SPRINGFIELD — Four years ago this month, long before they made their marks as two of the best all-around athletes in Wittenberg history, Michael Cooper sent Josh McKee a text message.
“Have u visited Witt yet?” Cooper asked.
“Yeah. U?” McKee replied.
The conversation continued. Cooper, a senior at South High School in 2008, had already committed to Ashland University. McKee, then a senior at Tecumseh, had all but decided on Ohio Dominican University. Both had received some interest from Division I programs and sometimes ran into each other on recruiting visits.
Cooper and McKee first joined forces in seventh grade, playing for the Clark County Playmakers, an AAU basketball team.
They played together in eighth grade and 10th grade and kept in contact throughout the recruiting process.
Early in 2008, Wittenberg football coach Joe Fincham and basketball coach Bill Brown swooped in and made the two an offer they couldn’t refuse: Come to Wittenberg, and you can play two sports.
That’s what McKee and Cooper discussed that day.
“If u go, I’ll go,” Cooper texted.
That sealed the deal.
“We signed the same day,” McKee said.
The day they committed, Cooper told the News-Sun, “I know it’s going to be tough, but I think I’ll be able to do it.”
That’s how CoopKee or McCoop, if you will, ended up at Wittenberg. Now it’s hard to imagine one without the other, or Wittenberg without either.
After graduating this spring, they will go their separate ways, but they will always be linked by their shared experiences.
They go together so well that McKee’s grandma embroidered a pillow with photos of both of them from football and basketball.
“They have never gotten their due,” Brown said, “and they are going to get their due from me throughout their lifetime, whenever I am in a public setting and have a chance to address it.”
Today the players celebrate their second Senior Day in four months.
They were honored in November at Edwards-Maurer Field with the other football seniors, and they will be honored again before today’s 4 p.m. basketball game against Hiram at Pam Evans Smith Arena with fellow seniors Sam Gardner, Michael Duffy, Clayton Black, Alex Brandt and Jacob Weide.
“There’s definitely been some bumps and bruises along the way, but it’s been a good time,” McKee said. “There’s a lot to remember.”
Later this evening, they will attend Wittenberg’s football banquet. It was moved from last Saturday to accommodate them.
“For those kids to have the careers they’ve had here, it’s really been something special,” Fincham said.
Even though Cooper and McKee have accounted for 1,374 points on the hardwood and 70 receiving touchdowns on the gridiron, both players would boast first of their teams’ championships.
They joked around as freshmen about winning eight North Coast Athletic Conference championships in their careers. They will settle for three: two in football in 2009 and 2010 and one in basketball this season. The combined records of the football and basketball teams over the last four seasons: 109-42.
Cooper scored a season-high 22 points in Wednesday’s 56-55 title-clinching victory at DePauw. It’s Wittenberg’s first NCAC regular-season championship in basketball since 2004.
“It’s been a while since Coach Brown has had a conference championship,” McKee said, “and he deserves it.”
Their personal accomplishments should one day get them into Wittenberg’s Hall of Honor. They set out to become the most prolific wide receivers in school history, and they succeeded.
McKee ranks first and owns nearly every receiving record — in the single-game, season and career categories — in Wittenberg and NCAC history. He’s one of the top 25 wideouts in Division III history with 4,022 yards.
Cooper ranks second in school history with 2,548 yards, mostly on the strength of a monster sophomore season in which he set the school record with 1,000 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns.
He scored the most important touchdown in the last four seasons, the only touchdown in a 10-7 victory at Wabash in 2009.
Cooper played his entire sophomore season with a torn labrum in his shoulder, and his production suffered in 2011 as he recovered from surgery. McKee avoided any major injuries in his four seasons, but missed a large chunk of the basketball season a year ago with an illness.
“When I got hurt my sophomore season, he picked up the slack,” Cooper said. “When he got sick and couldn’t play, I had to pick up the slack.”
Cooper is used to overcoming injuries. On the Fourth of July in 2002, he cut his left leg on a glass shelf, slicing the peroneal nerve.
“The doctor said I wouldn’t play sports again,” Cooper said. “They said it would be good if I could walk again.”
