering them on.
“I’m all up into this thing like I’m playing. I’m still that leader and that guy. As soon as game time starts, I was a different person. I didn’t think about my injury. I didn’t think about anything. I thought how can I help my team in any single way to help them win.”
The rehab and the focus on returning paid off last week for Cooper at Nebraska. He wasn’t 100% and he won’t be this week either, but as soon as the doctors cleared him to play, there was going to be no keeping him off the field.
Last Saturday was an emotional moment for Cooper, who never took his opportunities for granted, but appreciates them now even more.
“I think there’s a picture out there with me and my face [see above], but I mean, it was emotional, man,” he said of coming out of the Nebraska tunnel last week.
“It was emotional. I had to keep my emotions in check and realize that there’s a game to play and against a very good opponent. So, I was just very focused on that the whole entire time, but it was very emotional for me. And I think it hit me after the game definitely.”