Teriyon “Mookie” Cooper dropped his mouthpiece in the trash can.
He was 8 years old at the time, maybe 9. His youth football team traveled to Memphis for a game and when the opposing players came marching past they looked gargantuan.
Cooper had already tried giving up football twice before but this was the last straw. He was not about to be crushed by these Memphis giants. He deposited his mouth guard with the hot dog wrappers and soda bottles. He was through.
When his coach told him to get in the game, Cooper said he couldn't.
“'I don't have my mouthpiece,'” Cooper said. “I was scared that game. I didn't like being hit too much.”
After some ribbing from his coaches and teammates and the encouragement of his mother, Danita Gibson, and his godfather, Arnold Britt, Cooper put his fears aside and gave in to football's siren song.
“They were laughing at me, but after that I was like, 'I can't be a punk out here,'” Cooper said. “I just kept playing.”
And he did – until this fall.
In August, Cooper withdrew from Trinity and enrolled at Pattonville. He said there were family reasons that contributed to his transfer. He also shoulders the blame for making a poor decision that landed him on probation at the school. Cooper was informed he would not be able to participate in the preseason jamboree. In his frustration, he posted on social media that, “I hate Trinity.” He deleted the post shortly after, but not before there were screen shots taken. Cooper's post violated a policy in the school's student handbook.
“I did that not knowing the consequence that would come from acting out on my emotions. I wouldn't be able to play this season,” Cooper said. “After that happened it was another reason to make the move.”
When he and his family made the choice to withdraw from Trinity, Cooper understood there was little chance he would get on the field his senior season at Pattonville. He thought he had a handle on how it would affect him.
He did not.
“Football season goes by fast when you're playing. All (those) days of not doing it, not playing, it weighed down on me more,” Cooper said. “It hit me hard, way harder than I thought.”
Cooper practiced for a few weeks with Pattonville. He was part of the scout team. When he was officially ruled ineligible he gave it up. He stopped going to games on Friday nights. Cooper withdrew from the scene that he'd grown up in. He didn't want to be reminded of what he was missing.
“I didn't want to be out. I didn't want to be seen,” Cooper said. “Once you take away the season there's so much stuff attached to it that was taken away too, not just me not playing. Everything changed after I couldn't play this season.”
It was a long and demoralizing time but now Cooper can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Wednesday is National Signing Day. It's the first day senior high school football players can sign binding national letters of intent with a college or university. The early signing period starts Wednesday and runs through Friday. The regular signing period begins on Feb. 5 and runs into April.
Cooper will sign with Ohio State University. The 5-foot-10 and 190-pounder joins a loaded Buckeyes recruiting class that ranks as the fourth best in the nation.
He is one of four highly rated wide receivers that have pledged to Ohio State. The most regarded is Julian Flemming, a consensus five-star prospect. All four fall within the top-100 recruits in the country regardless of position. Cooper is rated as the No. 1 athlete in the country by Rivals. It's as big as big-time gets. Cooper can't wait to be a part of it.
“We're all going to push each other,” Cooper said. “Everybody plays different. There are no duplicates.”
He's the latest local player to take his talents to Columbus. Last year, Cardinal Ritter standout Jameson Williams signed with Ohio State. The year before that it was CBC's Kamryn Babb and Cameron Brown. Ezekiel Elliott was the first to make the move when he signed out of John Burroughs in 2013.
Cooper said it's important to him to perform at a high level with the Buckeyes. He wants to keep the spotlight on area athletes burning hot.
“People still sleep on St. Louis sports and Missouri football in general,” Cooper said. “As long as people like me, Jameson and everybody else goes to these schools and do what they're supposed to do, it's going to keep making opportunities for younger generations.”
Cooper spent the fall preparing his body and mind to make the leap to the next level. He continued to workout regularly, improved his diet and began studying Ohio State's playbook. He's already been accepted into Ohio State and will graduate from Pattonville at the end of the fall semester. Gibson, his mother, will drop him off at college in less than three weeks.
“I have to put everything in the past and grow up,” Cooper said. “Maybe everything worked out for the best. I'm going in there with a healthy body, no injuries. I'm ready to take on this next level.”
When he arrives he should be dynamic. Cooper always did his best work against the best competition. In 2018, Trinity won the Class 3 state championship, but it lost its first two games to Colquitt County in Georgia and at East St. Louis in the showcase game of the Gateway Scholars Classic.
In both games Cooper excelled. He caught five passes for 193 yards and rushed for a touchdown against Colquitt County. He caught six passes for 117 yards and scored twice against East St. Louis.
His talents have always translated no matter where he's been.
“Every single time he touches the ball you think he's going to score,” Lutheran North coach Carl Reed said. “It scares you out of your mind. He's a bonafide home run hitter.”
Reed watched plenty of Cooper's film in preparation for their expected Week 1 showdown this season. Cooper's sophomore season ended at Lutheran North in an epic district championship game. Reed is not going to miss game-planning to keep Cooper at bay.
“Any time he touches it, he can go 0-to-60,” Reed said. “I'd compare him to Damien Nash. He was the only guy that made me feel the way Mookie did.”
Wednesday will officially mark the next stage of Cooper's career. One that he hopes will give him and his family opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise. Signing to play at college is a dream he's had since he pitched that mouthpiece in the trash.
“I'm going to try to not break down. That's a big thing,” Cooper said. “To just know it's the final step – that I'm about to change my life forever. I don't know how I'm going to take it."