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It took a village to nurture a football star: Jalin Cooper's story

MEDINA – An outsider might assume the reason Jalin Cooper has so many people in his corner since moving to Medina six years ago is because of what he can do with a football or basketball in his hands.

They'd be wrong, of course.

The Mustangs' senior wide receiver and University of Toledo football commit had folks pulling for him to go all the way long before he scored his first touchdown, long before he threw down his first booming dunk and long before he won his first track-and-field championship.

The reason is simple.

"He's a super-caring kid; he goes out of his way to help people," said Eric Hellwig, Medina assistant football coach and Cooper's legal guardian. "He's somebody who makes a really strong first impression. Then after you get that first impression and you see in school that he's acting that way not just with you but with everybody else in the school, kids and teachers and custodial and cafeteria workers, now it's genuine."

"He was always a well-adjusted kid, a very kind person," said Libby Woodroe, who became friends with Cooper several years ago when he had an after-school job at a local insurance office. "He would do anything to help anybody and anybody would do anything to help him. He's just been a friend to everyone and everyone has been a friend to him."

Jalin Cooper is the son of Robin Cooper and Roscoe Chambers. He is also the son Eric and Sandie Hellwig, and he's the unofficial son of many more in this tiny Orleans County village located between Buffalo and Rochester.

Cooper is 6-foot-4, has run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and has a vertical leap of 37 inches. The 2016 second-team All-Western New York selection is coming off a season in which he had a team-leading 16 touchdowns and 1,213 all-purpose yards, rushed for 403 yards and seven scores, and had 339 yards and six TDs as a receiver.

He also earned fourth-team All-WNY in basketball and repeated as Section VI Division II champion in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

Cooper is an electrifying athlete, but those feats pale in comparison to the intangibles that put him on the path toward becoming a success story in life.

Cooper is smart and well-spoken. He's an optimist. He isn't afraid of hard work. He's mature beyond his years (something that developed out of necessity, but more on that later).

Cooper is a fine young man -- a credit to what he's learned from Robin Cooper and his grandmother Glory Chambers, Hellwig said.

Jalin's character is the reason he's received assists from many along the way, with most of the help being provided before the skill set that netted him 11 Division I offers even came to the surface.

"I really can't put it into words," Jalin said. "It's unbelievable. ... It's just great to know there are people out there like that (willing to help others).

"I wondered 'Why me?' There's nothing about me. I'm just another kid out there. I knew what people said: 'He has a great attitude.' That's why I think so many people are out there to help me. I'm willing to go out there and work with the (young) kids. Some people in my position don't want to offer to help anyone else. I think that's why people help me because they know I would help them in a heartbeat."

Cooper's sunny disposition has persevered despite many challenges. There's been tragedy. His biological father received a long prison sentence. A house fire in Medina destroyed his home and possessions. Situations in his home life forced him to grow up sooner rather than enjoy being a kid. He even knows what it's like to be homeless, carrying possessions around in a trash bag.

Cooper is a Midwesterner, originally from Chicago, who lived in an area where gangs and drugs were prevalent.

Chambers was involved in that, giving Cooper a first-hand look at that kind of life when he lived with his father for a short period of time. Cooper seemed to be heading down a road in which gang life, not college life, would be his future. Circumstances resulted in Cooper returning to his mother before that happened. Chambers, who at times would hide his own drugs in his son's coat, later was arrested on federal drug charges.

Cooper, his mom and six of his eight other siblings moved from Chicago to Medina roughly six years ago into a house owned by the mother of Jalin's stepfather, Dion Cheatham. They did so to get away from the violent neighborhood -- to make sure Jalin and others in the family didn't fall into the trap of gang life.

"It was just a thought (that turned into action)," Jalin said. "They wanted their children to have a safer life."

Welcome to Medina, where it's common to see kids playing outside or riding around on bicycles.

"When I first came here I thought it's a small country town. I was very confused," Jalin said. "I thought it was one road that led to everything. The first week or two I started school, I said 'I can't do this. Everybody keeps staring at me.' It felt weird. It made me miss Chicago."

