DENVER — Visit Stonehill Neighborhood in Gahanna, Ohio, and you'd imagine stepping into Browns and Bengals territory. But take a stroll down Granite Falls Drive and you'll find orange, blue and some of the newest, youngest and most passionate Broncos diehards.
“We love the Broncos and we love Jonathon Cooper,” said Judy Sgambati, a mother of three who has lived four doors down from Cooper's family the past six years.
Sgambati has gotten to know the rookie outside linebacker after he formed a relationship with her son Louie now 12, six years ago playing basketball in their driveway. Cooper has become a beloved figure everywhere he’s been, from Lincoln High School to Ohio State to the Broncos.
Watch the 35-second video of the day Cooper was drafted 239th on May 2. That video is an embodiment of the influence Cooper has, as the neighborhood kids rushed to his home to offer congratulations, hugs and a game of backyard football, sparking an impromptu pizza party that went viral across social media.
“What you see in that video is so genuine, that is so Coop,” said Sgambati of Cooper, who is stepping into a starting role Sunday for the recently-traded Von Miller . “If he came home tomorrow and the NFL was over, he will always be an amazing person because that’s just who he is. He’s the definition of a role model. And I can only pray that my son becomes the type of man that Jonathon Cooper is.”
But Cooper’s impact goes far beyond his childhood neighborhood.
Cooper has positively affected the people around him all his life, whether that be his family, teammates, classmates, coaches, teachers, or the neighbors down the street. To a person, they say the 23-year-old has prided himself on being a man of integrity, a player who never quits and a friend to all — values instilled by his mom and values he will soon instill in his own son.
“I owe her everything and that’s why I feel like I’m in the spot I am today,” Cooper told The Gazette. “My mom is the hardest working person I know. Having me at 18 and to see where she’s at now — she inspires me to go harder because I feel like if she can do that, with all the stuff she’s been through on her own, then when it comes to running to the football, that’s easy stuff.”
Broncos linebacker Jonathon Cooper laughs with teammates while sitting on the bench Aug. 21 during a preseason game against the Seahawks in Seattle.
Cooper, who has had anything but an easy path to the NFL, has made his journey look effortless. His beaming smile and infectious laugh can be deceiving to those who don’t know his life story, which is about as difficult as they come. Though, to that, he would say it’s the life he’s been given. And if it weren’t for his mother, who nearly put him up for adoption, it’s a story that may have never been told.
Instead, Cooper’s story has become one of triumph, overcoming obstacles many would have used as excuses for not achieving their dreams. From birth complications to being raised by a single parent to severe heart problems, Cooper has conquered some of life’s most difficult challenges.
“I never let anything like adversity define me,” Cooper said. “I’ve been through a lot in my life. I’ve struggled with family stuff to injuries in football or whatever. How you handle that adversity determines what you want your life to be.”
As he attempts to help fill the shoes of Miller, it’s that determination — rooted in his upbringing — that has those who know him best believing he will once again answer the bell.
“The person everyone is falling in love with is the person I’ve been falling in love with every day for 23 years,” his mom said. “I’m so proud. I tell him all the time. Because those are the words I’m able to put together, that’s what I’m able to say, but beyond that, I can’t explain it. He’s way more than what I ever expected him to be.
“He’s the epitome of resilience and perseverance.”
‘I stand alone’
Two days before meeting the would-be adoptive parents of the child she was carrying, 18-year-old Jessica Moorman went into labor. Being that she was a high school student with aspirations of continuing her education and playing Division I college basketball, the plan had always been to put her child up for adoption.
That was until she gave birth to her son, Jonathon Javier Cooper, on Jan. 8, 1998 at St. Ann’s Hospital in Westerville, Ohio. Born nine weeks early, he was 4 pounds, 19 inches, and needed feeding tubes because his chest was caved in. He was unable to leave the hospital until two months after his birth.
“My life trajectory wasn’t having kids. I didn’t want them,” Moorman said. “Having him, it was indescribable. I knew then I needed to raise him. I saw something in him and I felt like I needed to change because if I didn’t, then nobody was going to want to interact with my son. The older that he became, the more he changed my life and taught me so much about life and letting go and just really feeling loved. It’s like God told me, ‘you’ve got to keep him.’ And that’s what I did.”
