COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri wide receiver Mookie Cooper loves to captivate an audience with his feet.
The first time his mother, Danita Gibson, remembers Cooper putting on a show, he was 7-years-old. In this instance, it was only for an audience of two, Gibson and one of her friends.
“He’d be break dancing, and my friend was like, ‘The way he’s moving, you need to put him in football,’” Gibson remembered. “He was just so swift on his feet.”
Last Saturday, Cooper debuted his shifty footwork in front of the Missouri faithful. He was limited, however, by a lower leg injury that he suffered during fall camp and played in only 15 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
But in those 15 snaps, he had seven touches, with coach Eli Drinkwitz dialing up plays to use his legs in space. Each of his four targets came on screen passes where he racked up 12 yards.
“Coming off my injury, a lot of routes I wasn’t too comfortable in running,” Cooper said, “A lot of cuts I wasn’t too comfortable in. So that’s what really limited me running routes like that. I didn’t want to go out there and let the defense know I’m about to break down on a route just because I got to raise up on my foot a little awkward.”
Despite his sparse playing time against Central Michigan, he showed flashes of explosiveness that the Missouri offense lacked at times from the wide receiver position last year.
When Cooper was in elementary school, Gibson, a single mother of four, signed him up to play Little League under coach Arnold Britt, a former University of Missouri wide receiver himself. Britt’s presence gave Cooper a positive male role model that he lacked, and he has remained in Cooper’s life since.
“He took him under his wing and became like a mentor, a big brother, a father, a coach, a friend, a listening ear,” Gibson said.
Cooper dominated St. Louis area high schools on the gridiron at Trinity Catholic, and he emerged as one of the top athletes in the country after accumulating more than 1,100 total yards of offense and 18 touchdowns during his junior season.
He helped lead Trinity Catholic to the state championship game, where it defeated Cardinal Ritter for the school’s first state title in 2018. That game, however, would be the last he’d play in for nearly three years.
Before his senior year, the school placed him on probation and he transferred to Pattonville High School, but the Missouri State High School Activities Association ruled him ineligible after enrolling for his last season.
Gibson still remembers Cooper’s voice on the phone when he heard the ruling.
“I’ve never heard him cry like that before,” she said. “To hear him cry the way he was crying, I became devastated… I learned after the fact that it was bothering him mentally because once you’ve become accustomed to doing something for so many years and not being able to do it, it did take him down a dark place.”
That year, Cooper kept most of his emotions inside and he stayed busy with workouts, but it was clear to Gibson that he was hurting. And she hurt too. She most missed “screaming, yelling and jumping” each time he touched the ball. Game days, she said, were like their mom-son date nights.
Cooper committed to Ohio State, where he entered a crowded wide receiver room last season as a freshman. He did not appear in any games for the Big Ten champions and announced his intent to transfer, although Gibson said that it was a great learning experience for him.
He signed with Missouri early in 2021 and on Wednesday, he cited the opportunity to compete in the Southeastern Conference and to play closer to his family as the two main reasons for moving to Columbia.
In last Saturday’s win over Central Michigan, Cooper said it felt good to get hit at live speed again, a feeling he’d lost since his junior year of high school. His first target came on a third-and-long early in the second quarter. He nearly broke off a big gain, breaking three tackles and had a convoy of blockers ahead of him. But he misread a block and ran backward which resulted in just a two-yard pickup.
He said his foot is pain-free and this week, he’s been practicing different routes and cuts.
“I was out for a minute, it’s just now getting my range of motion all the way back and getting back comfortable playing fast,” Cooper said.
Cooper tried not to have major expectations for himself while coming off of the injury. But Gibson knows that Missouri fans are going to see a playmaker when he’s at full potential.
“He’s gonna get busy,” Gibson said. “That’s his motto. He’s going to work hard, he’s going to be blazing fast, he’s going to run down that field and he’s going to smoke them. He’s going to put on a show for the Show-Me state.”