It was a culture shock, but one Cooper got over it. Especially when he realized folks were looking at him not only because he was the new kid in school – which commanded attention – but he also was a skinny, 120-pound sixth grader who happened to be nearly 6-feet tall, which commanded even more attention.

"They had to look up to me," Cooper said of his shorter classmates.

Lydia Valley, the daughter of his future football coach, Eric Valley, was the first person to ask Cooper to be her friend.

"In Chicago you didn't have people run up to you like that," he said. "That was a big difference."

Cooper soon realized the move to Medina was a good thing.

"You see no violence," he said. "You see the kids talking a lot. You can walk around town without turning around every 10 seconds" to watch your back because of the neighborhood.

The move to Medina led to Cooper trying his hand in sports, but a natural he was not.

The biggest positive of Cooper's first junior varsity basketball experience as an awkward seventh-grader was meeting the person he would later call dad, Hellwig – the team's coach.

He kept Cooper on the roster as a favor to varsity coach Tom Forrestel. While family responsibilities led Cooper to quit before the end of the season, Jalin's time with the team gave Hellwig a chance to get to know the lad with the 1,000-watt smile, positive attitude and quality work ethic.

They crossed paths again when Cooper went out for football for the first time as an eighth-grader. Although he wanted to quit after the first junior varsity practice he stuck it out.

"He was really intimidated by the size and speed of some of the kids even on JV," Hellwig said. "He didn't think he'd ever be able to catch on to all the terminology and be able to run routes the right way. Even just running and catching the football at the time was difficult.

"The physical was definitely not there. It was the other attributes like the work ethic and the personality he has that caught my attention. He has terrific manners and he always greets everyone with a smile. He looks them in the eye and shakes their hand. … He's also a super-caring kid."

It was during that football season that a fire destroyed Cooper's home and all of the family's possessions.

Coach Valley and the football team held a fundraiser to raise money for Cooper's family while others in the community donated items, including appliances, to help the Coopers get back on their feet. Family members stayed with different people in the community until Robin Cooper found a house to rent.

"I didn't expect that," Jalin said. "The people in the community have helped me so much."

While Cooper regularly speaks with his mother and says he's on good terms with her, they hit some rough patches after the fire as a stressful situation led to arguments. Cooper declined to discuss the subject of the disagreements but the family's search for a new permanent home didn't help matters. After one quarrel prompted Cooper to leave home, he returned to find out his mom wasn't there. He had no idea where she and his siblings went. Cooper stayed a couple days with Mason Lewis and then with Woodroe for nearly a week before finding out from one of his sisters the family had moved to Lockport.

An upset Cooper came to the weight room at the high school and told Valley what was going on.

Cooper did not want to move to an unknown city, even if it was roughly only 25 minutes away from Medina.

"I didn't know anything about Lockport," he said. "I loved exactly what I had here."

Valley, who was about to go on a trip out of town when Cooper found him, discussed the situation with Hellwig, who was supervising a workout. That led to Hellwig's son Jason, Jalin's friend and the varsity quarterback at the time, asking his father to let Cooper stay with them.

"It started out as being where we were in a situation just to help a kid for the short term," Eric Hellwig said. "We really didn't think it would be a long-term situation."

Cooper considered moving back to Chicago and living with his grandmother, Glory, who he is close with, but going back to Chicago would mean going back to the problems the family looked to escape in the first place. Also, his grandmother was battling cancer (she beat it, although it took a toll), creating another unknown variable.

As Cooper and the Hellwigs got comfortable living with each other, Eric talked with his wife, Jason and older son Adam, who also coaches at Medina, about what they thought of asking Cooper if he wanted to stay with them.

They were all for it, but was Cooper?

"He broke down a little bit and got a big smile on his face and said yes," Hellwig said. "That led to him being with us going on four years."

Why did the Hellwigs do this?

"Really, looking back on those past experiences with him put in my mind that he was somebody I thought had a bright future and would be able to flourish if he was in the right environment," Hellwig said. "Fortunately we were in a position where we could provide that stability for him and provide opportunities for him."