Twenty three years, 250 pounds and 56 inches later, Cooper has formed an inseparable bond with his mom. She raised him as a single mom for the first 13 years of his life, returning to high school soon after giving birth.
Moorman, though, didn’t receive the warmest reception when she returned to school. People were quick to judge her. To stay focused, she wrote a mission statement — which she still has today — titled, “I Stand Alone.”
I stand alone. I will not think weak thoughts or blame others. I will not fail. I will not allow self-pity, self-doubt, or any person affect me. If someone hurts me, I allowed it. I am in control of my thoughts and actions. I will be strong, I will think myself happy. I will not be a stereotype. My son will not be a stereotype. We will be educated. No one decides what happens to me but God and Jessica Joy Sampson.
For Moorman, education is everything.
She went on to graduate top four in her class and attend Ohio Dominican University where she studied accounting while working at an accounting firm full time. Juggling work and parenting, it took her eight years to graduate — an accomplishment she takes pride in.
“My mom, she was a single mom and we grew up really poor,” said Moorman, who serves as a vice president controller in the real estate department at Chase Bank. “I didn’t really learn about education except from my teachers. I didn’t realize how smart I was until my teachers told me. Education was everything to me.”
Moorman made sure to instill that same mindset in Cooper even as a child, going as far as dressing him in shirts that read, “COLLEGE.”
“I wanted him to be as educated as possible,” she said. “Doors open because of education. It’s not all about jobs. It’s about learning about other people, other cultures. It’s been like that for him since he was a kid. It’s so important because it changes the way you see life, people, the world, everything, in my opinion.”
The lessons took root. At 11, Cooper wrote his own mission statement.
“I actually wrote mine not even knowing she wrote one,” Cooper said. “We’re very similar. We’re sort of attached at the hip. If you meet her, you’re basically meeting me. When we set our mind to something, we put all of our energy toward that.”
From the moment she gave birth, Moorman set her mind on raising her son to be the best person he could be. She taught him the importance of kindness, education, good manners, listening to others and, among many other things, respect.
Those lessons have made Cooper the person he is.
“With me not growing up with a dad and her just being my single parent, she taught me how to be a man, honestly,” Cooper said. “She taught me how to be humble. Put your head down and keep working. Remember where you came from. Treat others how you want to be treated.
“Do those things and good things will happen to you.”
‘Someone everybody loves’
Cooper’s favorite book is “12 Angry Men.”
The book, which is a play written by Reginald Rose in 1954, is about a jury that must decide whether to convict an 18-year-old on trial for killing his father. At first, only one juror believes the young man is not guilty. But after challenging the other 11 to think through all angles of the trial, that juror persuades them all to change their votes to not guilty.
“I love debating. I love picking people’s ideas,” Cooper said. “You have all those men in that room and they’re all debating on one topic and there’s one person who disagrees and everybody’s frustrated. Then you see how much a small idea or one person can change everything. I feel like that’s sometimes what the world needs. Sometimes it takes one person to step up and say something to make a difference.”
Cooper first read “12 Angry Men” in Jennifer McConaha’s English class his sophomore year at Lincoln High School. He took pride in all his classes, but he had a special affinity for his English courses, and still knows all his teachers by name and keeps in touch with them five years after graduating.
Like his mom, Cooper was a top student, respected by his peers and teachers.
“I remember him mostly as loving and caring and big-hearted first and then a really, really good athlete second,” McConaha said. “And he had this passionate desire to learn. And with his personality, that desire to learn was contagious to those around him. He was inquisitive and he was social and he was willing to engage in conversations. Even at 15 and 16, he felt that responsibility for his own growth and development, which was unique for a teenage boy.”
Meanwhile, Cooper was a standout on the football field, playing both defensive end and wide receiver. Ranked a five-star prospect by 247Sports, Cooper was one of the best players to walk the halls of Lincoln High.
But you would have never known it.
“A lot of kids that are his status of a player kind of have an ego or a chip on their shoulder,” said Bruce Ward, Cooper’s high school coach. “He was the same way with me as he was with his English teacher. I feel like he has the ability to treat everybody kindly. One thing that stood out to us was his connection to everybody. Typically at the high school level, you’re leaders of your particular social group. Cooper had the ability to talk to and reach and communicate with anybody and everybody on our team. That’s rare at this level.”