Dr. Edward J. Cosnick, a neurosurgeon in Columbus, saved the day. He reconnected the nerve, and Cooper was playing baseball with a knee brace three weeks later.
“It was a blessing,” Cooper said.
Their two dads
Because Cooper and McKee stayed close to home, their families got to come along for the ride, and no one’s had a better view than their dads, Pastor Michael Cooper Sr. and Don McKee.
Cooper Sr. took over as the public address announcer for football and men’s basketball games two years ago. Don McKee is an amateur photographer and often shot home games from the sidelines throughout Josh’s career — he’ll get to do it for three more years because his youngest son Mike is a freshman defensive back at Wittenberg.
“If you’re a local kid doing well at Wittenberg, it’s just incredibly awesome,” Don said. “Everybody embraces you. Now you can go back and promote what you’re doing at Wittenberg to your former teammates.”
Four years ago, it almost turned out very different.
“We thought Ball State was going to give (Josh) a scholarship,” Don said. “Both of us had visited Ball State together twice. We showed up there in the recruiting room, and here come the Coopers. Mike was being recruited as a receiver and Josh as a defensive back.
“Josh was actually told late in the process that Miami of Ohio wanted him as a receiver, but they were waiting to see if some dude, a scholarship athlete, was going to leave. They said, ‘No promises.’ That didn’t happen.
“Ohio Dominican was next. He was all but going there, and they were offering the most money.
“Wittenberg came in late, and if it had been a week or two later, we would have already decided.”
Cooper drew plenty of recruiting attention, despite playing football only two seasons in high school, as a freshman and again as a senior. John Cupps, then an assistant at South, deserves a lot of the credit for getting the word out about Cooper, said Cooper Sr.
NCAC rival Wabash also recruited Cooper. He attended a meeting near Cincinnati for potential Wabash recruits, Cooper Sr. said, but lost interest when he found out it was an all-male school.
Ball State, which was then coached by current Michigan coach Brady Hoke, had to choose between offering a scholarship to Cooper, who had played only two seasons of high school football, or another player who had played four seasons. They went with the more experienced player.
Although Wittenberg entered the process late, it had special connections to Cooper and McKee. Cooper’s high school football coach, Aaron Shaffer, played at Wittenberg, and McKee’s high school football coach, Kent Massie, once coached at Wittenberg and roomed with Fincham.
“I had a little inside help, to say the least,” Fincham said. “Both (Cooper and McKee) understood that even though they had some money to go play elsewhere, they both had an interest in being college football and college basketball players. We really sold them on that. Plus, they’re both really good students. They were nice fits for Wittenberg.
“Every local kid we recruit feels they have to leave Springfield until the time they come over here and have a chance to spend the night and see Wittenberg is kind of a community inside Springfield.”
Worth it the end
McKee is a business major and may attend graduate school after leaving Wittenberg. Cooper is an education major and wants to teach history and coach.
That they will graduate on time this spring despite playing two sports at a high level for four years says a lot about what they’ve been able to accomplish off the field.
“There’s a lot of sacrifices,” McKee said. “You can’t go out with your friends sometimes. You can’t hang out. There’s a lot of nights when you have to do homework when everyone else is having fun. We had to manage our time very well, and I feel we both have good GPAs.”
It’s rare for a college athlete to play both football and basketball. Fincham said Cooper and Mckee are the only two athletes to have done it in the 21 years he has been at Wittenberg.
They are not the first, however. One example is Wittenberg great Bob Cherry, who lettered in football from 1961-63 and in basketball from 1961-64.
Cooper looks forward to this spring, when he’ll finally get a break.
“It was rough,” he said. “After basketball, we would have two weeks off. Then we would have spring football. Then you got maybe the last three weeks of the school year free.”
Of course, “it was all worth it in the end,” McKee said.
Everyone who has watched them would agree.
“You watch your kids play from the time they’re little guys,” Don McKee said. “It’s weird to think he’s not going to be playing any type of ball anymore.”
“It’s been a great experience,” Cooper Sr. said. “I thank God for my son. He’s been a fine young man. I’ve never had a day of trouble from him.”
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