Cooper regularly sees his siblings in Lockport, including his 16-year-old brother Joshua, who plays receiver for Lockport. While Cooper's mom initially was upset with his decision to not follow the family to Lockport, Jalin says Robin respects the decision.

"She told me this was probably the best decision to help me grow as a man and as a person," he said. "She loves that it keeps my little brothers and sisters motivated to do great things too. Me and her, we're really close. … She makes it to the games she can now."

Robin Cooper did not return a message left for her, but Joshua says Jalin does what he can to be a positive influence in his siblings' lives.

"He still comes out and hangs out with us, tries to make us play sports, tells our mom she should be making us do this and that," Joshua Cooper said.

That's because sports, even if it doesn't lead to a college scholarship, can help teach life lessons that impact the development of young people. It's something Hellwig preaches.

However, even he didn't see what would happen next with Jalin Cooper.

That uncoordinated, lanky basketball player worked on his game in the YMCA, studied how others played and mimicked what he saw. He went from being a decent eighth-grader to one of the Mustangs' top players. From that, he developed into one of the top players in the area,  good enough to play on an AAU circuit on a Rochester-based team coached by former Niagara University star James Reaves.

The Hellwigs thought Cooper had a chance to play in college, but it was during his time on the AAU circuit that Cooper came to his own realization regarding his basketball future. He's a 6-4 slasher who can dunk, but there are other more skilled 6-4 players out there. There also are taller players out there (thus more attractive hoops recruits) who can do what Cooper does.

Coach Valley said Cooper started figuring things out in football during his sophomore year, blossoming to the point where he could take over games.

"It was when we played Tonawanda his sophmore year, maybe mid to end of the season," Valley said. "It was like all of the sudden his game speed changed. Things started happening more instinctively, he was playing more and thinking less.

"It happened naturally. I remember watching the film being taken aback at how fast he started playing. ... I was like, wow.

"Prior to that he was still a good football player but was limited because he was still a little green ... didn't fully understand the game. That was the turning point where we knew we had something special on our hands."

During that offseason, the Hellwigs took Cooper to a few football camps. While there were plenty of 6-4 dunkers in basketball, there aren't too many 6-4, speedy receivers. After he started catching the attention of coaches by having success against highly ranked recruits at the Nike Camp in Berea, Ohio, and an Under Armor camp in New Jersey, Cooper realized he'd be crazy if he "didn't jump on football."

Last year, Cooper played a key role in a talented Medina team winning its first division title in football since 1997.

Defending a title is a nice motivator for any team and should fuel the Mustangs, who have a few other talented receivers in addition to Cooper on the roster. They also have a good quarterback in Izaiah Rhim. Cooper's approach to the season is simple.

"Bring energy to the team," he said. "I can bring that mentality that if we want to win if we want to get better then we have to work hard. It's leading like that.

"Football is a stressful sport. You're going to get beat up. You're not going to win every game but knowing other players around me are working hard while enjoying it is fun to me. Seeing someone who couldn't run a route and run it better the next day, that's fun to me."

Would this have happened had Cooper returned to Chicago, had he not stayed in Medina?

"That's a really good question," Hellwig said. "I want to say yes because of the person he is but then again I know that he probably wouldn't have been to Toledo already five times this year. He wouldn't have been able to make trips to Rutgers. He wouldn't have been able to go down to Wake Forest. That's pretty tough on families to be able to do that time-wise and financially. … We're very fortunate to be able to provide those things for all three of our boys now."

Cooper doesn't think his athletic success would have happened had he gone back to Chicago. He definitely wouldn't have learned that being a good person can be a rewarding experience.

He is appreciative with how things worked out.

"The people in this community have helped me so much," Cooper said. "The Hellwigs, they've given me a house, everything and a family … and a place to grow not only as an athlete but as a person.

"That amazes me. It just amazes me people could do that for me even though I was just a kid with a big smile. To see the things they have done for me is unbelievable and it motivates me every day. … It's just great to know there are people out there like that."

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