With his mom fielding several Division I offers to play basketball, Cooper was always bound to be an athlete. He started tackle football at 6, in an attempt by his mom to help him get his youthful energy out. His little league team’s name?
Of course, the Broncos.
But it wasn’t until high school that he or his mom realized his potential. Offers started pouring in from schools like Illinois, Indiana, Notre Dame and, finally, Ohio State. And that had always been a dream, given he grew up 13 miles from Ohio Stadium, home of the Buckeyes.
As a kid, he used to draw himself wearing Ohio State’s scarlet and gray jerseys. It was a no-brainer for all involved.
“Coop checked all the boxes,” said Ryan Stamper, the former player development director at Ohio State. “Is he going to bring guys along with him as a leader? Yes. Is he going to work hard? Yes. Do you have to worry about him off the field? No. When you look at Coop, he’s a guy you’re going to put very little time in coaching because he’s going to handle his business.”
Cooper had to wait his turn at Ohio State, though, sharing time with future Pro Bowl players in Nick Bosa, now with the 49ers, and Chase Young, now with Washington. Still, Cooper found his way onto the field, totaling 10 sacks, 15 tackles for loss and 75 tackles in 45 games over five years.
And while he may have not been as prolific as Bosa and Young — who were both drafted second overall — he was a leading voice in the Buckeye locker room. Not only was he a two-time captain, but he was also awarded the “Block O” jersey, an honor given to the player who best represents “accountability and a blue-collar personality,” according to coach Ryan Day. He was also a two-time academic all-Big Ten honoree, graduating with a degree in consumer and family financial studies.
“He was a guy that was always looked at as a leader, but kind of in the shadows of those stars on the defense,” Stamper said. “But if you walked in our program at Ohio State, you wouldn’t have known the difference between Coop and Chase and Nick. Coop was on those guys’ level just by how he handled his business and got those guys better.”
Cooper helped Ohio State to the national title game in 2020, coming back for a fifth year after suffering an ankle injury the season prior. While the Buckeyes lost to Alabama, Cooper left his mark in Columbus.
Just as he’s done everywhere he’s been, from Mrs. McConaha’s English class to the biggest stage in college football.
“As soon as he walked in the building, he was everything we thought he’d be,” Stamper said. “He was extremely mature and handled his business like a senior, which is why I can see how that’s translated to the NFL in terms of handling himself like a pro. That’s exactly how he was at Ohio State. He’s a guy who it’s hard not to be a fan of. He’s someone everybody loves.”
Cooper and Moorman slowly walked down their street having a talk only a mother and son can have. It was late on Day 3 of the NFL draft and Cooper had not been selected. A projected third- to fifth-round pick, Cooper’s stock had fallen.
Sensing her son’s frustration, Moorman suggested they take a lap around the block, leaving their family and friends at home.
“I spoke to him in only words he would know,” Moorman said. “You know, a heart-to-heart.”
As they turned the corner heading for home, discussing where he should sign as an undrafted free agent, Cooper got the call from the Broncos with only 20 picks remaining.
“God always knows where you’re supposed to be,” Moorman said. “And the Broncos organization — I cannot speak more volumes about that program and the individuals I’ve spoken with. It could not be a better fit.”
Two weeks prior to the draft, the Eagles had requested Cooper have one more EKG. Having been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome as a freshman in high school after collapsing during a basketball game, Cooper is no stranger to having his heart checked for an irregular heartbeat. As a teen, he had two cardiac ablations — a procedure to help the heart maintain a normal rhythm in which catheters are threaded through blood vessels to the heart. Cooper and his doctors believed they had corrected the problem.
Then “a blip” showed up on that final ultrasound only a few days before the draft. This time, that blip was a rare form of Atrial fibrillation, also known as Afib, an irregular heartbeat often found in people over the age of 60. Cooper’s stock plummeted as every NFL team learned about his new heart condition.
“What he has is extremely rare and what he has is fascinating to cardiologists,” Moorman said. “It was like a bad nightmare “Grey’s Anatomy” show being in that hospital. They were fascinated and I was sick.”
He underwent three, eight-hour ablations in May, days after being drafted. If those ablations had failed, he would have had to be implanted with a pacemaker, which could have ended his football career.
