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Cooper’s return from career-threatening injury critical to OU’s success up front

When Oklahoma signed Jon Cooper out of Fort Collins, Co., in February 2005, the Sooners were supposed to be getting a tough and physical interior lineman. Experts in national recruiting circles pegged Cooper as a gritty overachiever who could eventually make an impact at the college level.

In some regards, the Sooners were taking a chance in signing Cooper, who wasn’t even considered the best center prospect in his home state that season. In fact, that distinction belonged to Jesse White, another OU signee from that same class who later was forced to give up college football due to injuries.

In Cooper, then-offensive line coach Kevin Wilson saw much more than a project. He saw a bulldog who could potentially help instill a new attitude in his offensive line.

Cooper validated Wilson’s evaluation and quieted any looming critics when he took over the starting center job as a true freshman. And when the Sooners finally ironed out their offensive line problems midway through the 2005 season, it was Cooper who proved a stabilizing force.

Unfortunately, Cooper’s rookie season took a terrible turn on an overcast day in Lubbock, Texas. With the Sooners driving deep in Texas Tech territory, the young lineman found himself tangled up in the fray of a large goal-line traffic jam.

In an instant, his season came to an abrupt end.

“Somebody actually stepped on my foot,” explained the 6-foot-2, 278-pound Cooper. “And then my ankle had dislocated, bent back and shattered my leg.”

OU’s training staff rushed onto the field after Cooper’s teammates witnessed the gruesome injury and frantically began signaling for help. By the time the trainers arrived, all they could do was try to stabilize the leg.

“I knew it was bad, but more than anything, I wanted to get up and get off the field until a teammate of mine said ‘Don’t look at your leg,’” Cooper recalled. “It was kind of dangling there and my foot was pointing in the opposite direction.”

Many of Cooper’s teammates remember that day all too well.

“When that happened, I can’t imagine what that felt like,” fellow lineman Chris Messner said.

Asked about Cooper’s injury, Messner still cringes when he talks about that scenario. He remembers everything Cooper went through just to get to that point as a true freshman and how it almost all was taken away on a single play.

“To get in there and play and just get yanked off the field because of an injury...” said Cooper before pausing, shaking his head and abandoning the thought.

Doctors and trainers initially believed it was just a broken ankle and that Cooper could possibly return the following spring with some rehab and hard work. But complications arose. When the cast came off, the bones and ligaments had healed, but something didn’t feel right. His ankle wasn’t responding the way doctors had hoped and expected.

“My ankle wasn’t moving at all,” Cooper said. “I couldn’t control my ankle. I was like, ‘Holy Cow! How am I ever going to play this game again?’”

Team doctors re-evaluated Cooper’s condition and found evidence of nerve damage in the ankle. He then went through a frustrating ordeal as tests were run in an attempt to determine how much damage the ankle had sustained.

“We did some nerve tests and it showed some (nerve damage) and then we did another one and it didn’t show as much. It was a weird deal,” said Cooper. “The ligaments weren’t strong yet and the nerves weren’t connecting. The messages from my brain weren’t reaching my ankle. I couldn’t move my foot.”

After more tests, nerve damage was ruled out. In the end, it was decided Cooper simply needed more time for his ankle to heal properly. That’s when the real work began, as Cooper began an extensive rehabilitation process.

“I knew I was in for a lot of time with (athletics trainer) Scott (Anderson) and (director of rehabilitation) Jim (Hillis). I was in there before school, between classes, before practices, after practices, just whenever I could,” Cooper said. “I’d go in there and ask them what I could do and they always had something for me.”

Messner watched his teammate battle through every hurdle.

“That long, hard process — you could see it in his face every day, that he wanted to be out there,” said Messner. “That’s a painful injury and he definitely did what he could to get back. It’s a very long process and he’s been making leaps and bounds as far as that goes.”

Cooper’s return to the field was never a certainty, and his return for the 2006 season opener against UAB has to be viewed as a major accomplishment.

“When I was at Northwestern, we had a kid that had that (same injury) happen to him,” said offensive line coach James Patton. “He was a defensive lineman. He never made it back from the injury. It was a pretty devastating injury and this was the same type of deal.”

But from the beginning of fall practices, Cooper has been taking snaps as the starting center for the Oklahoma offense.

His first days back were no doubt rough, and he was forced to sit out several times over the initial two weeks of practices. But the resiliency he has displayed has been uncanny. Cooper’s brain is now fully connected to his ankle. When it swells up, it hurts. But in his mind, it’s just another indication of how far he’s come.

“It gets better every day,” Cooper said. “It just swells up because the ligaments are healing. That’s actually good for it when it swells up because it heals the ligaments and they get looser and stronger. It’s good for it, but it hurts.”

As the Sooners get deeper into a new season, the ankle is the least of Cooper’s worries. He’s one of only a handful of offensive lineman on this OU roster who have started a Division-I game. With newcomer Brandon Walker to his right and developing youngster Duke Robinson on his left, Cooper is more concerned with making calls and creating holes for Adrian Peterson.

“I put the pressure on myself to come back because I can’t sit on the sideline for a season and watch my teammates play and watch them succeed,” said Cooper. “I was really living in the training room with Coach Schmidt and working on my strength and getting everything back, working on my balance and everything. I was pushing myself more than everybody else was pushing me.”

According to Cooper, the opportunity to see Peterson work his magic out of the backfield is going to be worth all of the extra work he put in during the offseason.

“We’re going to open up holes and (Adrian’s) going to run through them,” he said. “Even if there aren’t any holes, he’s going to run through. He’s gonna put his helmet in our back. Our main goal is not to get hit by him. If we don't block somebody, that means he’s hitting us.”

For Cooper, getting out and playing the game of football has become the focus of his life once again. He’s now able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and he’s able to embrace his passion.

“I love the game of football, I love studying it, I love everything about it,” Cooper said. “When I’m a center, I get to make all the calls and just kind of tell the right side and the left side what to do. Everybody’s talking, everybody’s communicating and making their own calls, but as a center you’ve got to make more. So I love it.”

Cooper’s presence on the offensive line should not be underestimated. The Sooners became a solid line once he emerged last fall. They need Cooper to be solid once again in 2006. He’s currently backed up by true freshman Chase Beeler.

Even though Beeler has been the most impressive young offensive lineman during fall camp, the Sooners have been working Messner at center just in case Cooper has a setback in his return. He hopes those worries about his sore ankle are put to rest very soon.

“I’m hoping it will be 100 percent going everyday,” said Cooper. “It will be sore throughout the season, but not a soreness like I’ve had.”

Cooper proved his toughness as the lone freshman in a sea of veteran linemen a year ago. His performance silenced doubters who thought he was too small or not athletic enough to make it at this level. But the real measure of Jon Cooper’s toughness is not his accomplishments so far — it is how he has bounced back from the adversity of a potentially devastating injury. It was what he did in that training room with Anderson and Hillis.

The odds were against Cooper’s return this season. But he would not be denied.

“Jon’s busted his butt in rehab,” said Patton. “He’s relentless with that because he’s got a passion for the game. That’s what you love about him.”

Note: This story appears in the Week One issue of Sooner Spectator, the only magazine providing weekly coverage of Oklahoma football. Subscribe today by calling 1-800-888-8161