Jonathan Cooper was once too heavy to play Pop Warner football, too unskilled to play a meaningful role for his middle school team and then too unknown to draw attention from major college programs. All the while, though, he kept alive his lifelong dream of becoming an NFL player.
Cooper, the All-American offensive lineman from North Carolina, realized that dream on Thursday night when the Arizona Cardinals selected him with the seventh pick in the NFL draft. Cooper was the first player from a North Carolina school to be selected in this years draft.
His teammate at UNC, Sylvester Williams, became the second area player to be selected from a North Carolina school. The Denver Broncos selected Williams, a defensive tackle, late in the first round with the 28th pick.
Both Cooper and Williams followed unlikely paths into the NFL. Williams barely graduated from high school, gave up football and worked in a factory before returning to school, at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, and becoming a highly-recruited junior college player who later thrived, like Cooper, at UNC.
I mean, wow, an excited Cooper said during his conference call with media members who cover the Cardinals. Im just so excited.
The Cardinals should be, too, given their need to improve their offensive line. Arizona ranked last in the NFL a season ago in rushing offense, and generated just 75.3 rushing yards per game. The Cardinals also allowed 58 sacks, most in the NFL, and only four teams averaged fewer passing yards per game.
Arizona since the end of last season acquired veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, and protecting him will be a priority. In Cooper, the Cardinals drafted the most highly-rated interior lineman prospect in the draft.
He provided great leadership and character during his career at UNC and Im proud of him for earning his degree, UNC coach Larry Fedora said in a statement about Cooper. Arizona is getting an outstanding player who is an even better person.
Michael Irvin, the Hall of Fame wide receiver, said on the NFL Network that Cooper reminded him of former Dallas Cowboys teammate Larry Allen, who helped anchor the dominant Cowboys offensive lines in the 1990s. Allen earlier this year was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Cooper played offensive guard throughout his years at UNC, but he also can play center. That versatility, along with his quickness and agility, made Cooper one of the drafts best offensive lineman prospects.
He is one of the most athletic offensive guards Ive seen in 35 years, Mel Kiper, the ESPN NFL draft analyst, said.
Cooper said hed heard from his father that the Cardinals might be interested in drafting him, but that he tried to ignore draft speculation.
I was shocked when they called me, he said.
Steve Keim, the Cardinals general manager, was an offensive lineman at N.C. State in the early 1990s. Cooper told reporters that Keim reminded him of the UNC-N.C. State rivalry.
He said, Im going to pick you in spite of you being a Tar Heel, Cooper said with a laugh. So Im grateful.
Cooper and Williams became the 23rd and 24th UNC players to be selected in the first round of the draft. Six Tar Heels have been selected in the first round since 2008.
Cooper earlier this week traveled to New York City with his father, Michael, and mother, Velma, who has battled heath issues, including cancer, during the past year. When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Coopers name, Cooper embraced his family members and then walked across the stage and wrapped his arms around Goodell.
Years ago, when Cooper was a lightly-recruited player at Hoggard High in Wilmington, that scene existed only as a fantasy. Some college programs that Cooper wanted to play for didnt even return calls from his high school coach, Scott Braswell.
Some of the programs didnt call back and others said he was too small, Michael Cooper said earlier this week. But I guess he proved them wrong. Yes sir, yes sir. He proved them wrong.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter