Hutton: Calumet running back CJ Cooper Jr. finds peace on the football field after his father’s death
The Texas Roadhouse conversation with his father was a jarring moment.
It was May, and CJ Cooper Jr., a Calumet running back, had just finished up football conditioning.
They were eating at Cooper Jr.’s favorite restaurant. His father, CJ Cooper Sr., was dying — but he didn’t quite understand that then.
“My dad was very good with the way he used words,” Cooper Jr. said. “He told me to continue to work hard for my junior year. He talked about how far I could go with football. I’m kinda paraphrasing what he said, but he told me he’d be watching from a place where you can’t see me. I just had to get up and go to the bathroom and evaluate what he said. I just thought, ‘What is he talking about?’ I knew then he was very sick.”
Cooper Sr. died July 16 after three courageous years with cancer.
Cooper Jr. is living out his father’s final wishes in a glorious way.
He’s playing the best football of his life, just like his father always knew he would. Cooper Jr. has 640 yards rushing on 120 carries with 10 touchdowns. The Warriors (9-1) play River Forest (6-4) on Friday in the second round of Class 3A Sectional 25.
Calumet coach Rick Good said that Cooper Jr. is a “one-cut version of Eddie George.” George won the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State and was a star running back for the Tennessee Titans.
“He’s got great vision,” Good said. “He’s not a breakaway-speed guy, but he finds that extra gear. He knows how to cut back against the grain.”
Cooper Jr. has drawn inspiration from his father, who was his biggest supporter.
Cooper Sr. called him the “Franchise” because he was the youngest child and the only boy in his family. He has three sisters.
Cooper Sr. owned a company called C. Cooper Installations, which installed fences, mostly on Chicago’s North Side.
When Cooper Jr. was 11, his father declared that he could do enough pushups to help him “once or twice a week.”
They’d have long talks during the car rides, and they’d work side by side in the hot sun until Cooper Jr. couldn’t stand it anymore.
“It was eye-opening,” he said. “I learned a lot of life lessons. My dad told me he didn’t want me to have to work for someone else.”
His dad was at every game that he could remember, doling out perspective in the car on the rides home, telling him which holes he missed and how to improve his cuts.
Those memories became clearer, and more important, when his dad died.
His season is dedicated to his father.
Cooper Jr. has “RIP Dad” etched on one side of his cleats and the letters “FMF” and “FGBTG” on the other side. That stands for “for my father” and “for the glory be to god.”
It’s heavy stuff for a 16-year-old, but Cooper Jr. hasn’t flinched at the difficult circumstances.
“Once he died, I had to look after my sisters and protect my mom,” Cooper Jr. said. “I had emotions, but I knew they looked up to me. I had to be strong. I knew if I was sad, they would be sad.”
It’s been a trying, emotional year off the field for Calumet. Curtis Walton Jr., a freshman, died at the school pool after practice on Sept. 11.
That tragedy and the death of Cooper Sr. are the backdrop for the season for this team.
Walton’s sisters are team managers, and they both wear No. 19, Walton’s number, Good said. The stadium has banners of Walton. Good said Calumet is a “tight-knight community” and has rallied around the adversity.
For Cooper Jr., both his father and the memory of Walton have helped him keep his mind clear and his legs churning.
“I can still see my dad sitting in the stands looking over me,” he said. “He gives me that extra courage to play the game I love.”