“When they started talking about pacemakers and how difficult it was to operate on, those worries, they don’t go away,” Cooper said Aug. 3, after he missed both rookie minicamp and OTAs, not being cleared until the start of training camp at the end of July. “But I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through a lot of adversity and I just kind of put trust in the doctors … All I know is those heart surgeries were just another obstacle in my way. But I knew that I could overcome them.”
Denver Broncos linebacker Jonathon Cooper (53) plays against the Baltimore Ravens during an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Denver.…
Cooper will likely need an annual EKG to make sure his heart continues its rhythm. But that’s never diminished his love for football. Even after collapsing in high school, not once did he consider quitting the sport. Instead, he became known for — as Broncos coach Vic Fangio often says — the “high motor” he still plays with today.
“He never took a play off,” said Ward, who is still the coach at Lincoln. “I remember one game he lost his mouthpiece and instead of coming off the field, he looks at the first player he sees, grabs his mouthpiece, puts in his mouth and goes out and plays. He ripped it off the kid’s facemask and half the players are looking at him like, ‘that dude’s different.’ And the other half are looking at him like, ‘that dude’s sick.’
“That was his mentality. He didn’t care what was going on, he didn’t want to miss a play.”
As his former coaches notes, it’s ironic that Cooper plays with as much heart as he does, considering how many issues his heart has had.
“Jonathon has two hearts,” his mom said. “That’s just how he’s made. Could it come back? Yes. But he was born like this. It’s how he lives. It’s who he is.”
‘A newfound motivation’
On Sept. 19, the woman who once wasn't sure she wanted to become a mother became a grandmother, and the son she nearly gave up became a dad.
Shortly after beating the Jaguars on the road in Week 2, Cooper got a call from his mom. His son, Javier Cooper, had been born. He was 6 pounds, 9 ounces and – like his father – 19 inches. The Broncos immediately got the rookie on a plane heading for Columbus.
“He means everything to me. He means the world to me just the same way I’m sure I meant to my mom,” Cooper said. “I feel like I have a newfound motivation in myself when I go out there on the field. I’m not doing it for me… I feel like I have to go out there and be the example, like my mom was for me, because I know he’s going to copy everything I do.”
You can guess who he sought advice from first.
“I go to my mom for everything,” Cooper said. “I’m doing the best that I can, taking everything that my mom taught me, the best parts of her, and then applying them to him. It’s not going to be perfect, but I want him to know I’m giving him my best for him.”
Despite being a new dad, Cooper has had some practice, helping take care of three younger sisters. And he has plenty of help around him, other than his mom.
One being Miller, who took the rookie under his wing from the moment he arrived in Denver.
“Really, he just taught me how to be a player in the league and how to be a father,” Cooper said. “When he recently became a father, I became a father, too. We had some of our talks. Some of the conversations that we had were pretty deep, and I can’t thank him enough for all the things that he’s talked to me about, and all the things that he’s taught me. Even though our time was short, I enjoyed every moment of it.”
Denver Broncos linebacker Jonathon Cooper (53) against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 17, 2…
Miller’s absence won’t be filled by one person and Cooper admits he’s in no position to try and fill that void. After a few monster performances in the preseason, he’s shown promise in his first eight regular-season games, with his role increasing every week, earning his first career start against Washington in Week 8.
As the season progressed, Cooper made sure not to waste the few months he played alongside Miller, taking note of everything the future Hall of Famer did as a player and a leader.
“Every time Von spoke to me, my ears perked up like a little kid,” Cooper said. “Everything that he had to say, I was listening. I tried to take everything that he said and see how I can apply it to myself, even from the little things and the small things — day-to-day conversations to big things like when it comes to being on the field and he’s giving me advice on what to do or what he sees in my game.”
Cooper will continue to be relied upon this season by and beyond the Broncos. And those who have taught him, coached him and raised him, know he’ll be up to the task.
“Guys like Coop don’t fail,” said Stamper, now with the Jaguars. “As good as Coop is and as great as he’s done throughout his life, he hasn’t always had it easy, him and his mom. So to see where he is now, the type of kid he is in spite of everything he’s gone through, you can’t help but be proud of him.”
So don’t count out the neighborhood kid just yet, because as he’s shown time and again, he’s worth betting on, no matter the obstacle.
There is always going to be someone better than me, 11-year-old Cooper wrote in that mission statement of his own long ago, unknowingly mirroring his mother's determination, but it’s my choice if I back down or stand up and give myself the chance to be the better man.
And what a man he’s become.